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Morocco: A Breeding Ground for Spain’s Jihadi Terrorists?

Morocco: A Breeding Ground for Spain’s Jihadi Terrorists?

Rabat- According to a recent study released by the Madrid-based think tank, Elcano Royal Institute, nearly half of the jihadists arrested or killed in Spain in the past five years were Moroccan-born or of Moroccan descent.

The think tank, which analyses world events and trends from a Spanish, European, and global perspective, explored the prevalence of Moroccans suspected of engaging in Islamist terrorism activities in Spain between 2013 and 2017 in a study entitled “Moroccans and second generations among the jihadists in Spain.”

Elcano’s 2013-2017 database on jihadists in Spain reveals that approximately 46 percent of the 233 people arrested or killed for alleged involvement in terrorism related activities in Spain are Moroccan nationals. Those of Spanish nationality represent nearly 37.9 percent, while the rest are made up of 19 other nationalities.

The figures also show that six out of ten people in this study are second generation descendants of Moroccan immigrants, who were radicalized and recruited in the Iberian country by various Islamist cells or networks.

According to the report’s authors, Fernando Reinares and Carola Garcia-Calvo, the majority of those detained for suspected terrorism offences came from provinces and cities located in the northern Rif region of Morocco, and they blame the spread of jihadism on the Rif’s economic woes and substandard social conditions.

The study further notes that Spain’s north African enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla are the biggest hub of jihadist activity on Spanish territory. The cities are the birthplace of almost 73 percent of all detainees who were convicted of jihadist terrorism or who died in suicide attacks in Spain in the time period studied.

Further, the authors postulate that jihadists’ involvement in terrorist activities comes in response to spatial segregation and social marginality as well as, unemployment, illiteracy, delinquency, and the lack of urbanization, which denotes an effective absence of state authority in both cities.

In mainland Spain, Catalonia, especially Barcelona, was also recognized as a jihadi hotspot. Of all foreign jihadists arrested across Spain, 14.3 percent were detained within this metropolitan area.

The Spanish think thank recognizes that Catalonia is increasingly known as a centre of extremism, with nearly one third of ISIS-linked arrests in Spain made there. Furthermore, Spanish authorities identified the region as a “major Mediterranean centre of radical Islamist activity” and a “magnet for terrorist recruiters,” such as al Qaeda and Ansar al-Islam.

The study notes that four out of 10 jihadists sentenced or killed in Spain in the selected time period had resided in Catalonia.

Extremism thwarted in the homeland

Although a large majority of the jihadists in Spain are currently Moroccans or second generation descendants of Moroccan immigrants, the authors indicate that it is easier for someone of Moroccan origin to engage in terrorist activities if he/she resides in Spain than in Morocco, due to Morocco’s relative success in containing its own domestic jihadism threat.

In the aftermath of the 2003 suicide bombings that occurred in multiple locations in Casablanca, Morocco has devoted considerable resources to preventing t violent Islamism at home by implementing a mixture of tight security measures, in-depth intelligence gathering, and religious reforms.

Morocco strengthened security at borders and implemented anti-terrorism laws, imposing heavy jail terms (up to 20 years) and fines on people returning from the Islamic State battlefields in Syria and Iraq. Morocco’s counter-terrorism strategy may make it difficult for jihadi groups to operate in the country.

Issandr el-Amrani, North Africa director at the International Crisis Group, told the Financial Times last year that “Morocco has been very successful at driving deep underground any major al Qaeda or ISIS group.”

“There hasn’t been a single successful attack since the formation of ISIS [in 2014]. Moroccan jihadis have largely gone to fight abroad, rather than stay at home because the security lockdown is too pervasive,” el-Amrani said.

However, the prevalence of Moroccan expats among the perpetrators of high-profile attacks sparked concerns in recent years that the country is becoming a breeding ground for jihadists.

Elcano claims this “implies that an existing problem in Morocco is projected on our country [Spain],” recalling that eleven of the twelve suspected accomplices in the Barcelona and Cambrils attacks which killed fifteen people on August 17, 2017, were Moroccan-born or of Moroccan descent, and the twelfth was  from the Spanish enclave of Melilla, according to Spanish authorities.

Abdelhak Khiame, head of Morocco’s Central Bureau of Judicial Investigations, believes the reasons for radicalization are far from being related to the jihadis’ birthplace but rather to the environment in which they were raised. Khiame told the BBC two years ago that the radicalisation of Moroccan youths in Europe was “due to factors in the countries where they live.”

“Yes, these people have Moroccan roots but they were born, grew and acquired values from Western countries,” he said.

“Even their education in Islam was not carried out by those who [teach religion] in Morocco.”

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