Moroccan Counterterrorism Policy and Its Blind Spots

Although Morocco currently appears to pursue one of the most effective counterterrorism policies in the Arab world due to its extensive international cooperation and, as its authorities claim, passive counter-extremism policies, the whole spectrum of social and regional factors have the potential to destabilize the situation.

Operator “BCIJ” stands guard in the headquarters in Sale.
Maghreb 777/Wikipedia

Observers consistently rank Morocco as one of the terrorism-free harbors of the restless the Middle Easter and North Africa: it finds itself on the top of the most secure countries of the region, following only Oman, according to the Global Terrorism Index. However, the recent incident with the Scandinavian tourists murdered in Morocco by terrorists or the IS-cells arrested earlier this year casts doubt upon this status, and indicates underlying security issues.

The Islamic State, a threat at home

While the Kingdom is becoming a cybercrime pioneer in the MENA region, its security system is ruptured by already almost traditional challenges.

Morocco was the first Maghreb country to join the U.S.-led coalition in the war against the IS—now it can face the direct consequences of the victory. In its 2019 New Year Eve material Al Ahdath Al Maghribia announced the return of Moroccan fighters from the fronts of Syria and Iraq as the greatest threat of the year. Indeed, 1,500–2,500 young Moroccans are estimated to have joined the jihadi fight of the erstwhile Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant—it is the largest number since the beginning of the war in Afghanistan in 1980s. Now, the Moroccan security services are afraid of the returnees’ future activity “back home”: the potential spread of extremist ideology and the so-called “lone wolves” attacks that are proved to be quite probable in these circumstances.

While IS has yet to conduct an attack, it has already found support inside the Moroccan borders. To understand the developing situation, between 2015 and 2016 police arrested about 550 suspected terrorists who formed 40 terrorist cells. By 2017 more than 60% of the existent extremist cells left on the territory of the country had the direct links and communication to IS “headquarters” in Syria, which sent instructions and even guides for assistance to Morocco. What is interesting here is the social basis of the organization. On the one hand, the majority of the IS-affiliated cells are located in the north, near Tanjer—the city, inhabited by the Berber irredentists from the Rif Independence movement that has been fighting for a separate state for the entire post-colonial period. Not being heard by the government during the Hirak protests of 2016–2017 and ever since, the “Moroccans” of the north start seeking more attentive authorities to trust while 450 activists are sentenced for the latest manifestation.

On the other, the IS recruitment also uncovers a separate issue—the miscarriage of the females support policy. Despite progressive measures, women find themselves in quite abusive relationship with the state: the Morocco is the 141st out of 149 countries by gender gap. Moreover, 55.3% of the female rural population considers itself to be poor. This social insecurity creates more space for radicalization—as a result, Moroccan police have identified fully female IS cells, as occurred in 2016. Meanwhile, in traditionalist, mostly Muslim country’s female population plays a consequential role in maintaining social stability: As Fatima Nezza, a Mourchidate from Morocco, said: “If you train a man, you train one person. If you train a woman, you train an entire community.”

Dangers at the borders

However, weak regional security architecture creates more potential threats for Morocco. One pole of instability is concentrated in proximate distance from Morocco (though some would argue it is inside) deals with the problem of Western Sahara. Here, one can notice the situation similar to the Berbers’ situation: the Sahrawi refugees have been in quite a desperate fight for their independence (to say nothing about the conditions of life) for decades. The vacuum of the new ideas and potency to fight creates the perfect environment for the IS activity here. Additionally, Polisario Front the members of which have already joined the terrorist organization have to be excited with the IS’s technics and arms income.

Another pole of instability is concentrated in Libya. IS is already known to have fixated on its oil-rich territories due to the achy political power in the country. In case of failure of the upcoming elections Libya is likely to degenerate once again into civil war that will make room for al-Qaeda and the IS in particular. Considering Morocco’s porous border with Algeria, the country itself could receive an influx of Libyan fighters.

Speaking of the “Cold War” in the Maghreb, the relations between Algiers and Rabat provide terrorists with far more liberal smuggling routes—for instance, for the illegal Rivotril flows—that the authorities would like to admit. As a result, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb recruits new smugglers, which allows it to continue the fight against France in the Sahel, for instance.

The ineffective fight against poverty

When discussing the various tools Moroccan authorities have to respond to terrorist threats, scholars still emphasize the impact of the 15-year-old Counter-Violent Extremism strategy, implemented after the Casablanca attacks of 2003. This political line is normally divided into three pillars but it is more rational to talk about, analyzing two categories: active and passive measures. While the former appears to be highly effective, the outcomes of the latter do not obviously contribute to Moroccan security.

If one believes in the “rational” conceptualization of terrorists’ intentions that rationalizes their actions with socio-economic incentives, the first step, proclaimed by King Mohamed VI seems eminently reasonable. In 2005 the government launched an anti-poverty program, the National Initiative for Human Development, with the open support of the World Bank. The project aimed to limit the gap between urban and rural areas, encourage entrepreneurship, produce jobs and, finally, provide the people in difficult life situations with the essential needs. INHD initial funding was $1.2 billion for the six-year term by the end of which the country saw the “spring” protests criticizing corruption and seeking economic benefits. In addition, while the national level of life was growing, the numbers for the rural population showed the increase in poverty: the subjective poverty rates1 increased from 41.8% up to 54.3%. Indeed, Morocco is one of the region’s wealthiest states, but the reforms were unsuccessful in creating broad-based economic improvement. One can, therefore, conclude that these efforts have in no way influenced the terrorism threat in the country.

