Date of Incident: 17 December 2018
Location: Imlil, Morocco
Type: Islamist Extremist Killing
- The mutilated bodies of two Scandinavian tourists were discovered in a popular, isolated, tourist area 65km south of Marrakesh
- No extremist grouping has claimed responsibility for the attack, though it is believed that elements involved had direct communication with IS in Syria
- Aspects of the attack align with IS doctrine
- 22 arrests have been carried out since the attack, with some of those arrested having a crime-terror nexus history
On 9 December 2018, Luisa Vesterager Jespersen (24) and Maren Ueland (28) arrived in Morocco. The pair were studying a course focussed on outdoor activities at a college in Norway, and planned to visit the Toubkal Mountain, part of North Africa’s Atlas mountain range. They checked in to the Faouzi Hotel in Marrakesh on 10 December. The pair stayed there for one night, accompanied by three other female friends. At around noon on 11 December, hotel staff reported that the group dispersed, with Jespersen and Ueland heading into Marrakesh for the afternoon. Returning that evening, reports suggest that the two girls were seen socialising with three men, believed to be Moroccan. After preparing for their trip to Imlil, Jespersen and Ueland were sighted leaving the Faouzi Hotel on the evening of 11 December with the three unidentified males.
On 17 December, French tourists hiking in the vicinity of Imlil (a village located 65km south of Marrakesh, at the foot of mount Toubkal) discovered the mutilated bodies of Jespersen and Ueland. Reports state that their bodies showed multiple stab wounds and decapitation.
On 18 December, Morocco’s Central Bureau of Judicial Investigation (BCIJ) arrested Adelrahim el-Khayali in Marrakesh. Official statements suggested that he had been involved in the killing of Jespersen and Ueland as part of a larger group, and the identities of the victims were released to the media.
On 19 December, BCIJ officials stated that they were seeking three further suspects in relation to the case, while reports circulated on social media platforms regarding footage that appeared to have been taken of the murders by the suspects.
On 20 December, BCIJ officers arrested Abdessamad Eijoud, Ouziad Younes, and Rachid el Afatti. The three men had boarded a bus in Marrakesh bound for Agadir. Reports suggest that at the time of their arrest, the men were in possession of large knives and other offensive weapons. It is not clear whether these weapons were used in the attack on Jespersen and Ueland. Government spokesman Mustafa El Khalfi denounced the killings as a terrorist act and asserted that the footage circulating on social media was under investigation.
The BCIJ conducted operations across the country on 20 and 21 December. Nine further suspects were arrested in various locations; including Marrakesh, Casablanca and Tangier. On 21 December, Norwegian officials stated that there no evidence to suggest that the footage circulating on social media was not genuine, whilst the Danish Prime Minister asserted that authenticity was yet to be established.
On 29 December, Kevin Zoller Guervo, a Moroccan resident with dual Swiss-Spanish citizenship, was arrested in Marrakesh. A BCIJ statement declared that he was “steeped in extremist ideology” and “suspected of having taught some of the people involved [in the killing] communication tools stemming from new technologies and of having trained them to shoot”.
At the time of reporting, 22 suspects had been arrested in relation to the murders of Jespersen and Ueland. Official statements suggest that at least three of those in custody hold previous terror-related convictions. Investigations are ongoing and the suspects are awaiting trial.
Statements released following their arrest indicate that Eijoud, Khayali, Younes and Afatti are regarded by Moroccan officials as the nucleus of a hastily formed cell whose intentions were to commit terrorist attacks targeting locations frequented by tourists in Morocco. Khayali is not believed to have been present at the time of the killings. It is not clear at the time of reporting whether the three males seen socialising with Jespersen and Ueland at the Faouzi Hotel on 11 December were Eijoud, Younes and Afatti.
Official statements released following the arrest of the suspects suggest that the attack was carried out without direct coordination from Islamic State (IS). However, a video posted to social media in the days preceding the attack shows Eijoud, Khayali, Younes and Afatti pledging allegiance to Abu Bakr Al- Baghdadi (self-declared caliph of the Islamic State). In the video, Eijoud is seen brandishing a knife and taunting the BCIJ, asking “where is your knowledge? For here we are…”. It is of note that IS have not claimed responsibility for the attack, historical precedent suggests that they are unlikely to do so while suspects await trial.
The BCIJ described the men as hailing from “marginal neighbourhoods” around Marrakesh, coming from low income backgrounds. Referred to as the emir of the group, it is believed that Eijoud convinced the others to conduct the attack and recruit others, himself having been influenced and recruited by Guervo. Information gained whilst the group have been under arrest reveals that they travelled to the Imlil region on 15 December specifically because it was frequented by tourists, and with the intent to attack Jespersen and Ueland in a deserted area. They reportedly encountered a British tourist in the area hours before they carried out the attack, though opted not to attack him because he stated that he was a follower of Islam. The presence of weapons at the point of arrest may indicate an intention to conduct further attacks, though the BCIJ has asserted that all members of the cell are in custody at the time of reporting.
