A short history of Moroccan Armed Forces

A short history of Moroccan Armed Forces

Youssef H. Aboul-Enein

God: Creator of all destiny, by His Mercy we draw from, He ordains our choice to right path.

Nation: Land that begets our bounty, from which we sustain ourselves we protect its integrity from and defend it from all enemies.

King: Our commander and guide, he guides our renaissance and development, protector of our people’s rights.”

–Motto of the Moroccan Armed Forces. (1)

The Kingdom of Morocco has much to be proud of; for example, it has been a long-time Middle East ally to the United States, being the first country to recognize the United States as a nation in 1777. Moroccan officers also are quick to tell us of King Mohammed Bin Youssaf’s Mohammed V’s refusal to surrender Moroccan Jews to the Vichy (pro-Nazi) French Government and certain death in Nazi concentration camps.

Today, Morocco has a moderate government in which the monarch, who can trace his lineage to the Prophet Muhammad, challenges militant ideology and encourages Islamic scholars to dispel the twisted theology that produces mass murder. Morocco, as a guardian of maritime commerce along the Gibraltar Strait and a nation that has recently contributed peacekeepers to Kosovo and Bosnia, has great potential to become a moderating force in the Middle East.

Al-Jaysh Al-Maghribi Abr Al-Tareekh (The Moroccan Army throughout history) by Abdul-Haq Al-Merini offers Arab readers a glimpse of Moroccan military history. (2) Al-Merini has written biographies and collected speeches of the late Moroccan King Mohammed V and also King Hassan II, who died in 1999. Al-Merini, who received his doctorate in literature, is a prolific writer of history. The book won Morocco’s prize for literature in 1968 and has become a timeless military classic among North African officers in Morocco, Algeria, Mauritania, and Tunisia.

Al-Merini begins his book, which is enthralling from beginning to end, by discussing the frustrations Roman legions faced while pacifying Moroccan tribesmen. He mentions the importance of Moroccan tribes in the Islamic expansion beginning in A.D. 711 and concludes with Morocco’s roles in World War II, Operation Desert Storm, and peacekeeping operations in the Congo, Somalia, and the Balkans. Understanding the Moroccan military will help further the relationship between U.S. and Moroccan Armed Forces, particularly as both nations are committed to battling Islamic militancy and terrorism.

World War II

The first inkling of Morocco’s pro-U.S. stance came with Mohammed V’s proclamation on 7 September 1938: “I wish to confirm with the highest and clearest voice that Morocco’s King and his subjects will offer unified resistance and will side with France.” (3) Despite the famous Humphrey Bogart movie Casablanca, which featured a host of Nazi, Allied, and Vichy French spies, the Moroccan position during the war was quite clear; it picked the Allied cause against fascism. (4)

On 3 September 1939, Moroccan mosques issued in poetic prose, a royal proclamation that reminded its citizens of World War I’s effect on society, emphasizing the need to back France once again against the Germans. What also motivated the Moroccans was a belief that nations under French and British colonialism would be given their independence once victory over Germany was achieved.

German Blitzkrieg 1940. On 3 September 1939, the Moroccans organized a brigade of 2,300 fighters in Meknes. The brigade was part of the 1st Moroccan Division, which included the 1st, 3d, and 7th Moroccan Infantry Regiments. The regiments were sent to France and positioned along the Belgian border under the command of French forces. After marching 130 kilometers in 3 days, the Moroccans witnessed Adolf Hitler’s 10 May 1940 blitzkrieg and German forces’ engagements on 14 and 15 May. There is no information about how the Moroccans were defeated tactically, but Al-Merini mentions that of the 2,300 Moroccans sent as part of the Belgian Campaign, only 50 returned to Meknes after the liberation of Europe in 1945. A footnote to the chapter on World War II contains the unit citation (A l’ordre de l’Armee) bestowed on the 7th Moroccan Regiment by the French War Ministry. The citation acknowledges Moroccan forces for bravery while engaged in hand-to-hand combat against German units as well as their proficiency with bayonets.

