Published 04 Jun 09
by J. Peter Pham, Ph.D.
World Defense Review columnist
Morocco's Comprehensive Counterterrorism Approach
President Barack Obama traveled to the Middle East this week to make a long-anticipated address to the Muslim world from Cairo University, after having made a stop along the way in Riyadh to call on the octogenarian Saudi monarch, Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud. While the reasons for selecting Egypt as the venue for the president's speech are pretty obvious—not only do the country's 83 million people make it the demographic giant of the Middle East, but it has been the a center of Arabic literature and Sunni Muslim religious scholarship since at least the foundation in 975 of Al-Azhar University, one of the co-sponsors of the presidential event—the choice is not without its downside. For example, as the Washington Post noted last month, "by selecting Egypt, Obama could expose himself to criticism in the Arab Middle East for showing tacit support for President Hosni Mubarak, who has governed the country for nearly three decades with scant tolerance for political opposition. The 81-year-old Mubarak…has used his security services to harass and detain political rivals and is preparing for his son to succeed him." The autocratic nature of the Egyptian regime might at least be tolerable if it were a more reliable partner when it came to matters of significant national interest to the United States, like the global fight against jihadist terrorism, to say nothing of being a little more sincere in its now-thirty-year-old "cold peace" with America's closest ally in the region, Israel. Commentary magazine executive editor Jonathan Tobin's observation two weeks ago that "the overwhelming majority of Egyptians have rejected any notion of normalization with the Jewish state" is probably a diplomatic understatement when one considers, as the New York Times reported last week, the Mubarak regime is actually championing the candidacy of its culture minister, painter Farouk Hosny, to be the next director general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), despite the man's comments in parliament that Israeli books should be taken out of libraries and burned—remarks which came after previous outbursts, recalled recently in a letter to the French newspaper Le Monde by philosopher and writer Bernard-Henri Lévy, filmmaker and Les Temps modernes editor Claude Lanzmann, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel, in which the Egyptian described Israeli culture as "inhuman" and discussed "then infiltration of Jews into international media."
Maybe President Obama will use his speech not only to rebuke this type of crude, state-sponsored anti-Semitism, but also, as White House spokesman Robert Gibbs promised last month, ensure that the address is really part of "a continuing effort by this President and this White House to demonstrate how we can work together to ensure the safety and security and the future well-being, through hope and opportunity, of the children of this country and of the Muslim world." But if such is, as Mr. Gibbs assured the American public, "that's what the President set out to do when he promised to give the speech, and that's exactly what he intends to do," then one cannot help but observe that there are at least a few other venues where the presumptive themes of the presidential speech would not clash so resoundingly with the character of the host regime, the sentiments of the local populace, and the strategic interests of America and its allies.
Had anyone asked me, I would have suggested that the president consider Morocco as the site of for his address to the Muslim world, perhaps even going so far as to recommend for his backdrop the University of Al-Karouine, an Islamic center of learning in Fes that is 116 years older than Cairo's Al-Azhar and which for centuries not only played a leading role in cultural exchanges between the Muslim world and Christendom, but also opened its doors to Jewish students when European institutions were closed to them (the Jewish philosopher and theologian Maimonides was an alumnus of Al-Karouine). Moreover, as I recalled in this column last year, not only has Morocco "long enjoyed a well-deserved reputation as an oasis of moderation and relative tranquility amid the whirl of religious extremism and violence that passes for politics in most of the Muslim world, especially its Arab lands," but it also has longstanding ties to the United States and its allies, including Israel:
Sultan Mohammed III was, in 1777, the first foreign sovereign to recognize the independence of the United States. Subsequently, a 1786 treaty established diplomatic relations between the two countries, the oldest such ties between America and any Middle Eastern country. Renegotiated in 1836, the accord is still in force, making it the United States' longest unbroken treaty relationship. In June 2004, after notifying Congress and in recognition of the country's strategic support for the war on terrorism, President George W. Bush formally designated Morocco a "Major Non-NATO Ally of the United States," making one of only fourteen states to be accorded that privileged status. And while it does not have full diplomatic relations with Israel, the Sharifian Kingdom has maintained high-level contacts with representatives of the Jewish state since 1986, when the late King Hassan II became only the second Arab ruler to openly host a senior Israeli leader, inviting then-Foreign Minister Shimon Peres to the royal palace at Ifrane for formal talks. On the ninth anniversary of his accession to the throne, King Mohammed VI conferred the Royal Order of Al-Alaoui on several prominent Jews of Moroccan origin, including Dr. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, managing director of the International Monetary Fund; Dr. Yehuda Lancry, former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations; and Rabbi David Messas, chief rabbi of Paris.
