'Mastermind' of backpacker beheadings arrested

- Morocco's counterterrorism chief said Monday that five more people have been arrested in connection with the horrific ISIS-inspired murders of two Scandinavian hikers in the High Atlas mountains, including the so-called "emir" who masterminded the killings.

Abdelhak Khiam, the head of the country's central office for judicial investigation, identified the alleged ringleader to Agence France-Presse as Abdessamad Ejjoud, a 25-year-old street vendor who lived on the outskirts of Marrakech. Khiam said Ejjoud had "formed a kind of cell that discussed how to carry out a terrorist act inside the kingdom ... targeting the security services or foreign tourists."

A total of 18 people have been arrested in the murders of 28-year-old Norwegian Maren Ueland and 24-year-old Dane Louisa Vesterager Jespersen, whose bodies were found Dec. 17. Khaim said three of those arrested had terror-related criminal records.

Ejjoud was believed to have carried out the murders along with 33-year-old Abderrahim Khayali, 27-year-old Younes Ouaziyad and 33-year-old Rachid Afatti. Investigators have said the four men shot a video the week before the murders in which they pledged allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. However, Khiam told AFP the four had not had contact with ISIS leaders "in conflict zones, whether in Syria, Iraq or Libya."

Nine of the 18 men were arrested on Friday. Officials said they were heading to the area where the women were beheaded with the intent to commit a crime. According to Boubker Sabik, a spokesman for the Moroccan security and domestic intelligence services, investigators found electronic devices, knives, bomb-making materials and unauthorized rifles.

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