In 1989, French and Belgian veterans gathered in Brussels to memorialize those who died in the German blitzkrieg in Belgium. Part of the ceremony involved reading verses from the Quran in memory of the valiant Moroccans who died defending the Benelux countries.

Anfa Conference 1943. In January 1943, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, American President Franklin D. Roosevelt, French General Charles DeGaulle, and King Mohammed V met for 4 days in the Casablanca suburb of Anfa to map out a strategy for the war. The Anfa Conference is significant because it is where the Allies first agreed on the demand for an “unconditional surrender” of the Axis powers.

A highlight of the conference was a dinner party hosted by Roosevelt in honor of Mohammed V and his son Moulay Hassan. Roosevelt’s recognition of the Moroccan Sovereign as host of the conference and as a ruler of importance gave credibility to Moroccan aspirations for independence. Roosevelt asserted that the King should not allow other countries to exploit Morocco’s natural resources. Roosevelt is also reported to have said that he would do all in his power to support Morocco’s wish to gain its independence from France. At the conclusion of the conference, the King proclaimed: “A new future for my country.”

Casablanca and the Algerian port of Oran received the bulk of North African Allied landings during Operation Torch. Al-Merini discusses French infighting between Auguste Paul Nogues the pro-Vichy French Governor-General to Morocco; DeGaulle; and French General Henri Honore Giraud, who supported the Allied landings in North Africa.

The initial landings of Operation Torch involved U.S. and Free French Army units engaging pro-Nazi Vichy French formations under Nogues. Battles occurred off the Moroccan coastal towns of Ahsfee, Mahdia, and Buzineeqah. Nogues encouraged King Mohammed V to move his capital from Rabat to Fez to be closer to the Axis defenses, but the Moroccan monarch refused, choosing instead to honor his commitment to the Anfa Conference and to the Allied cause.

The arrival of U.S. General George S. Patton’s 5,000 troops and 250 tanks turned the tide of Vichy French resistance to the Allies. The final fierce fighting for the Axis cause was an attempt to capture the Moroccan capital of Rabat, but Marshal Henri Philippe Petain authorized Nogues to negotiate a cease-fire with General Dwight D. Eisenhower in Algiers. Once Morocco was secure, it served as a major base for U.S. bombers and as a logistics center for the push toward Tunisia and Sicily. On 18 November 1942, Nogues and Patton attended the annual celebration of King Mohammed V’s ascension. The monarch publicly reaffirmed his commitment to the Allies by contributing 12,000 Moroccan troops to the Allied forces.

Italy 1942-1944. The 12,000 Moroccan troops that joined the Allies included infantry, artillery, anti-air units, and engineering companies that were trained on U.S. and French military munitions. The first destination of the Moroccan formation was to join trained Tunisians to fight a combined German-Italian occupation force in Tunisia. Battles to liberate Tunisia lasted 6 months.

Elements of the Moroccan division were split up and joined with other Algerian and Tunisian units attached to Allied forces liberating the islands of Corsica and Elbe. By securing these islands along with Tunisia, the Straits of Messina lay open to Sicily. From November 1943 to January 1944, the Moroccans became bogged down as they made their way from an amphibious assault near Naples toward Mount Cassino. The Moroccans used dynamite, grenades, and flamethrowers to take out each defensive position.

In 1944, Moroccan units joined the task force formed to assault the Gustav and Sigfried lines. Moroccan units played an important role in breaking the siege at Anzio, fighting alongside the Allies for 20 days. The Moroccans also joined the Allies in the summer of 1944 to liberate Rome.

Final Invasion of Germany 1944-1945. It was necessary to regroup and re-equip 6,000 Moroccan troops to augment the 12,000 exhausted Moroccan troops who were fighting in North Africa and Italy. Fresh Moroccan forces, along with battle-hardened troops, took part in the capture of Florence (June 1944) and in the amphibious assault on Marseilles. Making their way into France from the east, the Moroccans were once again directly attacking along the Alps and the hills of Tuscany. By October-November 1944, the Moroccans were fighting in winter conditions along the Rhine.

A Moroccan honor guard marched with Allied forces along the Champs Elysees in August 1944. Moroccan forces joined the First French Army to liberate France and then helped guard the French sector in postwar Germany.