Even more significant than these undoubtedly weighty historical reasons, however, is the serious and comprehensive approach which Morocco has adopted to fighting the threat which extremist ideology and terrorist violence poses not only the North African country, but to its regional and international partners, including the United States. Not only does the overall success of these counterterrorism efforts need to be celebrated, but other governments, including that of the United States, ought to be encouraged to examine what lessons they might learn from the Moroccan experience.
Morocco experienced its own "9/11" on May 16, 2003, when suicide bombers from the Sidi Moumen shanty towns outside Casablanca hit a number of targets in the city, including a hotel, a restaurant, a Jewish community center and cemetery, and a former Spanish cultural center that had been transformed into club for Morocco's Westernized middle class in a series of simultaneous attacks that left forty-five people dead—including twelve of the terrorists—and more than one hundred seriously wounded. A similar attack on the United States, for example, would have had to kill more than four hundred and injured close to nine hundred to have had a proportionate impact. Shaken by the assault, Morocco embraced a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy that was recently singled out for praise in the U.S. State Department's Country Reports on Terrorism 2008, released at the end of April. Noting that "the Government of Morocco, and frequently the King himself, regularly and strongly condemned terrorist acts, wherever they occurred," the legally-required annual report to Congress went on to acknowledge:
The Moroccan government pursued a comprehensive counterterrorism approach that, building on popular rejection of terrorism, emphasizes neutralizing existing terrorist cells through traditional law enforcement and preemptive security measures, and prevented terrorist recruitment through comprehensive counter-radicalization policies. Morocco aggressively targeted and dismantled terrorist cells within the Kingdom by leveraging policing techniques, coordinating and focusing the security services, and expanding and bolstering regional partnerships.
Less than two weeks after the Casablanca bombings, the Moroccan government enacted a tough new anti-terrorism law that toughened penalties to include a minimum sentence of ten years' imprisonment for active involvement in terrorism, life imprisonment if the terrorist acts cause serious bodily injury to others, and the death penalty if they cause death. The law also provided for two years behind bars for the rather novel "terrorist crimes through sermons" as well as for acts of incitement through posters and audio, visual, and other electronic media. The legislation also authorized suspects' homes to be searched and their communications intercepted by order from royal procurators (the rough functional equivalents of the U.S. solicitor-general, albeit with geographically circumscribed jurisdictions). The law also legalized the detention of suspects without formal charges for up to twelve days, including two days without recourse to counsel. Authorities were also permitted to seize the assets of terrorists and their accomplices. A subsequent anti-money laundering law, passed in 2007 and implemented last year, facilitates the freezing of suspicious accounts, permits the prosecution of terrorist finance related crimes, and establishes a financial intelligence unit.
The enhanced legal powers have enabled the government to score repeated successes against nascent terrorist cells—by one count over one thousand extremists have been convicted under the anti-terrorism law in its first five years—in the years since the Casablanca bombings. The State Department document averred that "Moroccan laws were effective in leading to numerous convictions and the upholding of convictions of multiple terrorism-related cases," specifically citing several instances in 2008 by way of example:
- In February 2008, Moroccan authorities arrested a 36-person strong terrorist network in the cities of Nador, Rabat, Marakesh, and Casablanca. In addition to attack plotting against Moroccan and Western targets, group leader and de facto double-agent Moroccan-Belgium Abdelkader Belliraj, now in Moroccan custody, was suspected of participating in a bank robbery and half a dozen assassinations in Europe and smuggling arms into Morocco.
