Women can Play a Critical Role in Combating Terrorism

Women should be encouraged to take a greater role in counterterrorism efforts as women and girls are disproportionately affected by terrorist violence. This was the message brought home in a speech by Sarah Sewall, Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights at a recent gathering. She was speaking about the critical importance of including countering violent extremism (CVE) in the agenda for Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) programs that exist in many countries.

As Sewall noted, “In too many areas around the world, violent extremists threaten generations of hard-won progress for women and vulnerable minorities. To defend that progress – and to prevent a reversion of what Secretary Kerry calls ’medieval thinking’ – we must defeat violent extremism.”

She pointed to the grim reality that while military force is effective in defeating terrorists, “it cannot defeat terrorism.” The Under Secretary called for increased funding to strengthen the capacity of “local voices of tolerance and inclusion.” Sewall was concerned with the ability of military power to diminish “underlying grievances” that lead to growing extremist threats.

Women voices raised for peace.

Women voices raised for peace.

The role of WPS actors globally, including efforts by the private sector, foundations, and NGOs, is crucial to addressing marginalized and at-risk communities. Threats from extremists have become so transnational that Sewall believes “we cannot reduce extremist violence without women.”

In this regard, she made specific reference to an initiative in Morocco. “In Morocco, we’ll help women’s groups speak out against violent ideologies. And in the Morocco program, it’s not just inclusion as process. We’ll make sure that women are not only included in trainings but also the substance, for example by ensuring that trainings include a focus on the specific factors that can drive women to terrorist groups. We’ll be sure that women are included in our baseline data, analysis, and metrics to evaluate impact. We’re hopeful this North Africa pilot will lead to best practices as we mainstream gender in our CVE programming.”

This initiative and others like it, included the well-regarded training of imams, both Moroccan and foreign, and women and men religious counselors, brings together a whole society solution to attacking the spread of terrorist ideology. The Under Secretary was quite blunt in her assessment of the challenges ahead.

“Violent extremists threaten everything the women’s community has worked to achieve. So let’s work together on behalf of this fundamental truth – defeating violent extremism is essential to women’s empowerment, and women’s empowerment is fundamental to defeating violent extremism.”

Recognizing the Threat of Women Terrorists

The recent arrests in the so-called “Notre Dame plot,” an attack this past week against a police station in Mombasa, Kenya, and the increasing numbers of women identified as “warriors” on radical websites increasingly challenge counterterrorism officials to forge effective countermeasures.

In Paris, the latest information is that it was a Paris train station, not Notre Dame, that was  the target. The four women charged with terrorism have been on the watch lists of the French government and were apprehended quickly when the owner of the car containing the gas cylinders was identified as the father of one of the women arrested. The four have been hailed as warriors by various jihadi websites.

In the Kenya attack, Reuters reported “that three women wearing hijabs snuck into a police station under the pretext of reporting a stolen phone, then stabbed a local officer and set fire to the building with a petrol bomb before all the three were shot dead.” The attack could have been much worse, as Kenyan authorities also recovered an unexploded suicide vest, two bullet-proof jackets, and an unused petrol bomb from the dead suspects. It is suspected that women are directed more toward suicide attacks because those do not require the same rigorous military-level skills and training available to men. This chilling reality, reminiscent of women resistance fighters in the Algerian war for independence and female bombers (mostly brain-washed girls) used by Boko Haram and the Viet Cong (separated by 60 years, yet still a potent reality), is reflected in several articles in The Independent, which further reinforce heightened concerns with women terrorist cells. Based on existing research, women are taking a much more visible role in attacks against civilian and military targets because their physical appearance is perceived as less threatening. This leads to the UK experience that, according to recent data, more women were arrested on terrorism charges year-on-year from 2014 to 2015.

Under Secretary Sewall called on WPS organizations around the world to take a leadership role in integrating CVE into their programs. She stressed that “In high policy discussion and advocacy, in field work and programming, in mentorship and capacity-building – there are countless opportunities for the WPS community to advance its central objective through CVE. CVE needs your help – your issue advocacy, your expertise, your sustained engagement on this agenda.” It is a call to action that underscores the centrality of women in promoting security and stability.

