Moroccans admit killing backpackers

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Three Moroccan men admitted to killing two Scandinavian backpackers in a grisly murder last December, saying they committed the crime after failing to join the Islamic State.

The bodies of Louisa Vesterager Jespersen (24) from Denmark and Maren Ueland (28) from Norway were found on December 17 near Imlil, a hiking destination in the Atlas Mountains.

The three pledged allegiance to Islamic State in a video made three days before the murder. Authorities said after they were arrested they were “lone wolves” who did not co-ordinate the killings with Islamic State.

Authorities arrested a further 21 people they say have links to the three and face charges including forming a criminal gang to commit terrorist acts, encouraging terrorism and undermining public order.

In a court hearing near Rabat, Abdessamad Ejjoud and Youness Ouziyad admitted to attacking and decapitating the two women, overnighting in a tent in the Atlas mountains. A third suspect, Rachid Afatti, filmed the slaughter. Ejjoud said the murder video was shared with other Islamic State sympathisers.

“After failing to join the Islamic State, we decided to do Jihad at home,” said Ejjoud, a 33-year-old Marrakech carpenter and father of two, who spent two years in jail on terrorism-related charges.

“I regret what happened and am still trying to grasp it,” he said.

The three were arrested at a bus station in Marrakech four days after the murder.

They said they were heading south towards Laayoune but the prosecutor said they wanted to join Jihadi groups in the Sahel via the Algerian border.

The lawyer representing the Jespersen family said the state should pay compensation to her family. Some arrested were previously jailed on terrorism charges or were known to attend schools preaching radical ideas, the lawyer argued. The family of Ueland did not hire a lawyer.

State lawyer Abdellatif Ouahbi called the crime “an isolated regrettable act” and said Morocco was “a model in counter-terrorism.”

Some 1,700 Moroccans joined the Islamic State militant group in the Middle East, according to Moroccan officials.

Compared with other countries in North Africa, Morocco is largely insulated from militant attacks. The most recent was in April 2011, when 17 people were killed in a Marrakech restaurant bombing.

In 2017 and 2018, Moroccan authorities dismantled 20 militant cells planning attacks in the country.