By Alexander Jusdanis
By Alexander Jusdanis
Rabat – The recent terrorist attacks in Spain and Finland, committed by two groups of Moroccan expats, have unleashed a flurry of op-eds searching for the link between Morocco and the acts of violence.
But while some journalists continue to paint the kingdom as the “heartland of global terrorism,” the Washington Institute says that the notable number of Moroccan-origin terrorists in fact demonstrates the country’s marked success at fighting domestic extremism.
In a report entitled ‘Terrorism in Europe: The Moroccan Connection’, the Washington D.C.-based think-tank explores the prevalence of Moroccans in recent terrorist attacks, seeking to debunk the common argument that the kingdom has become a “breeding ground for jihadists.” On the contrary, they recommend that the United States and Europe “draw lessons from Morocco’s overarching success at preventing terrorism at home.”
The institute notes that all 18 suspects in the two attacks were Moroccan-born or of Moroccan descent, with the exception of one from the Spanish enclave of Melilla, while the recent attacks in Paris and Brussels also involved Moroccan networks.
However, this may not be entirely surprising, as Spain enjoys a population of about 800,000 first- or second-generation Moroccan immigrants, with nearly a fourth of these living near Barcelona. (Spain’s total population is around 47 million.) The Moroccan diaspora in Europe is in general quite large, with 7 million having settled throughout the continent, out of a home-country population of 36 million.
The authors make a point to note that the “overwhelming majority” of this diaspora “are settled, law-abiding, employed, and official immigrants.” So what has turned an exceptional minority to extremist violence?
As the Barcelona attackers were “relatively well integrated” in Spain and were apparently not economically marginalized, the authors instead identify “ideology” as the driving force behind their violence. The authors point to the Moroccan-born imam Abdelabki Essaty, who reportedly inspired the perpetrators and had ties with the Islamic State (ISIS).
(The authors admit that the Finland attacks were carried out by “underemployed, transient, unsuccessful asylum seekers or petty criminals,” but do not take the country into account in their analysis.)
Extremism Squelched in the Homeland
This extremist ideology, according to the think tank, may have gained strength in Europe partly because it has not been allowed to flourish in Morocco.
Since the 2003 suicide bombings in Casablanca, in which 12 bombers killed 33 people, “the monarchy has devoted considerable resources to countering extremism at home, implementing a mix of robust – at times controversial – security measures and educational initiatives aimed at pushing back against violent Islamism,” says the report.
In particular, legislation passed in the aftermath of the bombings allowed the state to significantly expand its counter-terrorism strategy. The kingdom has employed a mixture of tight security measures, in-depth intelligence gathering, and religious reforms.
The latler in particular has led the government to invest large amounts of funds into imam-training facilities promoting a “moderate Islam” among Moroccan, West African, and European religious students (though critics have questioned whether this policy only serves to further alienate marginalized populations).
Further, the think-tank notes that Morocco has taken steps to prevent homecoming Moroccan ISIS fighters, recently the topic of a controversial article by The Guardian, from making an impact. According to the Washington Institute, if any of the estimated 1,500 soldiers of Moroccan origin try to head back from Syria or Libya, they will meet with “heavy weapons, antiaircraft guns, and rocket launchers” along the Algerian border.
While the report mentions that human rights groups have criticized elements of Morocco’s rigorous security approach for giving the state too much power in identifying and punishing suspected terrorists, the authors nonetheless see the strategy as having successfully prevented a Barcelona, a Paris, or a Brussels from happening in the kingdom.
As a result, they write, “the small proportion of Moroccans inclined in that direction have evidently sought sanctuary abroad; others may have become radicalizing in their adopted European homes, rather than importing the ideology from Morocco.”
In the wake of this apparent success, the authors recommend that the United States “encourage even closer intelligence and security cooperation between Morocco and all Washington’s European allies,” including by filling the still-empty ambassadorial post in Rabat.
Further, experts from the US, Europe, and within Morocco should look to the kingdom’s counter-terror approach for “potential antidotes to extremism exportable beyond Morocco’s borders.”