Kathya Kenza Berrada, Senior Program Manager, Arab Centre for Scientific Research and Human Studies, Rabat, Morocco
In spite of a real jihadi challenge, Morocco has successfully prevented terrorist attacks over the past few years. More than a thousand Moroccans joined the Islamic State (ISIS) and other terrorist groups in war zones. While not a new phenomenon, the number of Moroccans among foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs) is unprecedented — there are about 1,964 Moroccan FTFs fighting abroad.
The security component remains at the heart of the Moroccan approach to tackling the issue of local jihadists and returning foreign fighters. Nevertheless, Morocco has also engaged in reforming its legal system and introducing deradicalization programs in jails. More than a decade ago, Morocco engaged in reforming the religious sphere with the aim of countering radical religious rhetoric perceived to be at the root of the problem.
Moroccan FTFs in Syria and Iraq
With the exception of the killing of two Scandinavian backpackers in December 2018, no terrorist attacks have occurred since the 2011 Marrakesh bombing which killed 17 people and injured more than 20 others. Within the framework of its preventive approach, Moroccan authorities have arrested members of terrorist cells allegedly planning attacks in Morocco or joining terrorist groups abroad. For example, in April 2019 Moroccan authorities arrested several members of a terrorist cell led by a returnee from Syria.
Due to the state’s security nature, most of the data available on Moroccan FTFs comes directly from official Moroccan authorities and more specifically from the Moroccan Ministry of Interior and the Central Bureau of Judiciary Investigation (Bureau Central d’Investigation Judiciaire, BCIJ) — a special unit in charge of terrorism-related activities. According to a BCIJ document, the number of Moroccans who travelled to Syria and Iraq between 2013 and 2017 totaled 1,664 individuals, including 285 women and 378 children. A report by the security and intelligence consultancy AICS had a slightly higher estimate for the number of Moroccan foreign fighters in both Syria and Iraq: a total of 1,800 FTFs.
Recruitment of Moroccan foreign fighters increased and reached its peak between June and December 2013. During that six-month period, more than 900 Moroccans joined the fight in Syria. However, not all Moroccans travelled all the way to the Levant. As of January 2018, an estimated 300 Moroccans went to less-distant Libya.
If Europeans of Moroccan origin were included, the official estimate would probably increase to somewhere between 2,000 and 2,500 fighters in total. Given their strong family ties and tighter security, they may decide to return to relatives in Morocco rather than to Europe. Adding to the burden, as European governments increasingly strip dual-nationals convicted or suspected of terrorism of their European citizenship, a number of European FTFs have already, and will continue to be, expelled to Morocco.
According to Moroccan authorities, 225 of the 1,664 Moroccan FTFs — which represents roughly 13% — were previously condemned for terrorism-related activities. This means that 87% of FTFs were not involved in terrorism before, although they may have been involved in criminal activities.
Recruitment for jihad started against the background of the Syrian uprising which echoed most of the Arab Spring movements. Around 80% of Moroccan FTFs were recruited through social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter where 377 accounts were linked to ISIS at the beginning of 2017. The jihadi recruitment rhetoric was articulated around religious references and symbols coupled with videos and pictures of the crimes of the Assad regime against civilians and the failure of Western countries to stop the massacres. This outreach boosted the recruitment of young Moroccans to join jihadi groups in Syria.
Eventually, the setbacks suffered by ISIS in both Iraq and Syria forced thousands of FTFs to return to their home countries. According to official Moroccan sources, 596 of Moroccan FTFs (about 35.8% of the official estimate) were killed in both Syria and Iraq by the end of 2017. The number of returnees totaled 213 (146 adult men, 52 women, and 15 children), which represents only 12.8% of the total number of Moroccan FTFs. This means that half of the FTFs are still in war zones, either fighting with jihadi groups or captured by local authorities. Out of the approximate 200 returnees, the majority have been brought to justice in Morocco and are now jailed.
Previous Waves of Moroccan Foreign Fighters
Moroccans joining Islamist terrorist groups abroad are not a new phenomenon. Initially, a dozen Moroccans travelled to Afghanistan in the 1980s to participate in the Afghan war against the Soviet occupation.
When the Taliban came to power in 1996, a group called the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group (Groupe Islamique Combattant Marocain, GICM) was formed. The Casablanca attacks of 2003 were attributed to a group with ties to the GICM, as well as the 2004 Madrid bombings. There is no available data on the number of returnees of this first wave of Moroccan foreign fighters as they were not considered a major threat due to their small numbers at the time.
