Home / Counter-Extremism / The Fear of Radicalisation: Moroccan Security Strategy post-2011

The Fear of Radicalisation: Moroccan Security Strategy post-2011

9 November, 2018

By Constantin Eckner – Junior Fellow

The Kingdom of Morocco stands out among the Saharan states. Its monarchic and political elites in Rabat do not have to fear any significant turmoil. Its tourism businesses in places like Marrakesh are striving on the back of a brand that attracts wealthy holidaymakers from all around the globe. Its key industries have explored new export markets in the past few decades. Its port in Casablanca has turned into a trans-regional trade centre. All these indicators could suggest that there is nothing to worry about for King Mohammed VI. and decision-makers across the country. But that suggestion neglects the ongoing direct and indirect security threats the kingdom has to deal with.

Unlike in several other countries in the Middle East and North Africa, Morocco and its leadership survived the 2011 Arab Spring politically. The king, however, had to make concessions in order to avoid an uprising, especially from the country’s poor and discontent youth[1] that predominantly continues to struggle despite Morocco flourishing economically.[2] The country’s leaders are afraid that terrorist groups could build upon said discontent and recruit potential fighters in the heart of Morocco. The country welcomes around ten million tourists and a substantial number of foreign businesspeople every year, and any attack could not only disturb its own population but drive off those who would otherwise spend their money on vacation or invest in businesses. According to newspaper Le Matin, 168 terrorist cells were dismantled between 11 September 2001 and the end of 2016, leading to the arrest of 2,963 people and avoiding 341 attempts of planned terrorist actions.

That a growing unrest among young Moroccans could be a hotbed for terrorist cells is one concern on a list of many. Although Daesh has generally lost ground, Morocco’s security officials remain concerned by the threats looming over the region since Daesh was established in Libya and the intensification of operations in the Sahel by Al-Qaeda. A decreasing, yet still significant number of Moroccan nationals are involved in the fights in the Middle East. Their return to the country could further strengthen Daesh and related cells, since they are trained terrorists and some Moroccans have even held emir positions with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who could, therefore, act as recruiters, targeting mainly the poor and fragile youth through their networks.

Geopolitically, Morocco has always been on the fringe of any nation-state community or transnational territory—be it the Arab world or the African continent. Its proximity to Spain and therefore Europe is a blessing and a curse, as it has been advantageous to build energy pipelines and establish trade routes. The Strait of Gibraltar, however, is also a preferred route for refugees and migrants of all sorts trying to enter Europe. The International Organization for Migration recently reported that between the beginning of 2018 and mid-July, around 18,000 migrants reached Spain. Obviously, the conditions in Libyan refugee camps, Italy’s tougher immigration policy and the closure of the Balkan route have something to do with the fact that more and more migrants choose other paths to Europe.

Spanish journalists like Ignacio Cembrero, however, argue that Morocco is mainly responsible for the new rise in migrant influx. Many citizens from West African countries can enter Morocco legally and rumours that Moroccan borders may not be as tight and secured as they were just a year or two ago have spread across the region. The government in Rabat is understandably unhappy with the gathering of migrants close to or at its northern coastline and wants to make them disappear instead of keeping them for much longer. Authorities just recently abolished two refugee camps in Fes and Casablanca. But more importantly, Rabat intends to increase the pressure on Spain and the European Union by playing hardball in the refugee crisis, forcing them to support Morocco in the Western Sahara conflict, according to Cembrero and other experts.

Once upon a time, the most prominent refugee route to Europe starting in Senegal went along the Atlantic coastline through Mauretania, Western Sahara and Morocco up north to the port city of Tangier. An agreement between Spain and Morocco in the mid-2000s effectively drained the refugee stream. With recent political decisions that have revived the route, Rabat contradicts its own concerns regarding border security and the threat posed by unchallenged migration, as it had emphasised so many times. The disputed border in the south is a loophole for those who want to enter Morocco unnoticed—and one of many issues that may be tackled by a well-conceived security concept.

