The report notes that although Morocco has proven successful in countering religious extremism through its security-oriented approach, there is much to be done regarding socio-economic and governance issues.
Rabat – The Egmont Institute for International Relations, a think tank in Brussels, and the German Konrad Adenauer Stiftung Foundation published a new study, Wednesday, April 24, on how Morocco addresses the issue of local jihadis and returning foreign fighters.
The study asserts that Morocco “is by far the most advanced in dealing with returnees” compared to the other countries it surveyed, Egypt and Tunisia.
The report, however, raised concerns about the security approaches in the three North African countries, and noted that Tunisia is seen as the biggest sender of foreign terrorist fighters to the Levant.
The report looked at the effect the counter-terrorism policies of these countries has on Europe.
Two reasons why these countries’ policies are of interest to Europe, the report stated, are that many Europeans who join terrorist organizations have North African heritage and any instability in North Africa “could have a damaging spillover effect for European security.”
Terrorism in Morocco
Although “more than a thousand” radicalized Moroccans joined ISIS in the Middle East, Morocco has experienced only one terrorist attack, the murder of two female Scandinavian backpackers near Imlil, since 2011 when a terrorist attacked the Argana cafe in Marrakech’s Jemaa El-Fna square.
Morocco has, however, been a target for terrorists, according to Egmont.“ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi singled out Morocco as a potential target for terrorist attacks” in 2014. In 1996, the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group (GICM), a group of Moroccans fighting in Afghanistan, also threatened to attack Morocco.
Most of the Moroccans who have joined terrorist groups in recent years have joined ISIS, and the rest joined other terrorist organizations both in Syria and Iraq.
Egmont also recalled some of the positive outcomes of Morocco’s deradicalization approach. It stated that Mohammed Abdelouahab Rafiqui, alias Abou Hafs, was one of multiple former Salafi jihadis “reviewing their ideological stands” who later renounced the use of violence and is now advocating for a moderate version of Islam, including gender equity in inheritance and individual religious freedom.
Moroccan foreign fighters
Noting the scarcity of detailed information of Moroccan foreign fighters, the report extracted more comprehensive data from an internal document from the Central Bureau of Judiciary Investigation (BCIJ).
BCIJ put the total number of Moroccan terrorist fighters who traveled to Syria and Iraq at 1,664, excluding Europeans of Moroccan descent. If the number included Europeans who have dual nationality with Morocco, it might increase to between 2,000 and 2,500. Out of the 1,664, 285 are women and 378 children.
In contrast, the security and intelligence consultancy AICS estimated the number at 1,800.
Most of the terrorist fighters joined ISIS, and 900 went to the conflict zone between June and December 2013. Some Moroccans joined Harakat sham al Islam and Jabhat Nusra instead of ISIS.
Social media: a tool for mass destruction
The report theorizes that Moroccans were drawn towards joining ISIS in 2012 when “sheikhs across the Sunni Islamic world called for the support of Sunni communities in Syria, which may have been interpreted by young Moroccans as an official endorsement of the war.”
Morocco had joined the Group of Friends of the Syrian People, which recognized the Syrian National Coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people following the Syrian uprising in 2011.
Recruiters in Syria propagated religious rhetoric with videos and pictures of the crimes the Assad regime had committed.
Social media played a vital role in the recruitment process of terrorist groups. Citing Moroccan Government Spokesperson Mustapha El Khalfi, the report states that 80% of foreign terrorist fighters used Facebook and Twitter to join terrorist groups. In the first months of 2017 only, 377 Facebook and Twitter accounts with links to ISIS were deleted.
Based on data from the National Observatory for Human Development (ONDH), two-thirds of Moroccan foreign terrorist fighters are under the age of 25.
Seventy-five percent come from deprived families living in the slums of cities like Casablanca, Sale, and especially the northern region of Tangier-Tetouan-Al Hoceima, where there are “high rates of illiteracy, school drop-out and unemployment.” Egmont describes the region as a “breeding ground for transnational terrorist networks.”
The situation of foreign fighters returning from Syria after the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces defeated ISIS in its territory earlier this month is another problematic issue facing many countries.
The study suggests that the returnees are posing a threat to Europe and North African countries.
Morocco’s counter terrorism approach
Morocco has stepped up its security measures in recent years especially with regards to terrorism. It has initiated a number of reforms. Since the creation of the BCIJ in 2015, under the supervision of the General Directorate for Territorial Surveillance (DST), between 2015 and 2018, Morocco had dismantled 57 terrorist cells. It arrested 3,129 people, 292 of whom had a criminal record, and foiled 361 terrorist actions.
At the religious level, in 2015, Morocco created the Mohammed VI Institute for Training Imams, Morchidines and Morchidates, and the Mohammed VI Foundation for African Ulema, dedicated to supporting African theologians and scholars to promote religious tolerance.
Morocco’s deradicalization policy has also catered for the country’s prisoners. Through the Moussalaha (an Arabic word for reconciliation) program, Morocco has mobilized authorities from the Ministry of Endowments and Islamic Affairs and members of religious councils, who visited approximately 5,000 incarcerated offenders in 2013 only.
The report also highlights Morocco’s active engagement in worldwide forums on terrorism such as the Global Counter-Terrorism Forum (GCTF).
It also recalled a number of security mechanisms Morocco established, among which are the hadar (vigilance) mechanism, whereby Morocco deploys security forces to guard airports, train stations, and administrative buildings.
Besides monitoring telephone calls and online searches, Morocco’s interior ministry mobilized 50,000 mqadmin (auxiliary agents) across the country to keep an eye and report on “any unusual behaviour.”
Morocco has cooperated with several European countries and has proven a valuable source of information because it helped detect the perpetrator of the November 2015 attack in Paris.
Shortcomings in Morocco’s prevention policy
Egmont noted that while Morocco has taken quantum leaps in combating terrorism through counter-terrorism and deradicalization programs, its approach has largely been security-driven.
The report implied that Morocco’s counter-terrorism policy pays little attention to prevention and rehabilitation measures, especially for returning foreign fighters, except for the Moussalaha program.
“[No] programmes have been put in place to tackle specifically the issue of returnees, who are treated like all other terrorists,” the report stated.