Morocco’s Unique Approach to Countering Violent Extremism and Terrorism
On May 16th, 2003, Morocco suffered the worst domestic terrorist attack in their country’s history, when 14 terrorists conducted 4 separate attacks in Casablanca using improvised explosive devices (IED’s). The terrorist attacks targeted a hotel, two restaurants, as well as the Jewish Community Center. The attacks killed a total of 33 people, injuring hundreds, as well as killing 12 out of the 14 terrorists.[i] The attacks shocked the country, making the public and government realize that they were no longer immune to the threat of radical Jihadist Salafi Islam.
Just two weeks following the attacks in Casablanca, Morocco published Law No. 03.03, a comprehensive counter-terrorism (CT) and counter violent-extremism (CVE) strategy.[ii] The newly adopted strategy was intended to supplement the existing Penal Code and Criminal Procedure Code in Morocco. The law covers a wide variety of topics including what acts can be defined as acts of terror, what action police and military can take against those who are suspected of participating in terrorist activities and what punishment can be.[iii] In the year following the 2003 attacks, 2112 suspects had been arrested in their connection to the attacks.[iv] Between 2003 and early 2018, more than 160 terrorist cells were dismantled, preventing more than 340 planned attacks in the Kingdom.[v] These figures speak to the successes of Morocco’s CT policy.
This paper explores the two aspects that makes Morocco’s CT/CVE strategy unique: 1) the promotion of moderate Maliki Islam, and 2) fighting poverty and investment in the public of the country. While other countries may have taken a similar approach, most have not done so on the scale in which Morocco has. First, the paper outlines how Morocco has aimed to counter the radical salafi/Wahhabi narrative of Imams in over 50,000 mosques and countless schools across the country. Next the paper discusses the measures that the Kingdom has taken in the hopes of eradicating poverty and eliminating many of the slums in the country. Finally, the paper will discuss the effectiveness of the current strategy as well as offer some recommendations as to how Morocco could improve their current CT/CVE policy. These recommendations would be in order to deter the threats the country currently faces, namely the prospect of returning foreign fighters.
Religious Reform in Morocco
Until the Casablanca bombings in 2003, authorities in Rabat were reportedly uninterested in Salafi activity, so long as it did not pose an imminent threat on Morocco.[vi] Since 2003 however, one of the more publicized aspects of counter-terrorism policy involves the promotion of moderate Islam in Moroccan society. The attacks in Casablanca altered the idea that Morocco was a model Islamic state, immune from extremism.[vii] King Mohammed VI firmly asserted in many of his speeches since the attacks, that in order to counter the threat of terrorism, promotion of moderate Islam is essential.[viii] He claimed in 2003 that religious reform in Morocco aims to “protect Morocco from extremism and terrorism and preserve its identity which is marked by balance, moderation and tolerance”.[ix] He further asserted in his speech on the 63rd anniversary of the Revolution of the King and the People that:
Those who engage in terrorism, in the name of Islam, are not Muslims. Their only link to Islam is the pretexts they use to justify their crimes and their folly. They have strayed from the right path, and their fate is to dwell forever in hell.
They think – out of ignorance – that they are engaging in jihad. Since when has jihad been synonymous with killing innocent people? The Almighty says: “Do not transgress limits, for Allah loves not transgressors”.
Is it conceivable that God – the Most Merciful, the Most Compassionate – could order someone to blow himself up or kill innocent people? Islam, as a matter of fact, does not permit any kind of suicide – whatever the reasons or circumstances. The Almighty says: “if any one slew a person – unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land – it would be as if he slew the whole people”.
Islam is the religion of peace. Almighty God says: “O you who believe! Enter into peace whole-heartedly”.[x]
The religious reform in Morocco is spearheaded by the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, as well as the Ministry of Interior. In the aftermath of the 2003 attacks, the military took fierce action against those who were believed to be promoting, and preaching radical Islamic ideologies.[xi] The 2003 law that allowed Moroccan authorities to detain those suspected to be promoting Salafism and/or Wahhabism Islam. The detention of prominent Wahhabism preachers Hassan Ketani and Abou Hafs in 2003 for their role in “inspiring the 2003 suicide bombings” was significant as it proved that Moroccan authorities took the threat of radical preachers seriously, and were willing to take action against those who threatened the tolerant form of Islam that Morocco was attempting to promote.[xii]
In April of 2004, King Mohammed VI reorganized the Supreme Ulema Council (CSO); the body responsible for monitoring the rhetoric of Imams and scholars across the country.[xiii] Established in 1981 with the responsibility to protect what is referred to as ‘Moroccan Islam’, was now given the ability to comment on all religious matters, as well as the capability to issue fatwas.[xiv] Mohamed Fizazi, head of the regional council of the Ulema in Tangiers stressed in an interview that it is “up to us to explain to everyone that they [those who practice extreme forms of Islam] are ignorant”.[xv] The CSO promoted moderate Sunni Maliki Islam in the hopes of reaching tolerant religious homogeneity in Morocco.[xvi]
One way in which the CSO has attempted to counter the rhetoric of radical preachers has been by monitoring the speeches of clerics in the approximately 50,000 mosques across the country.[xvii] It is universally known that Mosques do not serve only as a house of worship, but also as a place for discussion on many topics, not only limited to religion; consequently, Morocco recognized that the key to effective and lasting religious reform begins with the mosques and the Imams who preach in them. The CSO launched an educational program which trained Imams and other religious figures the values of moderate Malaki Islam in the hopes of countering radicalization and those who were ‘misinterpreting’ Islam.[xviii] Since 2006, the program has trained over 1,500 Imams, 82% of whom had no previous training on moderate Islam before the start of the program.[xix]
Though the Mosques serve as the primary location for the preaching of Islamic ideology, in modern society, the role of television and internet cannot be overlooked. As a result, the religious reform strategy included the promotion of the moderate Malaki Islam on television, radio and the internet in Morocco.[xx] Seeing as King Mohammed VI’s radio station is one of the most listened to in the country, the fact that they are broadcasting the ideals of tolerance and moderate Islam, means that their message is reaching a broader audience than just those who just attend the mosques.
