Rabat – Jihadist groups based in the Sahel region represent Morocco’s biggest military threat, according to Cherkaoui Haboub, Moroccan head of the Central Bureau of Judicial Investigations (BCIJ).
“The terrorist threat persists as long as there are groups that recruit and train their followers online including Islamic State in the Greater Sahara,” Haboub said in an interview with Reuters.
The head of the counterterrorism agency noted that Morocco has experienced only one major terrorist attack in the past decade, the killing of two Scandinavian tourists in 2018. Despite that, the North African country’s location “makes it a target for the Sahel groups,” he explained.
Haboub stressed that since the BCIJ was set up, they have successfully dismantled numerous militant cells and arrested more than a thousand suspected jihadists.
Not just working domestically, the BCIJ has shown itself to be a reliable partner on an international level. In an interview on January 24, the BCIJ chief said that Rabat’s security services usually provide crucial intelligence to their American counterparts.
“Morocco provided the US with information regarding the Khalden training camp, one of Osama bin Laden’s main military training camps in Afghanistan,” Habboub said. “The information allowed the bombing of the camp.”
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According to data available to BCIJ, the numbers show a continued militant risk in Morocco, especially following the rise of the Islamic State (IS), also known by its Arabic acronym Daesh, in Syria and Iraq. The rise of IS caused a surge of jihadist activity across Africa, even as the group’s strongholds across the Middle East fell.
IS, along with other terror organizations, have intensified their activity in the Sahel region, taking advantage of hard to enforce borders and already-established trafficking networks, Habboub said.
The Moroccan government is also concerned that its nationals who joined the IS in the Middle East might have returned home, and relocated to the Sahel, the head of BCIJ said.
Of the 1,645 Moroccans that have joined jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq, 745 died in suicide attacks or in battle, Habboub noted. Majority of those fought for IS. Of the survivors, 270 have returned to Morocco and 137 were prosecuted, noted the head of BCIJ, adding that 288 women and 391 minors also traveled to the Middle East, joining their main income provider.
Despite the concerns, Morocco has done well following the surge of terrorism across northern Africa and the Sahel region. According to the 2020 Global Terrorism Index, Morocco is the fourth safest country in the Middle East and North Africa and the 36th safest globally, in terms of risk of terrorist attacks.
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Despite being the 36th safest country from terrorism in the world, the index classified Morocco as an “at-risk country” based on research from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
Morocco’s leading role in fighting terrorism is made evident by the North African country’s efforts to aid others in the field. Morocco has provided intelligence that helped arrest jihadists, or avert terror attacks in France, Belgium, Italy, Spain, Germany, Burkina Faso, Sri Lanka, and recently the United States, Habboub said.
“Our success hinges on continued intelligence sharing with our partners,” he concluded.
The Sahel region lies between the Sahara to the north and the Sudanian savanna to the south, it includes different parts of Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Algeria, Niger, Nigeria, reaching as far east as Eritrea and northern Ethiopia.
The United Nations’ Secretary-General’s report describes the security conditions in the Sahara-Sahel region as “extremely volatile.”
“The growing linkages between terrorism, organized crime, and intercommunal violence cannot be overemphasized,” Mohamed Ibn Chambas, Head of the United Nations Office for West Africa and the Sahel (UNOWAS) said.
“Terrorists continue to exploit latent ethnic animosities and the absence of the State in peripheral areas to advance their agenda.”