Casablanca — The Moroccan founder of al-Qaeda inspired jihadist group Sham al-Islam died Thursday (April 3rd), along with young fighters he had brought with him to Syria.
Brahim Benchekroune (aka Ibrahim Bin Shakaran, or Abu Ahmad al-Maghribi) was killed during a clash with Syrian troops on a hilltop in Latakia, jihadist websites announced.
Fellow Moroccans Anas Halaouia and Abdul Jalil al-Qadmiri, once jailed for the 2003 Casablanca bombings, died in the same battle on the northern coast of Syria. Social networks also reported the death of former Moroccan jihadist prisoner Najib al-Husseini. As many as 60 Moroccan jihadists may have been killed in the battle.
Benchekroune was well-known in jihadist circles. He was influenced early on by salafist cheikh Abdelkarim Chadli in Casablanca.
"The father of Benchekroune belongs to an ancient and wealthy family from Fez. His mother is Senegalese. He was influenced by the separation of his parents, and left school early," said Abdellah al-Rami of the Moroccan Centre for Social Sciences (CMS2) in Casablanca.
The aspiring jihadist travelled to Mauritania, through networks loyal to al-Qaeda, for religious and ideological training. By 1999, he had arrived in Afghanistan.
After serving time in prison for involvement in the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group (GICM), Benchekroune continued to make a name for himself among Morocco's Salafist Jihadists.
With the outbreak of war in Syria, Benchekroune joined up with al-Qaeda's local affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra li ahl al-Sham (JAN). It was not long before he had teamed up with former Osama Bin Laden aide Mohamed Alami Slimani (aka Abu Hamza al Maghrebi) to form a Moroccan jihadist group in Syria's Latakia region.
Slimani was killed, along with many of the fighters, last August, leaving Benchekroune in charge of the decimated gang.
He promptly renamed the group Sham a-Islam, unveiled Facebook, Twitter and YouTube accounts to recruit new blood, and published a doctrinal document inspired by al-Qaeda.
The organisation is made up mainly of Moroccans, but it includes a variety of elements from other nationalities. Abu Hafs al-Jazairi, the mufti of the movement, is Saudi, while its military commander, Ahmad Mazyan is Egyptian.
The group recently added cheikh Abdul Razzaq Oujha, one of the leading activists of the co-ordination of Salafi Jihadist detainees in Morocco, and Anas Halaoui, the official spokesman of the prisoner advocacy group.
But many more potential Moroccan jihadists have been deterred from joining the Syria fight. According to Casablanca analyst al-Rami, this is not due to battle defeats in Syria, such as that met by Benchekroune on the hilltop last week.
"The reduction of the phenomenon of recruiting fighters to Syria is linked with the success of the Moroccan security services in detecting and dismantling the cells of these networks and controlling their efficiency," he told Magharebia.
"Global security co-ordination and co-operation plays a key role in achieving this goal," he added.