Assia Bensalah Alaoui, Ambassador-at-Large for King Mohammed VI., outlined in a 2017 paper[3] the manifold security strategy which advocates traditional as well as pre-emptive measures, including 1) the implementation of the rule of a democratic state with the introduction of the 2011 constitution; 2) the promotion of a moderate Islam; 3) the further development of the South-South cooperation; 4) the preparation of flexible security tools situationally used by the king who is commander-in-chief; and 5) the resolution of the Sahara question. Some of these security cornerstones are no news. For instance, Rabat is still pushing for national unity and territorial integrity in the Sahara question, although the general increase in regional autonomy across the country may have a positive impact on negotiations. Others are more noteworthy, however.

The announcement that laws would be liberalised in the aftermath of the Arab Spring was met positively by the international community and human rights advocates. However, Morocco still has a long way to go to become a full-fledged democracy. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index rated the country at 4.87 points in 2017—worse than Ukraine and Turkey. While there has been a rating increase since 2011, EIU still considers Morocco a hybrid regime based on its parameters. In its 2018 report, Human Rights Watch also criticised Morocco’s treatment of human rights organisations, the continuing existence of torture, the punishment of nonviolent speech offences, and how in general the country has frequently disobeyed human rights standards. Other reports do not look all too promising as well. The government has repeatedly promised to tackle corruption, but Transparency International ranks Morocco in its Corruption Perceptions Index at 81, on par with the likes of Turkey, India, and Ghana. To put it simply, the country has taken first actions and set up the appropriate legal footing, yet it has not provided enough evidence of substantial change. In some cases, more time is needed; in other cases, the willingness to commit to democratic standards and universal human and civil rights is in doubt.

Basically, the same holds true for the promotion of a moderate Islam. While it might be in the best interest of the ruling classes to fight off religious extremism in an attempt to pull the rug from under Daesh and other groups, the king and his parliament have not gone all the way. It is still prohibited to proselytise for any other religion than Islam and to possess a Christian Bible written in the Arabic language, which indicates that a fair competition among the religions and therefore a total freedom of religion is still a utopian idea in the country.[4] The governing Parti de la justice et du développement, which backs the king and has played a major role in national politics for a long time, is considered Islamist and conservative with its goal to defend the Islamic identity through legislative means. Saadeddine Othmani, the party’s Secretary General and current Prime Minister, is a moderate, however.

Considering Morocco’s history and what has been occurring elsewhere in the Arab world, the relative progressiveness is commendable, as pointed out by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies in 2013.[5] The think tank emphasised that Mohammed VI. seeks to further institutionalise the large adherence to the Sunni Maliki School of Islamic jurisprudence and the Ash’ari theological tradition.[6] The reform of the training of imams, under the supervision of the Ministry of Religious Affairs, has included a more diversified curriculum including history, philosophy, comparative religion and foreign languages, in order to promote open-mindedness and moderation, according to Mrs Alaoui’s 2017 paper. Some of Morocco’s international partners also request the service of imam training, which can be considered a contribution to fighting extremism transnationally. Over 800 future imams, mainly from France and five African countries—Mali, Senegal, Ivory Coast, Guinea, and Nigeria—have been matriculated to two- to three-year-long courses. Religious diplomacy has developed as a new element in Morocco’s geopolitical soft power and the build-up of an African security architecture.

Some pre-emptive measures concern the political monitoring of domestic Islamists by authorities and the prevention of youth radicalisation through a platform called Families Against Terrorism and Extremism which is supposed to identify early signs of radicalisation and support families. Just like recent educational reforms and a few other initiatives, it is difficult to assess the effectiveness of every single component that battles the roots of security threats—which brings us to some more tangible measures.