According to Al Merini, 8,000 Moroccan soldiers lost their lives, 28,000 soldiers were wounded, and 7,000 became prisoners of war (POWs). One-thousand Moroccans were awarded the Campaign de la Liberation, and 500 were posthumously awarded French, British, and American awards for valor. The French government gave King Mohammed V and Crown Prince Hassan II the Order of Liberation.

Throughout 1945, Morocco worked with the Allies to repatriate its POWs from Axis camps. The French cited specific tribes like the Zayan and Zummur tribes for excellence in commando tactics. Moroccan Army commanders were cited for bravery and leadership; for example Idris Ben-Taher was credited with helping capture the French town of Montpellier. The 2d and 7th Moroccan Regiments received Belgium’s Legion of Honor in 1947 for their actions in 1940 against an unstoppable German blitzkrieg.

National Liberation Army 1947-1956

Only military students of French academies and those with a passion for the Vietnam war know that Moroccan troops participated in the French War in Indochina. Moroccan forces witnessed Ho Chi Minh and his guerrillas drain French forces and the foreign legionnaires, which culminated in their defeat in Diem Bien Phu. Moroccans and Algerians wondered if the same tactics would apply to their own countries, which led to the formation of the National Liberation Front (FLN) in Algeria and the National Liberation Army (ALN) in Morocco. The FLN and ALN were dedicated to ridding Algeria and Morocco respectively of French rule.

The early organization of the ALN consisted of cells of 25 operatives (14 civilian and 11 military) representing one vanguard and a vanguard squad leader. Cells were put under different levels of command and employed in guerrilla operations against lone French outposts. In hindsight, and in recognition of the contributions Moroccans made to World War II, the French might have worked toward a more peaceful transition to Moroccan self-rule. Instead, Paris dragged its feet. It took a political solution and a guerrilla vanguard to gain independence for Morocco (July 1956) almost 11 years after the end of World War II. Many of the armed ALN cells based themselves in the middle Atlas Mountains and the Rift Valley. ALN leader Abdulkareem Al-Khateeb developed and implemented the idea of recruiting Moroccan officers and noncommissioned officers (NCOs) in the French Army within ALN ranks.

King Mohammed V and Crown Prince Hassan strove to collect all the elements of Moroccan formations into one Moroccan Armed Force. When Morocco gained its independence in 1956, Moroccans were fighting under French and Spanish flags as well as with the ALN. Hassan went to Paris to negotiate the transition for self-rule and to establish a Moroccan Armed Force of 15,000 troops.

Field Marshal Mohammed Ammzyan negotiated with Francisco Franco for the transfer of 10,000 Moroccan troops who, like Ammzyan, had served in the Spanish Army. From 1956 until March 1961, the French, who could have easily opted for a revolutionary war, withdrew 90,000 troops from Morocco. The transfer involved the absorption of 5,000 ALN fighters who were entrenched in the Atlas Mountains and the Rift Valley.

Mohammed V went directly to ALN leaders to acknowledge their contributions to the Nation’s independence. He offered each fighter the opportunity to join the Moroccan Armed Forces and employed many of them as border guards. He instituted a 9-month training program to ease the Moroccan’s transition to the regular army, and he brought ALN leaders and formations to the palace in Rabat to go through a military inspection and a presentation of colors before the King. The book offers a valuable lesson about assimilating a liberation army into society, retaining its dignity, and recognizing its military value to a newly independent nation. In the 1960s, many Moroccans were sent to Spanish, French, and U.S. military schools, a trend that continues today. Al-Merini also lists 22 schools within Morocco that are affiliated with the military. The Moroccan military is proud of its officer and NCO academic achievements. Lieutenant Colonel Abdelkader Al-Marboo and Major Mohammed Raffei attended the French Higher Military College, and during the 1989-1990 academic year, organized a symposium on European Defense in the 21st Century. In the spring of 1991, Moroccans published the Air Force magazine L’ Espace Morocaine, which emphasizes military thought and formulates new theories on security.