Again, though mosques are important, the schools inside of Morocco were seen equally as important in the process of religious reform in Morocco. The state proved they took Wahhabi and Salafi schools of religion by shutting them down completely. One of the more well-known Salafi preachers in Morocco, Mohammed El-Maghraoui, infamous for his public statements about marrying nine-year old girls, was primarily behind the states’ decision to shut down these schools as they viewed his rhetoric as a significant threat to their end goal of religious homogeneity throughout the country.[xxi] Some of the schools in Morocco have been linked to the recruitment of some AQIM cells.[xxii] New Morabitin, an uncovered AQIM cell, originated in one of the schools and consisted of eight young students who had intended to target several Jewish community centers, and synagogues in Morocco.[xxiii]
Another way in which Morocco promoted moderate Islam in their society, was by the inclusion of women in the Ulema council, as this was not common practice in the region previously. Dar al-hadith, the main center for training religious scholars, has approximately 545 scholars, 104 of whom are women.[xxiv] Women are able to preach and teach Islam, but they are prohibited however from leading Friday prayers.[xxv] Though this was mainly intended in order for more women to be educated on moderate Islam, one study claimed that “research and policies indicate that female empowerment and gender equality indicators continue to be valuable gauges in peacebuilding and conflict prevention”.[xxvi] Looking at other countries in the Muslim world, namely Iran and Saudi Arabia who are greatly accused of lack of rights and inclusion for women, this promotion of equality furthers the idea of tolerance in Moroccan society.
The Kingdom of Morocco takes religious tolerance so seriously that they even went as far as to severe ties with the Islamic Republic of Iran in 2009. They believed that the embassy of Iran in Rabat was involved in activities that aimed to “alter the religious fundamentals of the kingdom”.[xxvii] This was not the first, nor the last time Morocco would sever ties with Iran over the impression that the Iranians were attempting to implant Shiite Muslim ideology into their society.[xxviii]
Fighting Poverty and Investing in the Public
Recognizing the role of poverty in terrorism, historically, has been extremely controversial. Following the events in Casablanca in 2003 however, the Moroccan government did not shy away from the idea that poverty greatly contributed to the radicalization of those involved in the attacks.[xxix] In fact, all of the terrorists in 2003 attack originated from the impoverished area of Sidi Moumen in Casablanca.[xxx] In 2005, almost 50 percent of the adult population in Morocco was illiterate, and about 20 percent of Moroccan citizens lived below the poverty line.[xxxi] These factors contributed to King Mohammed VI’s decision to launch the National Initiative for Human Development (INDH).[xxxii]
The INDH founded in May 2005, was based on the idea that societal issues like poverty and inequality greatly contribute to political instability and social divides in Morocco.[xxxiii] The INDH is based on the following three principles:
- Address the social deficit urban slum and rural communities most in need
- To encourage income-generating activities and produce jobs
- To respond to the essential needs of people in difficult situations[xxxiv]
INDH was given an initial budget of USD$1.2 billion for a term of six years.[xxxv] At the end of 2010, almost 23,000 projects under INDH had been launched, in many different fields, including, but not limited to: agriculture, small industry and artisan projects.[xxxvi]
One of the more popular components of the INDH was a housing program whose purpose was to provide affordable housing to those in need. The program aimed to build approximately 100,000 low-cost homes with assistance from the Moroccan government.[xxxvii] Again, though not done so with the sole intention of preventing radicalization, the belief was that if Moroccans living in poverty had access to affordable housing, it would, in turn, reduce the number of people who would otherwise be tempted to join a terrorist organization.[xxxviii]
The housing project was part of a larger challenge set forth by King Mohammed in 2004, named 2004-2010 Cities Without Slums.[xxxix] The program aimed to bring electricity and running water to remote villages in order to discourage poorer citizens from migrating to more urban areas, which would cause more congestion in cities.[xl] The belief was that congestion in cities only contributed to the radicalization problem so by providing the more remote villages with the basic necessities, it would prevent them from moving to urban areas. The Moroccan government realized that eradicating all of the slums in six years was a near impossible task, therefore, they settled with the idea of simply upgrading those slums that could not be eradicated.[xli]
Though it is not elucidated explicitly, the INDH directly aimed to counter violent extremism as it seeks to eliminate some of the socio-economic conditions that have been recognized as some of the key contributing factors contributing to radicalization. Looking back, it is very difficult to decisively argue whether the INDH helped prevent radicalization. Many critics of the program claim that although the project was classified as somewhat of a success, the program did not target the most vulnerable population enough, which was arguably the entire premise of the INDH.[xlii] Another important aspect of the INDH involved the attempt to eradicate social exclusion as well as increase inclusion of those people belonging disadvantaged groups. In a poll conducted by the National Observatory of Human Development (ONHD) it was discovered that many people did not feel included even after the program, and their satisfaction with local authorities did not improve either.[xliii] This is probably the area in which the INDH failed the most, as it is generally accepted by CVE experts around the world that group dynamics play a role in the radicalization process.[xliv]
Is This Strategy Effective?
