Before Louisa Vesterager Jespersen left for a holiday in Morocco, she posted on Facebook asking for advice.
“Dear friends, I’m going to Morocco in December,” the 24-year-old student from Denmark wrote. “Any of you guys who’s around by then or any mountain friends who knows something about Mount Toubkal?”
On Monday, her body was found near that mountain, a popular tourist destination for hikers visiting the North African country. Her friend, Maren Ueland, 28, from Norway, was also found dead. Agence France-Presse reported that at least one of the women had been decapitated. “This is a case of an unusually bestial killing of two totally innocent young women,” the Danish intelligence service said in a statement Thursday.
Danish Prime Minister Lars Loekke Rasmussen said the killings were “politically motivated and thus an act of terror.” Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg said other leads are being followed as investigators seek a motive for the murders.
Moroccan authorities arrested a suspect in Marrakesh on Tuesday and said he was a member of an unidentified militant group. The Danish intelligence service said in its statement that evidence suggests “the killings may be related to the terrorist organization Islamic State.”
Three more suspects were also arrested trying to flee Marrakesh by bus, according to the country’s bureau for judicial investigations.
Such killings are exceedingly rare in Morocco, a hugely popular tourist destination. The last high-profile terrorist attack there was in 2011, when a bombing at a restaurant in Marrakesh killed 17 people.
Haim Malka, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies focused on North Africa, said Morocco has “taken a number of steps over the last few years to improve security, dismantle terrorist cells and undermine the ability of violent groups to recruit and operate in Morocco.”
Reuters reported that the judicial investigations bureau has broken up 57 militant cells since it was established in 2015. Eight were dismantled in 2018 alone, the news service reported. But about 1,000 Moroccans have joined the Islamic State, the Associated Press reported.
Even so, Malka said, Morocco is “working more broadly to try to undermine the appeal of violent extremism.” He said he doesn’t see the murders as part of a larger wave of potential terrorist attacks in the country.
“I see it as an isolated incident, a target of opportunity,” Malka said. “And the fact that these guys were caught already so quickly . . . doesn’t point to a high level of sophistication.”