In Iraq, around 200-300 Moroccans joined the fight against the American invasion in 2003, but most were killed or imprisoned.
It is difficult to establish clear links between the previous waves of jihadi fighters and the new wave of FTFs, but a few veteran fighters seem to have had a significant influence. There have been Moroccan FTF returnees who have played a part in terrorist attacks such as some veterans from Afghanistan in the 2003 Casablanca attacks.
Dealing with Returnees
The fight against terrorism is presented as a security priority in Morocco and is mainly centered around a multidimensional strategy operated by strong, coordinated security and intelligence institutions.
Abdelhak Khiam, head of the BCIJ, stated that Morocco is unrelenting in its crackdown on returning foreign fighters who joined the ranks of ISIS. He also added that Moroccan authorities have arrested and brought to justice more than 200 returnees, with suspects serving sentences ranging from 10 to 15 years in prison. Such actions highlight the centrality of the security component in the Moroccan approach to fighting violent Islamist extremism, although this approach is complemented with other measures.
Security and Legal Approach
The Moroccan security approach has been centered around the creation of new anti-terrorism mechanisms, the reinforcement of security services and the active dismantling of suspected terrorist cells. Some of these mechanisms include the deployment of armed forces at strategic locations such as airports and train stations, as well as expanding their network of both official agents and informants who have developed an expertise in detecting habit change which may indicate radicalization.
The information provided by informants and security officials has helped in the detection of suspected terrorist cells. According to Moroccan authorities, 168 terrorist cells had been dismantled and 2,963 people were arrested in the period between 2001 and 2017. In the shorter timespan between 2011 and 2017, 97 cells were dismantled, 44 of which had a direct link with ISIS.
Moroccan intelligence services have also been a source of valuable intelligence information about transnational jihadi networks for several Western countries, such as aiding in finding the coordinator of the November 2015 attack in Paris. Morocco cooperates with a number of European countries on counter-terrorism, such as Spain and France. Additionally, the Moroccan Royal Armed Forces joined the US-led coalition against ISIS in Iraq and Syria in 2014. Morocco is also an active member of international platforms on countering terrorism, such as the Global Counter-Terrorism Forum (GCTF).
In response to the FTF mobilization and in line with global efforts in which it was directly involved, Morocco amended its penal code adding heavy penalties from 5 to 15 years in prison and fines up to 500,000 Moroccan Dirham (€45,000) for any citizen who joins, or tries to join, any type of non-state armed organization — providing a legal framework to prosecute FTFs.
Deradicalization Programs in Prison
In 2016, Morocco launched a program aimed at deradicalization and reintegration of jailed jihadists. The program has been designed for both returnees and terrorist convicts who never left the country.
The program takes place over a period of four months and is a mixture of lectures and workshops. It provides psychological counseling, theological teachings and facilitates reintegration into society. Enrollment in the program is on a voluntary basis and participants who successfully complete the program can be freed from prison following a royal pardon. Out of the initial 25 enrolled prisoners in 2016, 14 completed the program and were pardoned. In 2018, the program expanded to an estimated 300 prisoners across jails in four different cities: Casablanca, Tangier, Tifelt and Meknes.
While it is too early to evaluate the success of program, its establishment represents, in itself, a paradigm shift in the way Moroccan authorities tackle the issue, evolving from a purely security-led approach to a more comprehensive approach including deradicalization and reintegration programs.
Reforming the Religious Sphere
Since 2005, Morocco has engaged in what is often termed a reform of the religious sphere, aimed at countering radical religious narratives while preserving the more moderate Moroccan version of Islam. As such, this reform can be viewed more as part of a counter-narrative rather than the direct prevention of radicalization. The reform was aimed at modernizing religious institutions and ensuring greater financial transparency of mosques.
Morocco has been successful in preventing terrorist attacks and gathering intelligence information which has been helpful both locally and internationally. While security measures are a crucial element in the fight against terrorism, they should not distract from the need to address broader concerns. In the face of jihadi mobilization, Moroccan authorities should pursue much broader socio-economic reforms and address governance issues, along with more effective prevention programs. The EU and other international partners should ensure that they remain committed to encouraging and supporting efforts to reduce the socio-economic disparities and lack of opportunities that remain the public’s most pressing issues in Morocco and the major conducive factor to radicalization.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.
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