Authorities in Morocco believe four suspects involved in the killing of two Scandinavian female tourists in the Atlas Mountains were acting on their own initiative, despite having recently pledged allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, Daesh, also known as ISIS) group, an official said on Sunday.
Boubker Sabik, a spokesman for the Moroccan security and domestic intelligence services, also said the arrest of nine more people in various Moroccan cities over suspected links to the killers had foiled a “terror plot”.
The two tourists – Louisa Vesterager Jespersen, 24, of Denmark, and Maren Ueland, 28, of Norway, were found dead early on Monday of last week with knife wounds to the neck near the village of Imlil, on a route to Toubkal, North Africa’s highest peak and a popular hiking and trekking destination.
Sabik said on the state 2M TV channel that the four suspects, aged between 25 and 33 years, had headed to the Imlil area intent on committing a crime but without selecting their target in advance.
They had pledged allegiance to ISIL in a video made on Friday before the bodies were found, but without agreeing on this in advance with any foreign entity.
The suspects acted alone according to Sabik, describing them as “lone wolves”.
“The crime was not coordinated with the Islamic State,” he said. “Lone wolves do not need permission from their leader,” he added, without explaining how the authorities had come to their conclusion.
Thomas Hegghammer, a senior fellow at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment, has described the killings as “amateurish”.
“Everything about this case seems improvised and opportunistic. I don’t think this is ordered from Daesh leadership. This looks more like an initiative from Daesh sympathisers in Morocco,” he told the Norwegian national broadcaster NRK.
Of the four suspects, one had previously served a two-year sentence in 2013 as part of a crackdown on individuals who planned on joining an ‘extremist’ group abroad, he said, adding that this suspect had radicalised the other three.
Sabik dismissed reports that one was of the suspects was a returning foreign fighter from the Middle East. He said that all four, who originated from the outskirts of Marrakech, had only informal jobs and a low level of education.
Referring to the nine other suspects arrested on Friday, he said their arrests “spared Morocco a terrorist plot”.
Electronic devices, unauthorised hunting rifles, knives and materials that could be used for bomb-making were found in the course of those raids.
Sabik gave no details of this suspected plot but said Morocco is stepping up efforts to counter security threats posed by the return of ISIL fighters.
So far 242 out of 1,669 Moroccans who joined the ISIL group had been arrested, he said. Some fighters were using false passports and trying to hide among refugees heading for Europe as foreign fighters suffer setbacks in the Middle East.
Moroccan authorities were still trying to authenticate a video that has been shared on social media purporting to show the beheading of one of the victims. “The video has no background, and the clothes of the victim are not identical to those in reality,” he said.
However, the Danish intelligence service authenticated the video showing the murder of one of the victims.
“The PET (intelligence service) confirms that a video circulating on the internet shows the murder of one of the two women killed in Morocco,” the authorities said in a statement on Thursday.
Compared with other countries in North Africa, Morocco has been largely insulated from attacks by armed groups. The most recent took place in April 2011, when 17 people were killed in the bombing of a restaurant in Marrakech.
Morocco has stepped up its effort to counter armed groups with the creation in 2015 of its own version of the FBI. The Central Bureau for Judicial Investigations has so far dismantled up to 57 cells of armed groups planning attacks in the country, including eight in 2018.