- In July, security services arrested, in various cities, 35 members of a terrorist network specializing in the recruitment of volunteers for Iraq.
- In August, another 15-person network calling itself Fath al-Andalus was reportedly disbanded in Laayoune, Western Sahara, and various cities in Morocco. The group was allegedly planning bombing attacks against UN peacekeeping forces in Western Sahara and tourists sites in Morocco.
- In December, authorities reportedly arrested five members of a terrorist cell in the northeastern Moroccan city of Berkane, along with nine other group members in other cities, who were allegedly preparing to rob banks in order to acquire arms for terrorist acts.
- In January, 50 defendants in the sensational 2007 Ansar al-Mehdi terrorist conspiracy trial were convicted and sentenced to prison. Alleged mastermind Hassan al-Khattab received a 25-year sentence. Forty-nine others, including four women and several members of the security forces, received sentences of two to 10 years.
- In November, the appeals court in Sale upheld the life sentence handed down last October of would-be suicide bomber Hicham Doukkali, who was wounded in August 2007 when his booby-trapped butane canister exploded in the central city of Meknes.
- In June, a court convicted 29 men belonging to a terrorist group known as the "Tetouan Cell," after its northern Moroccan town of origin, for plotting terrorist attacks.
- An appeals court also upheld the prison sentences, ranging from two to six years, of members of the terrorist group "Jamaat al Mouslimoun al Joudoud," who were arrested in 2005 on terrorism-related charges.
Of course, the fight is a constant one. Just over three weeks ago, authorities broke up a budding terrorist organization calling itself Jamaat al-Mourabitine al-Jodod ("group of new fighters") that was operating in three towns—Laâyoune, Guelmim, and Boujdour—and recruiting among the students of Quranic schools. After monitoring the group for some months, officials rounded up its eight principals as they planned attacks against what government sources described as "Jewish interests in the kingdom" and "acts against the Moroccan security services."
And just this week prosecutors appeared before the appellate court in Salé, near Rabat, to request the death penalty for Abdelkader Belliraj, the Moroccan-Belgian dual national who led an eponymous terrorist ring that had carried out armed robbery in Belgium and Luxembourg to finance a planned terror campaign in Morocco before being broken up in February 2008. The government also asked for life sentences against eleven defendants, twenty-five years' imprisonment for two others, and sentencing ranging from one year to twenty years for the rest of the thirty-five accused. One of those for whom a jail term of twenty-five years is being sought, Abdelhafid Sriti, was, before his arrest last year, the Morocco correspondent for the Lebanese terrorist group Hizballah's Al-Manar satellite television channel.
It should be noted that the Country Reports on Terrorism 2008 takes pains to emphasize that "the Government of Morocco made firm public commitments that the struggle against terrorism would not be used to deprive individuals of their rights and emphasized adherence to human rights standards and increased law enforcement transparency as part of its approach," noting that "non-governmental organizations were granted unprecedented access to prisons where individuals convicted of terrorism-related crimes were held" while "terrorist suspects and convicts were generally accorded rights and due process of law." In short, if human rights violations have taken place, they are the exception rather than the norm—which is a lot more than can be said for a great many other regimes in the Greater Middle East.
If, however, the State Department's Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism has been able to conclude that Moroccan efforts have "resulted in the neutralization of numerous Salafi Jihadi-inspired terrorist groups," it is in large part because "in addition to traditional security measures, Morocco's King Mohammed VI has promoted significant efforts to reduce extremism and dissuade individuals from becoming radicalized. Ordinary citizens providing tips to Moroccan security authorities have been instrumental in detecting many terrorist groups in Morocco."