2015 Challenging Domestic Agenda for Morocco

Lower Energy Prices, Cuts in Subsidies Will Support Economic Progress

As part of my look ahead at Morocco in 2015, there are key domestic issues that are priorities for the government, as well as the people of the country, who are concerned that external factors will complicate Morocco’s progress.

Three primary areas that directly affect the lives of Moroccans and are on the government’s agenda are the economy, reform issues, and internal stability. These three are interrelated, since stability depends on how the economy and reform agenda are managed, as well as wrestling with challenges from extremists in the region.

Economy is Bright Spot in 2015

Although it is anticipated that there will be a slowdown in the economic growth rate due to the continued lethargy in Eurozone countries and little growth in the global economy to which Morocco is linked, overall prospects are quite positive. A recent favorable rainy season coupled with strengthening macroeconomic indicators may push Morocco’s growth rate somewhere between three and four percent, the variance reflecting the drag on the economy created by debt servicing. The major financial rating agencies note that the government is taking all the right steps to reduce subsidies and public sector spending, which will make the country’s balance sheets healthier. In fact, “The IMF stated that the implemented reforms have strengthened public finances and stabilized the economy. However, downside external risks remain, in particular those related to Europe’s slowdown.”

According to FocusEconomics, “Morocco’s economic outlook remains healthy as the government is committed to fiscal discipline. FocusEconomics panelists expect the economy to grow 4.3% in 2015…For 2016, panelists see the economy also expanding by 4.3%.”

The outlook from the rating agencies is similarly positive. “Moody’s credit rating agency stressed that Morocco is heading to a gradual reduction of the budget deficit as a result of the radical procedures adopted by the government, despite the unpopularity of such measures.” “Fitch, the credit rating agency, believes these reforms allowed the reduction of the public deficit from 7.3% in 2012 to 5.4% for the last year and a decline to 4.3% is expected in 2015.”

In line with themes sounded by King Mohammed VI, financial reforms are aimed both at correcting imbalances and weaknesses in the economy and enhancing its competitiveness so as to counter the global economic slowdown by expanding markets in Africa, where Morocco has a competitive edge.

As noted in a recent Al Monitor article, “The fact that the Moroccan economy is keeping away from the red line [of excessive public spending] is basically due to the strategy supervised by the Moroccan king himself. The strategy focused mainly on the diversification of partnerships and opening new markets for Morocco’s exports in addition to the development of business initiatives and attracting foreign investment through adjusting laws in terms of facilitating the movement of profits and tax cuts. However, the most important measure was the king’s declaration of the need to have reforms within the judiciary and get rid of the obstacles that impede the flow of foreign investments.”

Focus on human and economic development

Focus on human and economic development

King Mohammed has not promoted economic growth without attention to income disparity, which is a continuing issue in Morocco. On the occasion of the Throne and People’s Revolution Day, he raised the issue of the imbalances in the country and said, “We do not want a Morocco where the rich benefit from the fruits of development and are made even richer, while the poor are dragged out of the course of development and made even poorer.”

The Al Monitor article concludes with the caveat, “The Moroccan economy can benefit from modernization, opening new markets and diversifying its partnerships, since such steps ensure the preservation of the economy away from risky red lines.”

Challenging Reform Agenda

A number of bills are in play in the Chamber of Deputies and in committees reviewing proposed laws. In process currently are drafts related to giving greater protection to women and child workers, guaranteeing primary education to disabled children, regulating certain types of mining, enhanced security against terrorism, providing health insurance options for divorced women, ending civilian trials by military tribunals, and judicial reform. Also up in 2015 is the effort to finalize both a media law outlining rights and responsibilities for Morocco’s traditional and contemporary media, and an associations law on civil society organizations.

By the end of the spring session, we will have a clearer picture of progress on the various bills delineated in the 2011 Constitution and expectations of if and when they will wind through the legislative process. Given the heightened security situation, now upgraded due to the Paris attacks, there will certainly be an emphasis on increasing the government’s power to track and interdict potential terrorists.