On 8 November 1956, Moroccan Armed Forces developed a national security structure. A High Council for National Defense, chaired by the king, was created. The council included a prime minister, a minister of labor, an interior minister, and a minister of national economy. The council oversees the affairs of the Defense Ministry and aids in civil control over the military. The council also combines all elements of national power, economics, human resources, and internal policing to address matters of national security–a lesson Egypt learned only after the debacle of the 1967 Six-Day War.

Morocco’s unique military organization Al-Deerk Al-Malaki (Royal Guards) not only protects the monarch but provides security in courts, military policing, port security, and airport security. The essence of Morocco’s uniformed services is summed up in a speech King Hassan II made declaring that his army is a democratic army that is a school for the Nation. Military service is compulsory for all citizens.

The book also chronicles the effect the Moroccan Armed Forces have had in the internal development of Morocco. They have built bridges, repaired roads, provided technical help to farmers, repaired dams, and distributed meal rations to the needy during the holy month of Ramadan.

Activity Since 1960

Congo 1960-1961. The Moroccans became highly active in peacekeeping, sending two battalions to the Congo under the command of General Hammu Al-Kitani. The force included Royal Guard and Regular Army units that integrated well under Al-Kitani’s command. They interacted with Katangan Separatist Rebels, reorganized the Congolese police force, restored order in villages, surveyed a dam, and reopened the port of Boma along the Congo River.

Arab-Israeli wars 1967 and 1973. Moroccan forces arrived too late to participate in the Six-Day War, but sent forces to the Egyptian and Syrian fronts in the 1973 Yom-Kippur War. Golan (Syrian) Front units and Moroccan units were under the command of General Abdelsalam Al-Safrewi. Faced with Israeli armor, the Moroccans armed their infantry with bazookas.

On the Egyptian front they made a more effective contribution under the command of Colonel-Major (brigadier general) Hassan Al-Hatmee. Moroccan Desert units, which were positioned around the town of Suez, built defensive perimeters along Bir Azeib, a strategic location that controlled access to the two roads leading to Cairo (the Suez to Cairo road and the Ras-al-Abadiyah to Hilwan road). Moroccan troops returned from Egypt and Syria in April 1974.

Congo 1977. In 1977, the Moroccans increased their presence in the Congo, responding to a call from the Organization of African Unity to bring peace and stability to the Congo (then called Zaire). Under the command of Colonel Abdelkader Lubarees, and with the aid of French transports, the Moroccans landed 1,300 troops. Their mission was to put down a communist insurgency in Katanga Province. While battling Cuban and Angolan forces, the Moroccans captured Soviet hardware, including SAM-7 missiles.

Western Sahara Since 1975. The former Spanish Sahara borders Morocco, and before Spanish colonialism of the area in 1885, the region was an autonomous area administered by the Moroccan monarchy. Al-Merini describes how members of the ALN were directed to combat Spanish units as early as 1958. Members of the ALN even waged attacks on French forces in Tindouf (southwestern Algeria) to relieve pressure from the FLN, which from 1954 to 1962 fought for its independence from France.

After Spain withdrew from the Spanish Sahara in 1975, Morocco and Mauritania mobilized forces, with Morocco occupying two-thirds of the territory. The Moroccans staged a “Green March,” in which 300,000 of its citizens and troops marched with Qurans to reclaim Moroccan territory. This issue has become the single most defining aspect in Moroccan nationalism today. A prolonged guerrilla war ensued, in which the Algerian-supported Polisario fought for its independence from Western Sahara. The conflict remains unresolved.

Mauritania 1977 to 1979. Twelve thousand Moroccan troops were dispatched to Mauritania to help combat Polisario separatists. Algeria supported the Polisario as part of its strategy of adopting an anti-West rejectionist front. Morocco, as a pro-U.S. monarchy, was ripe for attack by Egypt’s strongman Gamal Abdel-Nasser and the pan-Arabists. The Western Sahara War continued until the UN brokered a cease-fire in 1991. Before the cease-fire, the Moroccans built a series of sand barriers along the border of Algeria and the Western Sahara designed to limit desert raiding. The barriers were highly effective, leaving the Polisario few avenues of escape.