Obviously, Morocco’s border situation could not be any more difficult. In the south, the Western Sahara conflict does not allow a thorough control of every last bit of frontier. The sand wall built in the mid-1980s along the southern part of the Morocco-Algeria frontier is partially effective at best. The 3.7 kilometre-wide buffer zone between Morocco and Mauritania is known as a stomping ground for all sorts of smuggling networks that not only transport cars or cigarettes but also arms and terrorists. In the east, the Moroccan-Algerian frontier is long and difficult to secure, with security cooperation between the two countries being non-existent at this point. The border has been closed since the terrorist who killed two people in a Marrakesh hotel in 1994 had entered Morocco from Algeria. Recently, Rabat accused the neighbour of having allowed Sub-Saharan migrants to enter illegally and security authorities claimed that terrorists, as well as arms, have been smuggled through the border. Consequently, Morocco has enhanced its surveillance methods, and Algeria promised to build a three-metre high wall along the border.

Morocco’s security governance has also invested heavily in the modernisation of the Royal Armed Forces. Cooperation with international partners and training have expanded to new domains such as cybercrime. On the bilateral level, Morocco’s security cooperation has also been intensified with some of its partners, particularly France. Although the army’s mission does not normally include domestic anti-terrorism tasks, some of its troops participate in Hadar—an operation to surveil city streets—alongside the police force. If the surveillance of streets is, because of the sensitive nature of armed forces interfering in everyday security, not a red flag to you, another pivotal innovation might be. Security authorities admittedly try to spot early signs of potential disruption and social unrest. Networks of proxy agents keep an eye on new inhabitants in suburbs and small rural villages, sharing information in regular meetings. Particular attention is paid to extremist groups but also to lone wolves, who are isolated and potentially led from outside via social media. Citizens are closely involved with these endeavours. Neighbours are asked to keep an eye on empty rentals and report suspicious movements to the authorities.

And therein lies a problem that comes along with Morocco’s security strategy. The king and lawmakers often cite challenges the country has to overcome in order to consolidate its security, providing an explanation for every action that might lead to over-surveillance and for every instance in which the liberalisation is put on hold. On the other hand, Morocco is a rather glowing example in the fight against terrorism and extremism compared to its neighbours and various countries in the Arab world. If its pre-emptive measures work out as planned, if the security governance does not go overboard, and if the Western Sahara conflict can be resolved, Morocco might very well provide expertise to half the world in the not-so-distant future. Mind you, these are big ifs.

[1] The youth unemployment rate in Morocco was at 25.7 per cent in the first quarter of 2018. It had reached an all-time high of 29.3 per cent in the third quarter of 2017.

[2] The GDP per capita in Morocco was recorded at 3292.40 billion US dollars in 2017. The GDP per capita in Algeria was at 4825.20 US dollars in the same year but only expanded 0.6 per cent in the fourth quarter of 2017 over the same quarter of the previous year, while Morocco’s GDP expanded 3.9 per cent in the same time frame.

[3] Assia Bensalah Alaoui, Morocco’s security strategy: preventing terrorism and countering extremism, in European View (2017) 16: 103-120.

[4] The Moroccan constitution grants the freedom to worship and congregation, while recognising Islam as the state religion. But the Moroccan penal code contains many laws that contradict the constitution.

[5] Center for Strategic and International Studies, Maghreb roundtable: Morocco’s de-radicalization strategy, Washington (2013).

[6] According to a 2015 Aujourd’hui article, 93 per cent of the Moroccan population is religious, with 99 per cent being Muslims of which the vast majority are Sunni belonging to the Maliki school.

Image: Moroccan soldiers conduct a dry-fire rehearsal (source: LCpl Tucker Wolf)

About Constantin Eckner

Constantin Eckner is a Junior Fellow at the Human Security Centre. He is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of St Andrews with a research project on the public debate about asylum in Europe since the 1980s. His other areas of research include MENA security, EU foreign policy and human rights. Constantin holds an M.Litt in Modern History from the University of St Andrews and an M.A. in History and Political Science from the University of Goettingen. He has worked as a journalist and foreign correspondent for broadcasters and news agencies. Constantin is fluent in German, English, and Czech, and has working knowledge in Arabic and French.