Enhancing Security Presents Opportunities for “Best Practices”

With the encouragement of its allies, Morocco continues to develop a multifaceted “toolkit” to counter violent extremism, including the training of imams from more than 10 countries in the principles of moderate Islam; special programs for militants who have returned from fighting abroad; mourchidates’ training of female counselors who work in mosques and community centers; a social media campaign against extremist messaging; and infrastructure enhancements to hardware and software resources. In fact, the country has become a prototype for working domestically and regionally to combat terrorism.

A valued component of this overall campaign is Morocco’s leadership in the various iterations of coalitions opposing extremists. From its active participation in the anti-ISIL effort to hosting meetings concerned with returned militants to the upcoming Marrakech Security Forum, Morocco has demonstrated its commitment to a long-term effort to defeat radicalism and ensure security for its people. Its role has been positively noted by Vice President Joe Biden, EU ministers, and various international agencies and departments. Combined with the country’s efforts to liberalize its political and economic space and generate meaningful jobs for youth, women, and the marginalized, Morocco is working hard to make 2015 a remarkable, progressive year.

“Countering Violent Extremism” The Moroccan Way

Women playing a major role in counter-terrorism strategies

I have just finished reading “A Gendered Approach to Countering Violent Extremism – Lessons Learned from Women in Peacebuilding and Conflict Prevention Applied Successfully in Bangladesh and Morocco.” It was written by Krista London Couture of the National Counterterrorism Center and released by the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence at Brookings. Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) is the latest acronym to join the list of references to conflict between state and non-state actors and the environments in which they persist.

Brookings study on women and counterterrorism

Brookings study on women and counterterrorism

The assumption of the study is that “an increase in women empowerment and gender equality has a positive effect on countering extremism.” She gathered data on 16 indicators to identify any linkages between women’s role in a society and its ability to counter extremism. , Ms. Couture claims that “violent extremism is most effectively countered through increased education, better critical thinking, and enhanced opportunities” for women and sets out to prove it in her study Ms. Couture chose Bangladesh and Morocco because of “their direct and indirect emphasis on women empowerment to fight terrorism and its perceived factors that drive recruitment and radicalization to violence.” In Morocco, she focuses on two programs – the Moudawana, the reform of the family law code in 2004; and the mourchidates program in which women are trained similarly to imams (prayer leaders) to act as community social workers and advisors to families.

Her research “focuses on identifying and assessing the ways in which women can and do commendably serve in the prevention role [not that of enabler or participant in terrorism or counterterrorism].” According to her account, “Research and policies indicate that female empowerment and gender equality indicators continue to be valuable gauges in peacebuilding and conflict prevention.”

When an indicator is a labeled a “gauge” it indicates to me that there may not be a causal link on which to build sustainable strategies. While the relationship may be important, even vital, there are no guarantees that improving the lives of women is more salient than other factors in preventing extremism. So how does her methodology provide more insights into how policy makers can assess prioritizing women’s empowerment over “hard” power solutions to terrorism?

Challenging Traditional Notions of Counterterrorism

Mourchidates have the same studies as imams - prayer leaders

Mourchidates have the same studies as imams – prayer leaders

As Fatima Nezza, a Moroccan mourchidate , remarked to Ms. Couture, “If you train a man, you train one person. If you train a woman, you train an entire community.” This remark echoes the observation that in Muslim-majority countries, as in most traditional societies, women are significant anchors to social stability and development. So the author’s 16 “Key Female Empowerment Indicators,” cover social, political, economic, and quality of life indicators as a baseline for assessing the status of women in a particular society. When women are valued and supported as credible voices for stability in a country, “Programs where women are active participants moderate the intent and action of extremism at varying stages of radicalization.”

