In 2020, the Moroccan security services have successfully limited the security threat posed by extremist and terrorist organizations, having managed to dismantle many sleeper cells despite the complex regional context, especially in direct neighboring areas following the spread of the effects of the Libyan conflict, the movement of fighters across the Tunisian border, long-standing tension with Algeria, and the growing escalation of terrorist activities in the sub-Saharan Sahel region. Conversely, over the past few years Morocco’s European partners, especially France and Germany, have failed on several occasions to pre‑empt terrorist operations carried out both by small, organized groups and by individuals with no clear organizational connection to extremist groups (“lone wolves”).
The Moroccan model for dealing with violent and terrorist groups, in particular Islamic State (IS) and Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, is one of very few cases of a pre‑emptive mechanism for preventing national security threats. Most Arab States have, by contrast, taken a curative approach to dealing with the consequences of terrorism (i.e. retrospectively, once the impact has grown), in particular after the 2011 revolutionary movement and the armed conflict that subsequently spread throughout several Arab States. This article will examine the “multi‑pronged pre-emptive” approach adopted by the Moroccan government, which blends political and security dimensions, especially in view of important economic factors compounded by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Remarkable success in thwarting terrorist operations in Morocco
“Influential” terrorist attacks have become less frequent in Morocco over the past two decades, the most notable being the Casablanca bombings of May 2003 and March and April 2007, the Marrakech bombing of April 2011, and the murder of two Scandinavian tourists on the outskirts of Marrakech on December 15, 2018. As a result, Morocco’s position in the Global Terrorism Index, which ranks the 163 countries most exposed to terrorist threats, fell from 132 in 2018 to 92 in 2019, and the threats are now limited to “sleeper cells”:
Multi-pronged pre-emptive counterterrorism policies
1. Adapting the security services to the changing patterns of terrorist threats: Moroccan security policy has become more coordinated and adaptive, with greater control over the various agencies, whether through the Supreme Security Council, presided over by King Mohammed VI and provided for in Article 54 of the 2011 constitution, or the launch of the Hadar (“vigilance”) program in 2014 to preemptively combat terrorism through a security mechanism incorporating the army, the Royal Moroccan Gendarmerie, the police, and reserve forces. The BCIJ was established in March 2015 under the authority of the DGST with a mandate to pursue and dismantle terrorist cells and prevent the overlap between terrorism and organized crime. In addition, the ratification of the Cyber Security Act by the Moroccan government and Parliament will improve information systems security in various public institutions and national companies.
2. Enhancing political openness towards opposing forces: Morocco’s relative openness to different political forces explains its ability to contain the influence of the Arab revolutionary movement within the country and reduce the intensity of the protests that started on February 20, 2011. It has also been able to separate political Islamism from militant Islamism, allowing the security services to track the latter. It may also explain why the country tends to accommodate political Islamism in the wider region as a means of preventing its association with armed groups. Furthermore, the Moroccan security services have tried to subdue the Salafist jihadist movement, with royal pardons being issued to many of key figures, such as Shaykh Muhammad al-Fizazi, Hassan al-Kettani, and Omar al-Haddouchi.
3. Restructuring the religious sphere: Morocco is trying to eradicate religious extremism by addressing the underlying factors that drive individuals to join extremist and terrorist groups, including by reorganizing the State religious entities to protect citizens from extremism and the content of religious discourse and reviewing the content of Friday sermons. As the political and religious center of gravity, the King (who hold the title of “Commander of the Faithful”) has sought to reform religious discourse through the institutions of the Muhammadan League of Religious Scholars in order to confront extremism and terrorism, taking as a basis the moderate religious foundations represented by the Maliki school of thought, the Ash’ari creed, and Sunni mysticism. For example, the Ministry of Religious Endowments and Islamic Affairs has included women preachers in advocacy work as part of a pre‑emptive response to concerns about women’s involvement in terrorist operations. Morocco also applies this approach to religious development beyond its own borders: the Mohammed VI Institute, which was inaugurated in 2015, trains imams from a number of African countries, such as Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, Niger, Guinea, Nigeria, Chad, and Tunisia, on the grounds that extremism may stem from erroneous religious thought. It has also trained imams living in many European countries, such as France.
