The region of the Rif Mountains, situated between the Mediterranean Sea in the north, Chefchaouen in the west, Al Hoceima in the east and Taounate in the south, has had a turbulent history, and has always resisted the imposition of outside authority. The region was part of the bled as-siba, the "land of dissidence" outside the Moroccan sultan's control, until its 1912 incorporation into the Spanish protectorate of northern Morocco. Spain's colonial armies, however, were devastated by the 1921-27 revolt of Muhammad Abd Al-Karim, who united the area's Berber tribes and established the independent Republic of the Rif. His poorly armed forces were vanquished only by 360,000 French and Spanish soldiers sent to end the uprising.

Later, tough Riffian guerrillas played an important part in the anti-colonial struggles of 1955-56, but after independence the Hispano-Berber Rif found itself excluded from corridors of power dominated by French and Arabic speakers. In 1958 the region rose in rebellion against the government in Rabat. A military expedition composed of two-thirds of the Moroccan army led by then-Crown Prince Hassan landed at Al Hoceima and overwhelmed the rebels. Since then Riffians have continued to suffer from poverty and underdevelopment, and the Rif was the scene of several civil disturbances in the 1980s.

Aside from its historical propensity for rebellion, the Rif is best known as a source of kif or cannabis. For more than 100 years the Moroccan government has allowed (ignored) kif cultivation in a limited area closely surrounding the village of Ketama. However, the industry has grown in the past 10 years and farms now nearly cover all the upper mountain ranges and much lowland as far as 75 miles from the once quiet Ketama. Fifteen years ago less than 500 sqaure miles were under hashish cultivation. Now, cultivation covers more than 10,000 square miles and nearly every terraced field with a source of water is filled with kif plants from spring to late summer. Hashish is the only major product of the region and it is one of the only crops that will grow here.