In addition to the "sticks" in the anti-terrorism law, Moroccan authorities have also provisioned themselves with a number of "carrots." The same statute that mandated stricter punishments also contained a provision for reducing their term by up to half, including the commutation of death sentences to life imprisonment, if the extremists surrender voluntarily and agree to testify against their fellow conspirators. Moroccan authorities are also in the early stages of developing a program to "convert" and rehabilitate jailed jihadists. Last month, Magharebia.com, a news website sponsored by the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), reported that Interior Minister Chakib Benmoussa told parliament that a number of penitent "Salafi prisoners" had sought royal pardons through the Human Rights Advisory Council and the General Office of the Prison and Reintegration Authority.
Nor are prisons the only area where the Moroccan government has sought to influence the religious dimension of Moroccan life. Rabat's Ministry of Habous ("religious endowments") and Islamic Affairs sponsors the Mohammed VI Holy Quran Network, Assadissa, to propagate "an open and tolerant Islam, respectful of other religions" and guided by the Maliki school of jurisprudence, the Ash‘ari theology, and the Sufi mysticism favored by the king in his capacity as Amir al-Mu'minin ("Commander of the Faithful"), a title his family claims on the basis of its descent from Fatima, daughter of Muhammad, and the fourth caliph, Ali. In addition to taking requests for authoritative fatwas on its website, the ministry also publishes a quarterly journal for imams and other preachers in Morocco's more than 30,000 mosques. In a recent article published by the journal Contemporary Security Policy, Jack Kalpakian, an American political scientist teaching at Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane, described the content of a sample issue of the preachers' guide:
[The journal] defines the greater jihad as an internal struggle against internal misguided appetites and all forms of vice; the lesser jihad lies within the management of daily and public affairs in the country. This second form of jihad is best left for the King, his advisors, elected officials, and experts. It further advises imams and preachers that their congregants are likely to have different views concerning the management of the affairs of the nation and that taking one perspective may alienate the other, so the emphasis must be on helping the believers with ethical, moral, and spiritual matters. Using hadith (sayings of the prophet), [the ministry] emphasizes the prophet's statements concerning his primary mission: "I was sent to complete the honors of ethics."
This week, for the fifteenth year in a row, Fes is hosting the International Sacred Music Festival. Under the theme of "L'Arbre de la Vie" ("the tree of life"), this year's celebration was opened by Princess Lalla Salma, consort of King Mohammed VI, and includes a variety of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish artists from around the globe include Lebanese singer and composer Marcel Khalifa, French jazz violinist Didier Lockwood, Iranian percussionist Keyvan Chemirani, and Canadian singer and composer Loreena McKennitt. In addition to the music, other artistic events being organized during the weeklong festival include such as art exhibitions, academic workshops, and children's activities.
Perhaps the most dramatic illustration of how far the Moroccan government is willing to go in its efforts is the royal decree which, for the last three years, has mandated the training of fifty mourchidates, or female religious guides, alongside 150 (male) imams each year. The training program for the annual class differs from the tradition clerical curriculum in that, in addition to memorizing the Quran and the study of Islamic law, the candidates also earn a secular baccalaureate degree with coursework in psychology, communications, and foreign languages. Last week a delegation of mourchidates even visited the United States, participating in New York in an interfaith forum on religious understanding that included both female Jewish rabbis and Christian ministers. In its April report to Congress, the State Department hailed the mourchidates initiative as "pioneering."
