Islamist extremism in Morocco

Time for a rethink

Despite the hardline approach taken by the Moroccan state over the years in its dealings with Islamist extremists, the Maghreb nation is still viewed as the world's biggest "terrorist exporter". What's going wrong? Answers from Ali Anouzla

Of all the terrorist attacks recently carried out in several European countries, many have involved young attackers from Morocco or other Maghreb nations, in particular Tunisia and Algeria. In addition, more people from Maghreb nations have joined the terror organisation IS than from all other Arab countries put together. In the wake of each and every attack involving perpetrators from Morocco or other Maghreb countries, the question is posed yet again as to why young men from these nations are driven to extremism.

In the case of Morocco – and in particular with regard to the Moroccan youths who planned and carried out the attacks in Spain – the question appears more than justified. This is the only way to understand the more profound reasons why young Moroccans, who are still in the early years of their lives, fall into the extremist trap and become "jihadists" within terrorist organisations, formerly in Afghanistan, today in Europe and the crisis regions of Iraq, Syria and Libya. 

As we now know from the "profiles" of those who carried out the most recent attacks in Spain, all were born in Morocco, but grew up in the diaspora. All of them, without exception, underwent a brainwashing process aimed at turning them into killing machines capable of carrying out horrific attacks of this kind. This follows the same pattern observed in the case of several attackers conducting earlier attacks in France and Belgium.

This unsettling situation throws up questions regarding the strategy pursued by Morocco for more than 14 years now in the battle against terror and necessitates a critical evaluation of this approach.

Following the terrorist attacks that shook Casablanca in 2003, Morocco – which had up to that point been spared terror – implemented a multi-dimensional strategy to combat extremism along with its social causes and ideological roots. This strategy is based on four levels:

Combatting poverty and social inequality

The first level is the fight against poverty and social inequality, to deny extremism its social breeding ground and remove flashpoints marked by the poverty, marginalisation and hopelessness that produces the youngsters that fall victim to extremism. To realise this goal, Morocco created the "National Human Development Initiative" in 2005, in which it has invested more than two billion U.S. dollars in recent years.

Flowers and candles for the victims in Barcelona on 18.08.2017 following the Islamist attacks (photo: Getty Images/AFP)
Distress and grief following the attacks: in August 2017 a 22 year-old Moroccan ploughed his delivery van into crowds on Barcelona′s famous Las Ramblas promenade. On the same day attackers drove a car into a group of pedestrians in Cambrils on the Catalonia coast. The combined death toll came to 16 and more than 120 people were injured. Five terrorists were killed by the police. Islamic State claimed responsibility for the atrocities

But in a speech to mark a public holiday last July, the Moroccan King Mohammed VI conceded that outcomes have been unsatisfactory and fallen short of expectations.

Morocco, said the King, is still experiencing a period of "enormous contradictions that are difficult to understand". This is because in 2005, at the start of the initiative, Morocco was ranked 122 on the global United Nations Human Development Report. And although the declared goal of the initiative was to eliminate socio-economic causes by reducing the poverty and hopelessness that could drive Moroccan youth into the clutches of extremist ideologies, in 2016 Morocco still ranked 123 on the same index – out of a total of 188 nations.

State counter-terrorism measures

The second level of Morocco's strategy to combat extremism is legislative in nature: 2003 saw the passing of a strict anti-terror law, the safeguarding of which has nevertheless resulted in several repressive actions documented by various human rights organisations. King Mohammed VI himself even conceded this in one of his rare interviews, given to the Spanish newspaper El Pais in 2005. In the interview, he also admitted instances of legal transgressions in the arrests that followed the Casablanca attacks. More than 7,000 people were detained at the time. Many of them received long custodial sentences – indeed some of these people are still behind bars.

Despite undergoing revisions in the meantime and integration into the Moroccan penal code, the anti-terror law continues to draw criticism from both Moroccan and international human rights groups.

Security forces granted a firm hand

Thirdly, within the context of the anti-terror law, Morocco grants its security apparatus a firm hand in the fight against extremism. Through the provision of substantial financial means, security forces should be equipped and trained to be able to eliminate any kind of terrorist threat. But because of the repression associated with anti-terror operations, their preventive approach has been heavily criticised by human rights organisations at home and abroad.

Moroccan author Ali Anouzla (photo: AFP/Getty Images)
Moroccan author and journalist Ali Anouzla was responsible for ″lakome.com″, a website banned by the Moroccan authorities in 2013. In the same year Anouzla received a "Leaders for Democracy" award from the U.S. organisation POMED. Since March 2016 he has been a guest of the Hamburg Foundation for Politically Persecuted People

But despite the hard-line stance pursued by Morocco for some time now, the nation is still regarded as the world's largest "terrorist exporter". In a statement to parliament in April this year, the Interior Minister said the number of Moroccans joining IS had increased by around 600 percent. In absolute numbers, this added up to 1,631 people at the time.

The authorities are also still going public on the number of "terror cells" successfully broken up, a total of more than 168 so far. In this endeavour, security forces have to date arrested more than 3,000 suspects, most of them sentenced to prison terms. Furthermore, the authorities report almost weekly on the discovery of new cells and the arrest of people suspected of having planned terror attacks.

Restructuring at a religious level

The fourth level of the Moroccan strategy to combat extremism is a large-scale project to re-structure the country's religious domain. This involved the creation of state institutions for religious education and instruction, as well as a restructuring of the High Council of Ulemas (Muslim religious scholars), in accordance with the constitution led by the King as the head of the faithful. The newly-established public radio station "Radio Mohamed du Saint Coran" aims to convey religious guidelines and channel religious discourse through a diverse range of media.

Considerable sums are being made available to the Ministry for Islamic Affairs for the restructuring. It has been led for 14 years by a minister from the Sufi tradition, who attempted to make Sufism an "official religion" of the state, as a way of pushing back political, Salafist and jihadist Islam.

The outcome of this has been the emergence, from Sufism, of a sphere of religious favouritism, from which Sufi circles and their followers have profited. The margins however were left to political, Salafist and jihadist Islam. It is precisely these margins that produce the youngsters who join the terror organisations in the West and go to Syria, Iraq and Libya.

A little more than 14 years after Morocco implemented its plan to combat terror and extremism, it is time for a critical evaluation of and reflection on this policy which, although it has so far prevented further terror attacks in Morocco, has not been able to stop the country's youth from falling into the hands of the extremists. It is time to act. 

Ali Anouzla

© Qantara.de 2017

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

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