Islamist terrorists are suspected to have carried out the murder of two young Scandinavian women trekking in southern Morocco, one of whom was beheaded, a source close to the probe said.

One man has been arrested following the discovery on Monday (UK time) of the bodies of 24-year-old Louisa Vesterager Jespersen, from Denmark, and Maren Ueland, 28, from Norway.

Authorities confirmed the lone suspect arrested in the killing of the tourists in Morocco's Atlas Mountains is connected to a terrorist group, and three other suspects are on the run.

Security personnel at the scene where the bodies of two Scandinavian women tourists were found. Photo / AP
Security personnel at the scene where the bodies of two Scandinavian women tourists were found. Photo / AP

State television 2M reported on its website that authorities consider the two women's slayings a terrorist act. Local media reported that the suspects had links to the Islamic State group.

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The women, who were from Denmark and Norway, were discovered stabbed in the neck Monday by other tourists, who alerted police, according to national media. Hiking in the area was temporarily suspended.

A source told AFP that one of the women had been beheaded.

The killings have shocked Morocco, a popular tourist destination where such attacks on foreigners are extremely rare.

The Rabat public prosecutor's office said in a statement Wednesday that the only captured suspect has affiliations to a terrorist group, without naming the group.

The suspect was arrested in Marrakech on Tuesday. Three other suspects have been identified and but are still on the run, a security official told The Associated Press. The official was not authorised to be publicly named.

The remote mountainous region where the women were found dead is 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) from the village of Imlil — often the starting point for treks to Mount Toubkal, North Africa's highest peak.

Broadcaster 2M released photos and videos Wednesday of forensic investigators and others working around the women's brightly colored tent on a rocky hillside. The broadcaster said the tent held food and belongings for three people, including an ID card.

Moroccan media outlets reported that investigators have video surveillance footage showing three suspects putting up a tent near the victims' tent and leaving the area after the slaying.

Authorities in Denmark and Norway warned their citizens from hiking without local guides in Morocco after the killing. Danish police officials said Wednesday they sent an officer to Morocco to assist in the investigation.

Maren Ueland.
Maren Ueland.
Louisa Vesterager Jespersen.
Louisa Vesterager Jespersen.

Morocco is generally considered safe for tourists and is a key ally of the United States and Europe in the fight against terrorism. Morocco has struggled for years with sporadic Islamic extremism, and more than 1,000 Moroccans are believed to have joined the Islamic State group.

Media in Norway identified the Norwegian hiker as Maren Ueland, 28. The mayor of her family's hometown of Time, Reinert Kverneland, told Norwegian broadcaster NRK that he informed relatives of Ueland's slaying. The victim's mother, Irene Ueland, told NRK her daughter had taken safety precautions before making the trip.

A forensic team is seen at the area where the bodies of two Scandinavian women tourists were found dead. Photo / AP
A forensic team is seen at the area where the bodies of two Scandinavian women tourists were found dead. Photo / AP

The Danish victim was identified by media in Denmark as Louisa Vesterager Jespersen, 24. Her mother, Helle Jespersen, told tabloid BT two police officers rang the doorbell Monday evening with the message that her daughter had been killed. She said the family had warned her against undertaking the journey.

The University of South-Eastern Norway said on its website that both women were studying to earn bachelor's degrees in outdoor life, culture and ecophilosophy. They attended a campus in Boe, southern Norway and west of Oslo.

"What we know is that they were on a monthlong, private holiday in Morocco. Our thoughts go to the families," the university said on its home page, adding flags were flown at half-staff in their memory Tuesday.

Security personnel at the scene in the Atlas Mountains. Photo / AP
Security personnel at the scene in the Atlas Mountains. Photo / AP

The most recent jihadist attack hit Morocco in 2011, when 17 people were killed in Marrakesh. An attack in the financial capital Casablanca left 33 dead in 2003.

Tourism is a cornerstone of Morocco's economy and the kingdom's second-largest employer, after agriculture.

The sector accounts for 10 per cent of national income and is one of the country's main sources of foreign currency.

After several years of near-stagnation, Morocco welcomed a record 11.35 million visitors in 2017, exceeding the 11-million mark for the first time.

- AP, additional reporting Telegraph