Morocco's slums are extremism recruiting sergeant

Morocco's slums are extremism recruiting sergeant
Ideology, poverty and a desire for adventure are some of the factors that lead to extremism and Morocco's poor slums have become ideal recruiting grounds.
4 min read
25 November, 2015
The Sidi Moumen slum was home to 12 of the 14 Casablanca attackers [AFP]

When Mohamed al-Omari left his home in the Sidi Moumen slum on the outskirts of Casablanca to blow himself up at a location frequented by westerners and Moroccan Jews on the morning of 16 May 2003, he was convinced that he was doing God's work.

Al-Omari and other youths who carried out terrorist attacks in Morocco embody the link between poverty and extremism, however they do not tell the full story as there have been young men from rich families who have also chosen the path of extremism.

Ticking time bombs

The poverty stricken Sidi Moumen became famous after the 12 of the 14 attackers that carried out the 16 May 2003 bombings in Casablanca were identified as being residents of the slum that is home to over 250,000 people.

However, it is not the only densely populated neighbourhood in which extremist find poor, unemployed and disenfranchised recruits to further their agenda.

Murad (not his real name) is a young man who wad arrested after the 2003 bombings from him home in the Dawar al-Haja slum in the Moroccan capital Rabat.

     Farid had grown up in a shantytown and developed a hatred for the "excesses" of the rich.

"The neighbourhood is like Sidi Moumen in terms of the population density and the number of youths who are religiously extreme," said Murad who has abandoned extremism after serving a prison sentence.

"I was influenced by my friends who convinced me that heaven can only be reached by getting rid of the modern societies that contradict our poor society," he added.

Dawar al-Haja, which has recently been renamed as al-Farah, is not only a hotbed for religious extremists, but also criminals who use the area as a centre for criminal activities, with regular police raids on the area.

Compensating for poverty

Farid, a young man who was imprisoned in the crackdown that followed the Casablanca bombings told al-Araby al-Jadeed about how he became radicalised by his peers in a poor Rabat suburb known to house a large number of Salafi-jihadists.

Farid had grown up in a shantytown and developed a hatred for the "excesses" of the rich, especially since he lived in a cramped tin roofed home and felt that he had no prospects of a better life.

"I was looking to compensate for my poverty and found solace in a some brothers who lived in the same neighbourhood," said Farid.

"I started praying with them and going to religious lessons in a neighbouring area and I soon found myself believing that the September 11 attacks were carried out by heroes who sacrificed themselves for he sake of Allah," he added.

Farid and his friends were all arrested in 2004 and he served a seven-year sentence during which he claims to have abandoned his extreme beliefs.

Manufacturing extremism

However, Abu Hafs Rafiki, one of Morocco's most famous Salafi-Jihadist preachers, who was convicted of encouraging religious extremism and sentenced to 20 years in prison before receiving a royal pardon a few years later says he does not believe that poverty is the only factor in radicalisation.

     Youth who are well integrated into their societies are the least likely to be radicalised by extremist groups

"Social and economic factors such as the spread of slums and poverty are not the only reason for extremism because there are members of wealthy families who have joined extremist groups," said Rafiki.

"We cannot ignore poverty and deprivation as one of the main factors that push youths to desire the rewards of the after life after they believe that they do not have anything is this life, but the lack of education is also an import factor," added Rafiki.

The former jihadist preacher also pointed out that youth who are well integrated into their societies are the least likely to be radicalised by extremist groups according to various studies.

According to Mohamed Bouchikhi, a sociology researcher, extremism is due to three main factors that are ideological, economic and aspirational.

The ideological factor pushes people to imagine a better society governed by their chosen version of religion, while the dire economic situation of people and the lack of prospects makes joining violent extremist groups a good alternative to their current lives.

The aspirational factor is to do with the sense of adventure and heroism that is associated with being a militant, which extremist groups make sure to portray in order to attract adventure seeking youth.

According to Bouchikhi, extremist groups exploit all three of these factors to find new recruits in Moroccan slums.