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Alleged ringleader admits murders of Scandinavian hikers in Morocco

The alleged leader of a group of jihadists admitted killing one of two Scandinavian hikers in Morocco, and accused his co-defendant of killing the other.

Alleged ringleader admits murders of Scandinavian hikers in Morocco
Members of the Moroccan security services stand guard during the trial of the three suspects on May 30th. Photo: Fadel Senna/AFP

The alleged leader of a jihadist cell accused of killing two Scandinavian hikers in Morocco admitted to the murders in court on Thursday, saying they were carried out in the name of the Isis group.

Danish student Louisa Vesterager Jespersen, 24, and 28-year-old Norwegian Maren Ueland had their throats slit while camping in an isolated area of the High Atlas mountains in December.

“I beheaded one of them… I regret it,” former street vendor Abdessamad Ejjoud, 25, told the court, accusing co-defendant Younes Ouaziyad of killing the other hiker.

“We loved Isis and we prayed to God for it,” he said, wearing a long white tunic.

Twenty-four defendants – facing charges including promoting terrorism, forming a terrorist cell and premeditated murder – appeared in the court in Sale, near Rabat, under heavy security.

Three main suspects, including Ejjoud, are accused of direct involvement in the killings.

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In theory, the killers could face the death penalty, but Morocco has had a de facto freeze on executions since 1993.

Nature lovers Jespersen and Ueland shared an apartment and went to Norway's Bo University, where they were studying to be guides.

They had travelled together to Morocco for their Christmas holidays.

Their lives were ended in the foothills of Toubkal, the highest summit in North Africa, some 80 kilometres from the tourist hub of Marrakesh.

Ejjoud – who had previously been jailed for trying to join Isis in Syria – confessed to organizing the mission to the High Atlas mountains on December 12th during which the tourists were killed.

'Holy war'

The prosecution has said several potential targets were passed over because the foreigners were accompanied by guides or local residents.

It was four days before the killers selected their targets, according to the prosecution. It said two of them carried out the killings while the third filmed them on a phone.

After the bodies were discovered, the Moroccan authorities were initially cautious, referring to a “criminal act” and wounds to the victims' necks.

But that changed when the video surfaced showing a victim being beheaded.

In it, one of the killers refers to “enemies of Allah” and says the murders are to avenge the killings of jihadists in Syria.

At the trial Ejjoud said he had “sent around” the footage to online groups of Isis supporters.

A separate video published in the initial aftermath of the murders showed the alleged killers pledging allegiance to Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

The only foreigner among the defendants is Spanish-Swiss 25-year-old Kevin Zoller Guervos, who moved to Morocco after converting to Islam.

The others come from modest backgrounds, scraping by on odd jobs and living in neglected areas of Marrakesh, the North African kingdom's main tourist city.

Investigators said the “cell” was inspired by Isis ideology, but Morocco's anti-terror chief insisted the accused had no contact with the jihadist group in conflict zones.

Isis has never claimed responsibility for the murders.

Ejjoud said that after being prevented from going to Syria he “decided to carry out holy war” at home.

He said his group tried to make a bomb “but it did not work” and then plotted to “attack Christians as they are killing Muslims”.

At an earlier hearing, the court accepted a request by the Jespersen family's lawyer for the government to be held “morally responsible” for the killings so they could receive compensation.

The trial opened on May 2nd but was adjourned to May 16th and then paused again after a brief hearing.

The court on Thursday set the next hearing for June 13th.

Article by AFP's Hamza Mekouar

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TRIAL

Danish terror trial begins against Iranian separatists

Three leaders of an Iranian Arab separatist group pleaded not guilty to financing and promoting terrorism in Iran with Saudi Arabia's backing, as their trial opened in Denmark on Thursday.

Danish terror trial begins against Iranian separatists
File photo: Mads Claus Rasmussen/Ritzau Scanpix

The three risk 12 years in prison if found guilty.

Aged 39 to 50, the trio are members of the separatist organisation ASMLA (Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahvaz), which is based in Denmark and the Netherlands and which Iran considers a terrorist group.

The three, one of whom is a Danish citizen, have been held in custody in Denmark since February 2020.

Gert Dyrn, lawyer for the eldest of the three, told AFP that in his client’s opinion “what they are charged with is legitimate resistance towards an oppressive regime.”

“They are not denying receiving money from multiple sources, including Saudi Arabia, to help the movement and help them accomplish their political aim,” Dyrn said. 

His client has lived as a refugee in Denmark since 2006. 

According to the charge sheet seen by AFP, the three received around 30 million kroner (four million euros, $4.9 million) for ASMLA and its armed branch, through bank accounts in Austria and the United Arab Emirates.

The trio is also accused of spying on people and organisations in Denmark between 2012 and 2020 for Saudi intelligence.

Finally, they are also accused of promoting terrorism and “encouraging the activities of the terrorist movement Jaish Al-Adl, which has activities in Iran, by supporting them with advice, promotion, and coordinating attacks.”

The case dates back to 2018 when one of the three was the target of a foiled attack on Danish soil believed to be sponsored by the Iranian regime in retaliation for the killing of 24 people in Ahvaz, southwestern Iran, in September 2018.

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Tehran formally denied the attack plan in Denmark, but a Danish court last year jailed a Norwegian-Iranian for seven years for his role in the plot. 

That attack put Danish authorities on the trail of the trio’s ASMLA activities.

Sunni Saudi Arabia is the main rival in the Middle East of Shia Iran, and Tehran regularly accuses it, along with Israel and the United States, of supporting separatist groups.

Lawyer Gert Dyrn said this was “the first case in Denmark within terror law where you have to consider who is a terrorist and who is a freedom fighter.”

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