The relationship between CVE and human development has been the subject of many studies since 9/11. It is clear that to Ms. Couture that “Investing in civilian populations is critical to the success of curbing violent extremism. An essential element of effective CVE programs mandates long-term stability.” In this context, a country’s level and extent of development is a crucial factor in CVE efforts. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the United Nations, and the US Department of State and Department of Homeland Security have issued reports on the role of women in countering extremism. “Strategists believe that when women are empowered socially, politically, and economically in culturally appropriate and relevant ways, they will become contributing members of society who hold the answers and solutions to complex aspects and issues inherent in CVE,” according to Ms. Couture.

The organization Sisters Against Violent Extremism (SAVE), has written “Women have a key role to play in funding and implementing new, alternative approaches to ending violent extremism. …their close proximity to potentially vulnerable youth through their roles as the main caretaker in most societies provides them with a unique point of view that can lead to vital insights into how to steer youth away from violence.”

Morocco’s CVE Offense

Three factors cited in the paper that influence the impact of Morocco’s CVE strategy are improvements in development indicators for women, their empowerment as a result of the Moudawana, and the targeted efforts of the mourchidates. Ms. Couture points to King Mohammed VI’s continuing reforms, the pace of social liberalization, and its effective counterterrorism regime as elements that set Morocco apart from other countries in the region. Morocco’s moderate form of Islam is also a crucial factor, and she notes “The Moroccan Government initiated a program of countering extremist views and interpretations of Islam by reaching the wider population with moderate Islamic narratives.”

Mourchidate working in community center

Mourchidate working in community center

She describes the mourchidates program in great detail and praises their “optimism and tireless efforts. By educating women and mothers, providing a safe and productive outlet and activity for youths, and providing positive alternatives and choices for prison inmates, female mourchidates are changing the tide of terrorism by blunting potential catalysts.” She recognizes that it will “take a generation of teaching moderate Islam and tolerance through education and communication within a community” to change radical views of Islam, and Morocco has made that commitment. Holistically, “Providing an education, fulfilling basic needs, and affording opportunities to women are what Morocco has deemed necessary to counter violent extremism effectively.”

Ms. Couture concludes her analysis by linking the CVE role of women to the notion of “smart” power promoted by Professor Joseph Nye as bridging the gap between soft and hard power. She believes that “Women, who typically invest more in their families, can be the best defense against ignorance, intolerance, and a lack of opportunities.”

Morocco has made its CVE strategy clear: promoting economic and human development, encouraging greater equity and political space, and supporting greater understanding and appreciation of the moderate principles of Islam are integrated into a cohesive program to advance stability and security in the country and the region. While more study needs to be done across a broader population, results to date indicate that Morocco has made a “smart” choice in its CVE strategy and the primary role of women in that regard.

Testing the Waters of Morocco’s Link to Africa

I just returned from Dakhla, in the south of Morocco, where the sounds of the Atlantic Ocean reminded me that there is an undeniable link that is becoming increasingly stronger between this continent and the Americas. Earlier last week, that was the theme of the Atlantic Dialogues, a joint project of the German Marshall Fund and the OCP-Foundation that explores the growing vitality of commerce, diplomacy, and common interests in the environment, human development, and economic growth on both sides of the ocean.

Throughout our stay in Morocco, including most recently in Dakhla, we have heard the theme of Morocco’s future in Africa as an alternative, along with the US, to its traditional trading partners in Europe, which have experienced a decline in their interactions with Morocco. Dakhla, we were told, is Morocco’s “Door to Africa” much as Tangier is Morocco’s “Door to Europe.” Fortuitously, two recent events in Washington, DC looked at this proposition from two different but related perspectives and found many reasons to support this view of Morocco’s future.

The Africa Center at the Atlantic Council held a roundtable on Morocco’s security relations in Africa and how these intersect with US interests in the region. Policy experts from various agencies, NGOs, and think tanks in Washington reviewed a paper presented by Dr. J. Peter Pham, who directs the Africa Center, which examined the case for enhancing Morocco’s security capacity in Africa both to deepen regional operational ties and to advance the US’ ability to work in cooperation with countries in the area. The final version of the paper, incorporating the group’s refinements, is due to be released shortly.

