Backpacker Murders in Morocco Were an ‘Act of Terror,’ Officials Say

December 20, 2018 Updated: December 20, 2018

Denmark’s prime minister says the killings of two Scandinavian tourists in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains can be considered “politically motivated and thus an act of terror.”

The two female tourists, Louisa Vesterager Jespersen, 24, of Denmark and 28-year-old Maren Ueland of Norway, were killed in an unguarded area in hard to reach mountains, according to the Moroccan prosecutor’s office.

Investigators continue to authenticate a video allegedly posted on social media that shows the women’s grisly murders.

victims of a murder in Morocco
Louisa Vesterager Jespersen (L) and Maren Ueland were both found murdered in a remote area of Morocco on Dec. 17, 2018. (Facebook)

A man suspected in the killing belongs to a militant group, the prosecutor said on Dec. 19, without identifying the group. The suspect was arrested in Marrakech, Morocco’s main tourist hub.

Police continue to hunt for the other suspects.

“We are working to bring before justice three other suspects on the run,” said police spokesman Boubker Sabik.

suspects in Morocco tourist killings
Moroccan police have published photographs of three of the suspects, The Sun reported, but have yet to release their names. (service-public.ma)

Local sources, which were not named in a report by The Sun, said that three “homeless” men were spotted camping near the two women.

“Three homeless men came from Marrakech and pitched a tent right next to the girls’ tent,” a hotelier was quoted as saying. “The men were not from around here.”

The men may have stalked the pair, according to The Sun, before attacking them while they slept.

forensic team in Morocco
A forensic team is seen at the area where the bodies of two Scandinavian women tourists were found dead, near Imlil in the High Atlas mountains, Morocco, in a photo taken on Dec. 18, 2018. (2M via AP)

‘Linked to Terrorist Acts’

The police spokesperson told Agence France-Presse that one of the three suspects had “a court record linked to terrorist acts.” The same report cited the prosecutor general’s office as saying that the man in custody belonged to an extremist group.

“Radical Islam is not ruled out, due to the profile of the suspect arrested and of the three men wanted,” an unnamed source close to the investigation told AFP.

Denmark’s prime minister Lars Loekke Rasmussen said on Dec. 20 that “there are still dark forces that want to fight our values” and “we must not give in.”

Morten Bøås at the Norwegian Department of Foreign Affairs said that the killings were unlikely to be the work of more established terrorist groups.

He told aftenposten.no that he thought the group of men may have been inspired by ISIS or radicalized through the web.

What Happened?

The two women were on a camping trip when they were brutally murdered.

Their bodies were found on Monday, Dec. 17, in an isolated area near Imlil, on the way to Toubkal, North Africa’s highest peak and a popular hiking destination.

The killers filmed the slaying, Fox News reported, citing a Morocco World News report, and a video of the incident is said to be circulating on Moroccan social media, sparking outrage.

Efforts are said to be underway to authenticate the footage.

forensic team at crime scene
A forensic team is seen at the area where the bodies of two Scandinavian women tourists were found dead, near Imlil in the High Atlas mountains, Morocco, in a photo taken on Dec. 18, 2018. (2M via AP)

Morocco’s state broadcaster 2M has released photos and videos of forensic investigators and others working around the women’s brightly colored tent on a rocky hillside. The broadcaster said the tent held food and belongings for three people, including an ID card, according to the Telegraph.

A local guide who works in the area told AFP the body of one woman was found inside the tent, and the other outside of it.

One had been decapitated, Fox News reported, while the other had sustained a serious throat wound.

‘Such a Chaotic Place’

Helle Jespersen, the woman’s mother, said she urged her daughter not to go to Morocco. “We advised her not to go down because it’s such a chaotic place, and you’ve heard of people who have been killed down there,” she said, the Telegraph reported.

“I broke down,” Jespersen said. “She was always happy and positive. She brought out the best in everyone.”

The Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs told ABC News that officials from both of the victims’ home countries have extended assistance to the grieving families.

“We are in contact with relatives and are providing consular assistance in accordance with established practices and framework for assistance in connection with deaths of Norwegian citizens abroad,” the ministry said. “Our embassy is in contact with local authorities and representatives from the embassy are present in Marrakech.”

Impact on Morocco

Security was stepped up in the region, Moroccan media said, and hiking was suspended in the wake of the grisly murders.

“It’s very bad for the region,” a local guide told AFP. “There will undoubtedly be cancelations.”

Tourism is a core fixture of the Moroccan economy and the country’s second-largest employer.

The Oxford Business Group noted tourism in the country in recent years had faced difficulties.

“Contributing 8.1 percent to GDP and accounting for 7.1 percent of total employment in 2016, tourism evidently holds an important place in Morocco’s economy, even though the sector has faced some challenging times.”

Morocco has been largely insulated from the militant attacks that plagued other countries in North Africa. The latest bomb attack in the country dates back to April 2011 when 17 people were killed in a restaurant in Marrakech.

Morocco has stepped up its effort to counter militant groups with the creation in 2015 of its own version of the FBI. The Central Bureau for Judicial Investigations has so far broken up 57 militant cells, including eight in 2018.

More than 1,000 Moroccan youths, predominantly from the north of the country, have joined militant groups in the Middle East.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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