The inefficacy of economic measures, however, seems to be an issue of implementation, not intention. Despite the analysis above, economic inducements can be effective. For instance, in 2006 the government transitioned to a professional armed force and eliminated compulsory military service in an attempt to draw moderate militants away from militia groups, thereby undermining the power of terrorist organisations.

Moderate Islam or repression

The second principle of the current counterterrorism policy covers a much more sensitive sphere of social life—religion. The reform has covered all the basic “soft” institutes in Moroccan community: mosques, schools and media—and, broadly speaking, has been working to modernizing Islam and harmonize it with Moroccan national character. Alongside with, the nation has mounted a campaign to fight illiteracy, which is undeniably beneficial. Tight control on fatwas content and the texts read during jumu’ah prayers marginalizes any distraction from the moderate Islam, promoted by the authorities. However, the government’s “clerical” control carried out by the government seems to solve one problem and to create another: Assia Bensalah Alaoui, the King’s Ambassador at large, states that “the values of solidarity, freedom, justice and human rights . . . to be implemented across the security governance process” whereas the major NGOs doubt these freedoms’ existence in the country. The paradox here lies in the fact that the more the state tries to control its population, creating illiberal social space for self-expression—even aiming to guarantee the security—the more captivated by radical ideas is its population, especially the youths.

A «Moroccan FBI »

In contradistinction to the above strategies, the most effective counterterrorism measures are executed at the tactical and operational actions. On the one hand, those are “police measures”: but for upgraded trainings, management and internal sanctions systems and equipment, five years ago Moroccan authorities established an “elite” unit called Bureau of Central Judicial Investigations or, as media terms it, “Moroccan FBI”. This, as well as the nomination of the head of the territory surveillance directorate and national police as “A Man of the Year” in 2016, demonstrates the essential technical part of reforms: an emphasis on strengthened surveillance. Morocco’s new organizations and measures are supposed to provide integrated intelligence (based on, for instance, observation, locals’ information, social media data) on cells and, specifically, potential lonely wolves.

It is then quite fair to wonder how soon Moroccan police or army will be equipped with reconnaissance UAVs, considering the Kingdom’s major military partners. Morocco itself does not yet produce weapons and the country’s international cooperation in the domain of counterterrorism is, accordingly, concentrated on its key suppliers: the U.S., France and Spain. This alliance with NATO was established right after the decolonization to balance the local antagonist—Algeria—that found its partners in the socialist block. Now, when lists its “southern” partners NATO firstly names Morocco, emphasizing its participation in Science for Peace and Security project with multiple training exercises or, for instance, in operation Active Endeavour in the Mediterranean and Global Counterterrorism Forum from 2004 till 2016. The Kingdom also takes part in other multilateral platforms such as Mediterranean 5 + 5 Defense Initiative and the regular “Phoenix Express” training with European, American and North African colleagues the last of which has just occurred in April. The number of such partnership and exercises in which Morocco is engaged seems endless: Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership, GCTF Foreign Fighters, Global Initiative to Counter Nuclear Terrorism and so on.

Bilateral security cooperation

Speaking of the bilateral relations that contribute to Moroccan counterterrorism strategy, one must begin with the U.S.: it appears to be the most intensive with its annual bilaterally funded “African Lion” exercises, co-leadership in the Initiative on Addressing Homegrown Terrorism, collaboration in developing CVE programs and training carried out by the American advisors to say nothing about its financial assistance for Moroccan correctional systems (more precisely—from The State Department’s Bureau of Narcotics and Law Enforcement) and equipment provision to strengthen borders and ports security and increase customs control. In response, the U.S. gains intelligence and builds a stronger relationship with a geostrategically speaking Mediterranean African nation.

Due to geographical propinquity, Moroccan and Spanish security services constantly exchanging intelligence and execute joint operations, like in late 2014 with arresting a whole cell of female online-recruited ISIS fighters. Two Hispano-Moroccan forums on security and counterterrorism are behind and both parties express their will to promote this communication: for Spain it is specifically important, considering that those were Moroccan citizens who executed the major terrorist attacks on its territory.

As for France, even though the developing of its cooperation in the field of counterterrorism with the Kingdom is not seen so frequently (the last initiative on upgrading the collaboration came out during François Hollande’s presidency) it seems to be on operationally effective level as French concerns with counterterrorism—specifically, after the recent “Bataclan” and Nice attacks—and migration is clearly seen in the public agenda.

The Kingdom of Morocco suffers from a full spectrum of social and political problems—starting from separatist movements in the North, gender issues, and a banal dramatic gap in income and quality of life between urban and rural areas. The weakness of the authorities’ efforts to solve the latter issue, however, seems to put no dramatic impact on the state of terrorist threat. A similar situation can be seen when religion is concerned: with the promotion of the moderate Islam the government has established quite a repressive regime with poor respect of human rights that provokes the youths express themselves through more radical organizations. The scale of regional destabilization in numerous conflicts around the country to say nothing about the influx of the Moroccan fighters from Syria and Iraq would have potentially disrupted the situation in Morocco if the Kingdom did not put so much effort into developing a relatively efficient security mechanisms and could not rely on the impressive number of strong allies who constantly contribute to Morocco’s counterterrorism capacity.

1Poverty can be measured objectively, answering the question of how many people have an income lower than a specific level. However sometimes this is inadequate and then special polls are carried out to examine how poor people feel, in other words, to measure subjective poverty.