4. Providing aftercare for former prisoners in the community: The Moroccan government realizes that some prisoners may have been radicalized and need rehabilitation for the post-sentence phase. The Musalaha (“reconciliation”) program, which began in 2017, deals with detainees in cases of terrorism and extremism and is supervised by the General Delegation for Prison Administration and Reintegration. The program integrates religious and human‑rights approaches and benefits from the participation of the Muhammadan League of Religious Scholars and the National Human Rights Council. Each round of the program lasts two to three months, starting with ideological and religious rehabilitation, followed by rights-based and legal rehabilitation, after which the prisoners receive psychological, social, and economic support. At the end of each round, the prisoners receive a royal pardon if they can show that they have abandoned extremist ideas and respect State institutions, which is confirmed through a three-fold approach: “Reconciliation with oneself, with religious texts, and with society.” Moreover, the Government is forging partnerships with private foundations to ultimately provide employment and training opportunities for these prisoners after their release, as Moroccan officials know that imprisonment is not a definitive solution to the problem of Islamic extremism.
5. Intensifying security cooperation with neighboring regional States: Morocco presents itself to various international and regional parties – whether in the Sahel region, neighboring North African countries, or Mediterranean partners in Europe – as an important ally in the fight against terrorism and irregular immigration. Morocco appears to be an island of stability within a region in conflict; this has strengthened the position of the country’s intelligence services, which have provided information to their counterparts in several Western countries. Specifically, Moroccan foreign intelligence services under the General Directorate of Studies and Documentation have infiltrated Moroccan communities abroad, some of which have been linked to serious attacks in Europe.
Potential scenarios for terrorism in Morocco
1. Expansion of the terrorist threat: Despite Morocco’s continued anti-terrorism efforts, there is potential for the terrorist threat to further expand. In particular, the decline of IS in its main spheres of influence in Syria and Iraq has led it to become more active in the Sahel and Sahara regions, especially with the intensifying Libyan conflict, and in neighboring countries such as Mali, which cannot secure its borders. In addition, there is a convergence of interests between terrorist cells and organized crime groups, in particular networks for trafficking people, weapons, and drugs. Morocco’s strategic location and its war against terrorism make it a target for IS and other organizations, which have been directing their energy at destabilizing the country internally; herein lies the difficulty that the Moroccan security and intelligence services face in combatting the vast multinational networks that have taken advantage of porous borders. These networks – which are more akin to “shadow economies” – maintain their relationships with local communities, which allows them to thrive. The absence of security cooperation between Algeria and Morocco, despite the common threats that they face, may also increase the exposure of Moroccan cities to terrorist operations. According to some analysts, the economic challenge remains one of the main obstacles to tackling terrorism in the country, specifically in improving the living conditions of rural populations so that these areas do not become gateways for the infiltration of IS or Al-Qaida terrorists.
2. The decline of the terrorist threat: This scenario assumes that the pre-emptive line of attack successfully limits the threat of terrorism in Morocco through the multiple approaches previously mentioned, especially the ideological approach, bearing in mind that the terrorist cells dismantled in a number of Moroccan cities between 2018 and 2020 were not organizationally linked to IS, but rather were ideologically extremist cells. Many of those arrested have previous convictions for violent crimes, making them relatively easy to pick up. In addition, the security and intelligence services have been successful in continuing to arrest Moroccans returning from the two conflict centers in Syria and the Maghreb, whose estimated total number varies. In parallel, Morocco has been quick to pass laws that criminalize joining or attempting to join training camps in “terrorist hotspots spots” or receiving training inside or outside Morocco with the aim of carrying out terrorist acts.
The second scenario is more likely; despite some conducive conditions, Morocco will remain one of the countries in the region least exposed to the threat of terrorism and extremism, thanks to the multi-pronged pre-emptive policies that the Moroccan authorities have adopted.
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 For more details on the Global Terrorism Index published annually by the Institute for Economics and Peace, including its latest report for 2019, see: https://bit.ly/2SJHnlL
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EPC | 18 Nov 2020
Shereen Mohammed | 25 Oct 2020
EPC | 19 Oct 2020