Central African Republic 1979. After the September coup that had freed the Nation of a military dictatorship, the Moroccans dispatched a security contingent in equatorial Africa to restore order to the Central African Republic. No information in the book reveals the size of this Moroccan force.

Persian Gulf War 1990-1991. During Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, King Hassan II sent a Moroccan force of 1,300 troops to Saudi Arabia and 1,000 troops to the United Arab Emirates. The troops came with tube-launched, optically tracked, wire-guided missiles and Milan antitank missiles, jeeps, trucks, communications cars, water tanks, and repair trucks. The force’s task organization was based on how it fought in Western Sahara.

Somalia 1992. The Moroccan forces that were sent to Somalia were task-organized to provide humanitarian relief. The force included 1,250 combat troops and 50 military medical personnel serving under the command of Colonel (Doctor) Alaal Farraj. Among the Moroccans who arrived with their forces in Somalia was Helima Merri, a female Moroccan physician from the Ministry of Health, who with 36 civilian doctors and their support staff opened a second Moroccan field hospital. Publicizing Merri’s role could encourage other Arab armies to see the leadership potential of professional Arab women. A social service contingency led by Captain Fidwi Binani provided Somalis with counseling and psychological services.

In mid-June 1993, a combined Moroccan-French force swept an area of Mogadishu that was controlled by militia loyal to Mohammed Farrah Aidid. An ensuing exchange of fire led to the death of Colonel Abdullah Binmamous and 4 Moroccan soldiers and injury to 40 Moroccan citizens. Al-Merini discusses the importance of the Islamic contingent that attacked Aidid, who was holding Muslims hostage and using innocent civilians in his war against other factions. After Binmamous’s death, the Moroccans doubled their efforts and with the French took over the Balee Doo-Ghlee section of the city, capturing over 100 of Aidid’s militia and impounding numerous weapons.

On 21 June 1993, King Hassan II sent Crown Prince Mohammed to oversee the return of the Moroccan soldiers who had died in the battle to secure Balee Doo-Ghlee and to ensure that proper honors were rendered to them. The Moroccans, who arrived in Somalia in December 1992 and left in April 1994, policed major districts of Mogadishu, guarding relief convoys centers and the airport. They also relieved Pakistani peacekeepers in the UN security operation called Mansoor II.

Bosnia 1996. In March 1996, 1,200 Moroccan troops left the port of Agadir as part of a UN peacekeeping mission in Bosnia. The troops positioned themselves around Mount Igman to provide security to Sarajevo and to reinforce French forces. They provided protection to UN and NATO convoys and security to the city of Mostar; guarded a valuable airstrip; and sent forces to Gorazde.

Morocco–An Arab Ally According to Al-Merini, the United States needs moderate Arab friends who have played a constructive role in ensuring stability around the world and who have thwarted the forces of intolerance and hate. Morocco’s military history demonstrates the kind of Arab ally who can play a major role in various operations from the current stabilization of Iraq to assisting in Liberia. Europe and the United States need to continue to cultivate Morocco and the fruitful role it plays in the world.

Al-Merini’s book describes Morocco’s importance as a moderate Islamic representative in Bosnia and Somalia. By joining the United States and Europe, Morocco is a bright example of how the Arab League should act in future conflicts. Al-Merini encourages U.S. military planners to recognize the positive contribution of Arab forces and understand how vital it is to combat religious militancy and acts of terror around the world.

Al-Jaysh Al-Maghribi abr Al-Tareekh is an important book. Translating and assessing would further understanding between Moroccan and American uniformed services and capitalize on our Arab and Muslim ally’s military potential.


(1.) This translation of the Royal Moroccan Armed Forces motto, which graces every military base, banner, and ship, is from Abdul-Haq Al-Merini, Al-Jayish Al-Maghribi Abrs-Al-Tareekh (The Moroccan Army throughout history), 5th ed. (Rabat, Morocco: Dar Al-Hashr Al Maarifah, 1968).

(2.) Ibid.

(3.) Ibid.

(4.) Casablanca (Burbank, CA: Warner Brothers, 1942).

Lieutenant Commander Youssef H. Aboul-Enein

U.S. Navy, Gaithersburg, Maryland


COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group