Morocco’s Role in Regional Security

Dr. Pham opened with a summary of the paper, stating his belief that Morocco is sometimes taken for granted by US policy makers, despite, or perhaps because of, our long and valued ties. He believes that in a region where the US doesn’t have many reliable allies, we should do more to build a strong security relationship with Morocco. While the country has a very robust counterterrorism strategy, which he described in some detail, Dr. Pham noted that greater international cooperation will certainly expand the effectiveness of the region’s efforts to maintain security and promote stability.

Morocco and the US have held joint military exercises since 1999, and building these into a program of regional joint operations would contribute to the interoperability of forces in West and North Africa and the Sahel and improve the professional behavior of militaries in participating countries. Dr. Pham pointed out that Algeria’s reluctance to include Morocco in regional counterterrorism coordination makes it necessary to have overlapping regional security agreements, which does not serve US interests for a broader, more effective approach to regional security.

Dr. Pham also strongly supports a holistic approach to security, which means enhancing stability by including programs that promote economic development, respect for minorities, enhanced rule of law, and better governance. At the core of the recommendations in his paper, later expanded on by the experts, is the view that the US has much to gain by broadening and deepening its security programs with Morocco as a regional player. Despite the obstacles inherent in Morocco-Algeria tensions over the Western Sahara, and the ensuing competition for regional leadership, US interests are not well served by the lack of robust military and security ties between Morocco and Algeria.

Knocking on the “Door to Africa”

A paper prepared by Haim Malka, Deputy Director of the Middle East Program at The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), took a broad look at Morocco’s Africa strategy. His paper was a refinement of an earlier paper published in early October, which was then presented to a roundtable of participants from the US government, think tanks, policy analysts, NGOs, and former diplomats for their comments and recommendations regarding how the US can support Morocco’s economic growth.

Mr. Malka makes a strong case for Morocco’s strategic pivot to the south, arguing that the decline of trade, investment, tourism, and remittances from the EU makes that shift an imperative. Another important point that may seem counterintuitive is that Morocco’s business outreach to the US has been limited due to the lack of competitiveness and “fit” of Moroccan products with the US market.

With the prospects for North African regional economic integration at a stalemate due to the conflict in relations with Algeria, the Moroccan strategy to expand and deepen its economic ties to Africa is sensible and can be immensely profitable. So Mr. Malka’s recommendation is that the US work to enhance Morocco’s strategy to more deeply engage economically throughout Africa, beyond its traditional ties to Francophone Africa.

The basic concern Mr. Malka raises is the need for Morocco to become more competitive in terms of its domestic economy so that it can enhance its capacity to export manufacturing products to Africa. While Morocco has a strong base in financial, transportation, and IT services, it needs to greatly improve its manufacturing base if it is to succeed in the Africa marketplace.

Among his other recommendations is for the US to work with Morocco by re-allocating US funding through triangular aid programs that utilize Morocco’s expertise in Africa in delivering social, health, and community development projects. He also makes a strong recommendation that Morocco decouple its economic strategy from its Western Sahara policy, as some of the biggest markets in Africa do not agree with Morocco’s position on that issue.

The experts noted that Morocco already has a strong footprint in Africa and must focus on increasing its competitive edge in order to expand existing market opportunities and open new ones. They also noted that the private sector has more freedom to operate below the political radar and therefore more flexibility and opportunities to promote ties across Africa. US regional interests in stability, employment, and economic growth benefit from a stronger Moroccan presence in Africa. Africa’s rapidly growing consumer markets, need for more efficient use of agricultural land, power generation requirements, and banking and financial services, all provide immense opportunities for Morocco in Africa. The basic requirement at this point is for Morocco to undertake a comprehensive analysis of where it has competitive advantages in the emerging African economy and build a strategy to target and support its exports to those markets.

While Morocco does not compare with China, India, and even South Africa in terms of size of impact on African markets, it has the agility and private sector capabilities to carve out a prosperous and effective presence in Africa, serving its regional and national economic growth goals, and US interests for greater stability and development on the continent