Carlos Munoz Burgos
Analysis: Morocco's counterterrorism strategy
Morocco claims to have an effective counterterrorism strategy due to the lack of terror attacks in the country since 2011. The strategy focuses on three pillars and on cooperation with international and regional partners. The three pillars of the strategy include strengthening internal security, fighting poverty, and reforming religion. Morocco saw a need for a counterterrorism strategy after the 2003 attacks in Casablanca, which killed 45 people including 12 terrorists.
The security pillar includes a terrorism law that was drafted two weeks after the Casablanca attacks. This law defines what acts constitute terrorism, but it does not define terrorism. It also added provisions to the penal code to extend the duration of periods of police detention to ninety-six hours, twice renewable to a maximum of twelve days. The security pillar also focuses on money laundering and criminalizes it in accordance with international standards to prevent terrorism.
In 2014, the Government of Morocco launched Operation Hadar in response to the retuning foreign terrorist fighter threat. The government deployed military units to Casablanca, Rabat, Marrakech, Fez, Tangier, and Agadir to address this issue. The operation was designed to protect Morocco from terrorist infiltration at airports, train station, and other transport hubs. Morocco has collaborated with and received training from the United States in border control operations. Having secured the aforementioned cities, now the military has been deployed to rural areas.
More than 50,000 mqadmin (auxiliary agents) operate in urban and rural neighborhoods as informants of the Ministry of Interior, reporting back on unusual or suspicious behaviors by local residents. They are the “eyes and ears” the country and are part of a surveillance apparatus that has the whole country mapped. In November 2017, Morocco launched a satellite into orbit to probably monitor activity near the Morocco-Algeria border, or citizen movements, as protests have ensued in past months.
The pillar to fight poverty focuses on improving socio-economic indicators. Upon assuming the throne, King Muhammed VI stated that he wanted to create better conditions for his people. In 2005, he launched the National Initiative for Human Development (INDH) to fight poverty and improve Moroccan’s living conditions. Morocco does not see poverty as the cause of radicalization, but knows that it plays a role in it. All the Casablanca terrorists came from marginalized areas with not many opportunities. This is in part why great emphasis has been placed on poverty reduction to combat terrorism in Morocco.
The third pillar, which concerns religious reform, focuses on preventing jihadi Salafism from being taught anywhere in the country. King Muhammed VI claims to be a direct descendant of Prophet Muhammed and his position as king also makes him “commander of the faithful,” and therefore, guardian of Islam in Morocco. He is an adherent of the Maliki form of Sunni Islam, a branch of the religion that promotes tolerance. As such, he has made this the official religion in Morocco, preventing other forms of Islam from being taught in the country. In the decades leading to the Casablanca attacks, mosques had been operating independently from the government, and this allowed extremist forms of Islam to be taught in Morocco. The current policy does not authorize doctrines that differ from the official Malaki Sunni form of Islam to be practiced.
As part of the religious reform, Morocco has trained more than 1,500 imams in the moderate version of Islam since 2006. Training has also been provided to clerics of other African countries and Europe to stop the proliferation of extremist forms of Islam. Approximately 900 imams and women preachers from across Africa and Europe have graduated from the Muhammed VI Institute for the Training of Imams, Morchidines, and Morchidates. This institute is an initiative by Morocco’s King and has had important international support.
Morocco’s counterterrorism strategy may be successful in that it has prevented 352 attacks and dismantled 174 terrorist cells since 2002. The Bureau of Judicial Investigation also claims to have dismantled 44 ISIS-associated cells since its creation in 2015. However, the fact that the government is dismantling cells and preventing attacks means that the strategy is not completely successful, as the drivers of radicalization or risk factors that are making individuals join violent extremist groups have not been addressed.
The pillar to fight poverty in Morocco is supposed to address some of the socioeconomic issues that may drive individuals to joining violent extremist groups. However, the policy places much emphasis on poverty as the main cause of radicalization. This causal association is flawed as radicalization occurs when individuals present two or more risk factors associated with radicalization. Furthermore, if poverty is a cause of radicalization, then Morocco’s entire poor population would have already become terrorists. It is also important to point out that the INDH initiative was not altogether successful or able to help the poorest segment of the population. Additionally, this initiative did not improve education or access to health, which are also key in prevention radicalization.
The excessive emphasis on law enforcement is also problematic. Human Rights Watch found that the police was abusing the extended detention provision and that detainees did not have access to a lawyer six days after they were detained. The lack of a clear definition for terrorism, as well as the broad list of activities that constitute terrorism and that overlap with other crimes, allowed police officers to arbitrarily detain people for reasons that may have not been related to terrorism. However, they were still treated like terrorists. The mqadmim have also been accused of abusing their roles and being engaged in human rights abuses.
Finally, Morocco’s religious reform pillar goes against international human rights treaties and the UN Global Counterterrorism Strategy, which promote freedom of religion. Extreme forms of the religion should still be banned, and trainings for imams and women preachers should continue, without violating freedom of religion. The strategy is a bit contradictory with respect to the religious pillar: A tolerant form of Islam that is moderate and promotes co-existence is promoted; however, no other forms of the religion may be practiced in Morocco.
Morocco’s counterterrorism strategy has been effective mainly through the use of force and repression. Security has been a key element of the strategy and has prevented many attacks. However, it is clear that much still needs to be done to prevent people from radicalizing. The poverty fighting pillar of the strategy should change its focus and try to identify the main drivers of radicalization in communities with the greatest number of radicalized individuals. A more targeted approach, along with programs to improve the living conditions and opportunities of all people, will have better results than the current approach. The less security forces need to act to stop attacks from occurring or cells from forming, the more likely it is that a strategy is truly being successful.