The U.S. State Department notes that "the Moroccan government [has] continued to implement internal reforms aimed at ameliorating the socio-economic factors that terrorists exploit," citing in particular the $1.2 billion National Initiative for Human Development (INDH). Just recently marking its fourth anniversary, the INDH is aimed at generating employment, combating poverty, and improving infrastructure in both rural areas as well as the sprawling slums on the outskirts of the country's urban centers where some 1.5 million Moroccans live—places like Sidi Moumen, home to a disproportionate number of the Casablanca suicide bombers. According to Moroccan officials, since its launch the INDH has been responsible for some 16,000 projects benefiting more than four million people. Two years ago, the U.S. government's Millennium Challenge Corporation signed a five-year, $697.5 million compact with Morocco that will indirectly assist the INDH efforts by stimulating economic growth through increased productivity and improved employment in high potential sectors including investments in fruit tree productivity, small-scale fisheries, and artisan crafts.
The U.S. government report also highlighted the fact that "another key to Morocco's counterterrorism efforts has been its emphasis on international cooperation." While, its rhetorical flights of fancy notwithstanding, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has yet to threaten the Sharifian Kingdom directly, Moroccan officials have made it a point to reinforce security links with neighbors, including longtime rival Algeria. For example, as I reported in my update on AQIM three weeks ago, in the aftermath of an AQIM attack on a Mauritanian convoy near Tourine last year which resulted in the capture and beheading of eleven soldiers and one civilian, the government of Morocco sent military advisors to Mauritania to provide the government there with training and advice on force protection and patrol tactics. The cooperation extends beyond the immediate subregion, as witnessed by the announcement last week by visiting Dutch justice minister Ernst Maurits Henricus Hirsch Ballin that the Netherlands and Morocco are to sign a legal assistance treaty strengthening cooperation in combating serious crime, including such terrorism-related offenses as money laundering and trafficking in persons. Morocco is also an active participant in the "5+5" Western Mediterranean Defense Initiative which brings together defense officials from five European countries (France, Italy, Malta, Portugal, and Spain) with the counterparts from five Maghrebi states (Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia). The fifth summit of the group, which was held in Tripoli three weeks ago, resulted in agreements to establish a joint demining training center, a joint strategic studies institute, and a joint defense college.
In addition to ongoing bilateral diplomatic and military-to-military cooperation with the United States on the security front, Morocco has also been a member of the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership (TSCTP), the U.S. government program aimed at defeating terrorists in the region by strengthening the capacity of governments there and enhancing and institutionalizing cooperation between their security forces. TSCTP is supported by various agencies of the U.S. government, including the Department of State, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the Department of the Treasury, the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and the Department of Defense, which works through AFRICOM and Operation Enduring Freedom-Trans Sahara (OEF-TS).
While Morocco's fight against extremist ideology and terrorist violence will likely be an ongoing struggle requiring constant vigilance, the country's efforts to date have helped reduce the overall threat, both for itself as well as for other countries. This is no mean accomplishment, enhancing security for Europe, where large Maghrebi diaspora communities are to be found, and West Africa, where Morocco has not inconsiderable political, economic, and cultural influence. Thus Morocco's friends, including the United States, have every reason not only to celebrate its success, but also to support it, all the while learning whatever lessons they might draw from a truly comprehensive approach.
— J. Peter Pham is Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C., as well as Vice President of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA). In addition to the study of terrorism and political violence, his research interests lie at the intersection of international relations, international law, political theory, and ethics, with particular concentrations on the implications for United States foreign policy and African states as well as religion and global politics.
Dr. Pham is the author of over two hundred essays and reviews on a wide variety of subjects in scholarly and opinion journals on both sides of the Atlantic and the author, editor, or translator of over a dozen books. Among his recent publications are Liberia: Portrait of a Failed State (Reed Press, 2004), which has been critically acclaimed by Foreign Affairs, Worldview, Wilson Quarterly, American Foreign Policy Interests, and other scholarly publications, and Child Soldiers, Adult Interests: The Global Dimensions of the Sierra Leonean Tragedy (Nova Science Publishers, 2005).
In addition to serving on the boards of several international and national think tanks and journals, Dr. Pham has testified before the U.S. Congress and conducted briefings or consulted for both Congressional and Executive agencies. He is also a frequent contributor to National Review Online's military blog, The Tank.
© 2009 J. Peter Pham
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