Guervo, now operating under the name Abdellah, is a 25 year-old man with a history of football hooliganism, petty crime and mental illness. As a result of his crimes, Guervo was committed to a Genevan young offender’s institute in 2011, where it is believed he was introduced to the Quran. It was following this incarceration that he converted to Islam and began attendance at a prominent mosque in Geneva that has faced accusations of extremist preaching. Guervo moved to Morocco around five years ago and married a Moroccan national, with whom he has a child.
According to BCIJ statements, Guervo had planned to travel to Syria, but opted instead for Morocco, where he is believed to have links to a known radicalised Moroccan-Swiss national. Whilst not directly involved in the attack against Jespersen and Ueland, Guervo did have contact with Eijoud and the other members of the cell. His role appears to have consisted of training the cell members in the use of communications technology, and indoctrination. He is reported to have been actively recruiting for IS in the region and had direct contact to members of the group in Syria.
At the time of reporting, the Rabat Court of Appeals is still investigating the veracity of the footage purported to depict the murders. The 72 second video shows the decapitation of a blonde female. Audio includes a male voice speaking in Darija (Moroccan Arabic), declaring “this is revenge for our brothers in Hajin”. Hajin is a small town in the Deir ez-Zor province of Syira. It was regarded as a Daesh stronghold until US airstrikes and Kurdish ground troops forced a retreat in mid-December 2018. The footage was uploaded to social media platforms shortly after the bodies of Jespersen and Ueland were discovered. It has since been widely circulated, including posts to the social media accounts of the victim’s families.
Documenting attacks and utilising social media in this way aligns with the known IS doctrine of a concerted ‘management of savagery’. Harnessing the shock potential inherent in such footage serves to strike fear into the minds of the public. At a strategic level, their aim is to draw US-led coalition nations into a protracted conflict by appealing to prevailing liberal sentiments. At a tactical level, it serves to galvanise extremist elements that the group would seek to recruit for further attacks, whilst utilising terror to demoralise populations and enemies. Adherence to this doctrine would add credence to the allegations that Guervo trained some of the other suspects in communication methods, following his own indoctrination through contact with extremist elements.
Morocco is often presented as an example in the fight against extremism and transnational terrorism. The US State Department described the country as having a “comprehensive counter-terrorism strategy that includes vigilant security measures, regional and international cooperation”. The last high-profile terrorist attack in the country occurred in April 2011, when explosive devices were remotely detonated in Marrakesh, killing 17 people. The Moroccan government attributed the attack to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AGIM), though the grouping denied involvement. IS have not conducted an attack in the country, though the lion’s share of terrorist cells disrupted by the BCIJ are believed to have links to the caliphate. A statement released in October 2018 asserted that, since its inception, the BCIJ have been responsible for 57 disruption operations, 8 of which occurred in 2018, the latest just days before the Imlil murders took place.
Security concerns remain regarding the return of Moroccan nationals who have travelled abroad to participate in fighting in conflict zones such as Syria. Having been trained and battle-hardened, many of these returnees are believed to hold emir positions within IS and could seek to conduct recruitment drives. As appears to have been the case here, such recruitment is likely to target poor, semi-literate and disenfranchised young men seeking to escape their situation. A powerful social media driven propaganda machine is instrumental, as part of a generational phenomenon within which research suggests that religious motivations are secondary.
Whilst it is recognised that Morocco has enjoyed significant success in tackling terrorism and extremism since the 2011 Marrakesh attack, it is thought that despite (or indeed, because of) this success, attacks that have not been coordinated by established transnational extremist organisations will increase. Such lone wolf attacks (or, as witnessed here, attacks conducted by a franchised pack) can be coordinated outside the purview of security organisations such as the BCIJ, often conceived by marginalised and isolated individuals who are open to outside influence and inspiration via social media. Because Morocco has been so successful in this regard, disenfranchised individuals are likely to have sought fulfilment through travel abroad or else fostered resentment within the country. Such individuals provide ideal targets for those wishing to rally others to the cause, with the nexus between crime and terror posing a particular concern.
Lacking direct support or resources from established extremist groupings, these lone wolf /franchised pack attacks are likely to be crude in nature and focused toward perceived soft targets, such as tourists transiting through isolated areas. The high profile nature of the attack and the perceived implementation of IS inspired propaganda techniques will only serve to increase this potential. However, as the BCIJ doubles down on its successes in tackling extremism across the country in the face of such a high profile missteps, such isolated actors may be forced to think outside the box and the potential for evolution in tactics should be anticipated.