In many ways, the headline Morocco: capabilities and deficiencies of a strong state sums up the section of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) study on counterterrorism cooperation between the EU and Morocco and Tunisia. While it notes Morocco’s breadth of capabilities and its reputation as “a model of political stability, economic development, and regional integration in Africa and the Middle East,” the study goes on to say that “Morocco’s approach to counter-terrorism is inseparable from the state’s tight control over its domestic population and its undemocratic and unaccountable political system;” a harsh and only partially accurate rendering of Morocco today and its commitment to countering both domestic and international terrorism.
Morocco is supported by Europe and the US in building its CVE tactics and skills, and has initiated a number of programs, with international assistance, to diminish the economic drivers that support radicalization such as unemployment, wealth disparity, corruption, lack of transparency, and marginalization of rural and underserved urban populations. It has also taken on a broader role as co-chair of the Global Counterterrorism Forum.
While the study acknowledges Morocco’s success in thwarting plots internally, it expresses reservations that can be summed up as “at what cost?” Calling Morocco a “surveillance state,” it points out that both “domestically and abroad, Morocco has a proven track record of expertise in human and signals intelligence. Morocco operates as a tight and effective security state, working through an extensive network of security officials and informants that blankets the nation.”
It allows that “European officials have admitted that a number of attacks in Europe might have been prevented had domestic intelligence services been allowed to employ the kind of human intelligence network established in Morocco.” Some detail on these capabilities is instructive. Aside from a national network of some 50,000 locally-sited observers, called mqadmin, who report suspicious activities and personalities, there is a national coordinating center for combating terrorism, the Central Bureau of Judicial Investigation (BCIJ). While the mqadmin ”have an ambiguous status as both official and temporary public servants, a situation that is convenient for the authorities, which avoid accountability by keeping the mqadmin’s role and potential role unregulated, [they] have a reputation for involvement in corruption and human rights abuses.”
The BCIJ, on the other hand, has earned recognition for its effectiveness in breaking up cells of potential terrorists. Morocco is also expanding its work in signals intelligence with the assistance of its European partners, primarily France, the UK, and Germany. The study says that “The Moroccan authorities use a variety of pre-emptive digital surveillance techniques to identify and prosecute suspects, such as monitoring phone calls involving individuals on watch lists, and registering suspicious internet searches. In all, the Moroccan authorities are believed to use 19 human and digital platforms to monitor the population, including on the dark web.”
With these instruments and the new reconnaissance satellite launched in November 2017, Morocco has an integrated effort to counter terrorism, monitor movements on its borders and in the Western Sahara, and track migration in the open spaces of the Sahara and Sahel. An additional tool, dubbed Operation Hadar is also of great value. “The operation was designed to protect Morocco from terrorist infiltration using patrols of airports, train stations, and other transport hubs, as well enhanced border monitoring.” Initially deployed in large cities, it is now being extended throughout the country, the study notes.
The role of King Mohammed VI
As the study points out, “As commander of the faithful, the king retains overall religious authority in the country, enabling the central government to not only retain a measure of religious legitimacy but also to dictate which religious practices and interpretations are deemed acceptable – including those among the religious establishment.” Control of the religious establishment includes media distribution of approved religious texts and sermons, controlling the issuance of fatwas, and treating imams as public servants.
Other initiatives include Morocco’s pioneering work in involving women counselors, mourchidates, in communities and rural areas and the training of imams from Africa and Europe. Also, “Morocco has established a religious council for the Moroccan diaspora in Europe, aiming to assist host countries with religious education. Together with intelligence cooperation, Morocco’s religious training initiatives appear to be a form of security diplomacy designed to improve the country’s reach and international standing.”
While complimenting Morocco on its efforts, the study is concerned that “Indeed, counter-radicalization remains Morocco’s weak point. The fact that the security services have thwarted a high number of terrorist plots reflects their capacity to detect and prevent attacks, but it also indicates the extent to which many young men and women remain susceptible to extremist messaging. In an all too familiar pattern repeated across the world, the government points to the tactical successes of its counter-terrorism operations while downplaying the underlying conditions that necessitate these operations.”
The EU study finds that the government’s outreach to the EU and US for help in prison reform, rehabilitation, police corruption, and training medical staff to recognize signs of abuse are moves in the right direction. It recognizes that “Moroccan counter-terrorism cooperation with both European countries and the US is not only a security endeavor but also a crucial component of Rabat’s long-term efforts to strengthen economic and political ties with these countries. Morocco aims to minimize international outcry over the Western Sahara issue, encourage greater foreign investment and tourism, maintain access to Western military equipment and training, and promote Morocco’s integration into NATO’s strategic plans.”
The path to more effective collaboration must reconcile, according to the study, Morocco’s commitment to a robust CVE strategy firmly grounded in the Moroccan experience, which may or may not take into consideration concerns of its friends in the EU and US on such issues as human and civil rights, internal security and judicial reforms, and social and economic disparities among the population. Working through these issues of accountability and equitable development are as important to the EU as Morocco’s stress on security within stability in the short term. In this regard, the study overlooked two facts in Morocco’s efforts to reduce economic disparities: its national campaign to promote development in rural and marginalized communities, and its need to attract foreign investment to ensure a steady growth in employment opportunities. Facing these concerns as well as the challenges of returning militants from conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere are the next chapter in this complex saga.