Through their ‘unique’ approach, combining traditional CT/CVE techniques with the promotion of moderate Islam and fighting poverty, Morocco has established one of the more comprehensive CT strategies in the world. Though they have been successful in deterring the threat of attacks domestically, Morocco has struggled greatly in preventing its citizens from joining foreign terrorist organizations like ISIS.[xlv] Research has shown that the number of Moroccan citizens who have travelled to Syria to fight with ISIS is the highest since the 1980’s, when the first wave of Moroccan foreign fighters went to Afghanistan.[xlvi]
In 2017, the Moroccan Minister of Interior, Abdelouafi Laftit, claimed that 1631 Moroccan citizen had joined ISIS since 2012,[xlvii] making Morocco one of the largest providers of foreign fighters to ISIS.[xlviii] What is more concerning however, is the fact that in 2017 it was estimated that 265 of those who travelled to Iraq and Syria had returned home, and many more are expected to follow suit.[xlix] Moroccan policy until present day has been to immediately incarcerate any returning foreign fighters or anyone who is suspected of planning to leave; however, it is not know as to whether this further contributes to radicalization. The Moroccan government tested a program for a brief period of time where all of the radicalized persons were secluded in a specific area of the prison, so that they could not mingle with other prisoners. This was stopped soon after it was determined that having all of those radicalized persons in one area was more dangerous than allowing them to be immersed with the other prisoners.[l]
It is well known that one of the prime places for radicalization is in prison, for a wide variety of reasons. Considering the fact that Morocco, as of March 2018, does not have a comprehensive de- radicalization program, it should be a priority of the Moroccan government to establish one, as they are well aware that many of the foreign fighters are returning. One interesting observation is that some foreign fighters have noticed that they will be imprisoned upon their return and instead, they will attempt to go to more unstable regions, with weak governments who rely on the support of jihadi networks. Though this would not prove to be an immediate threat to Morocco, should many jihadists choose this path, it could end up being a problem down the road, as it would without a doubt, contribute to further radicalization and many would most likely receive more advanced training.[li]
While the Moroccan CT/CVE strategy has been praised by many, including the United States, it has also been met with harsh criticisms, and many argue that there has been a significant amount of human rights abuses as a result of their strategy. The Moroccan CT law adopted in 2003 does not define torture; consequently, this has been scrutinized by organizations including Human Rights Watch, as many of those who have been apprehended have reported being tortured during their interrogations.[lii] Many of those arrested in connection to the 2003 Casablanca bombing reported being both mentally, and physically abused.[liii] Additionally, the law allows police to interrogate suspects without having a lawyer present, further raising eyebrows about the commonality of torture with apprehended jihadis.
It is clear that the Moroccan regime takes the jihadist threat seriously, passing a comprehensive counter-terrorism/counter violent extremism law just two weeks after terror struck them on home soil. As eluded to previously, the efforts of the government have proved to be effective as there has not been a successful terrorist attack on Moroccan soil in nearly 8 years. However, the Moroccan’s have failed greatly at preventing their citizens from joining foreign terrorist organizations. Consequently, this raises significant question about the success in the promotion of moderate Islam within the country. Though it is not expected to prevent all radicalization in the country, the fact remains that over 1600 Moroccans have joined ISIS even with all of the investment into promoting moderate Maliki Islam.
One of the more glaring issues in Morocco CT/CVE policy is that is has not truly been amended in almost a decade. The fact that the foreign fighter phenomenon has only truly been an issue in the past 6 years means that the strategy is not necessarily properly equipped to deter the threat of the foreign fighter phenomenon. The Moroccan regime would be wise to draft a new CT/CVE policy, taking the aspects that have worked in the past 15 years and exploring new ways to combat issues like returning foreign fighters. The variant in threats from jihadi terrorism has evolved immensely over the past 15 years; consequently, the Moroccan strategy to counter this threat should adjust accordingly. There is no cookie cutter strategy to preventing radicalization in a country, and in most cases, every individual may require a different approach. Though achieving a perfect CVE strategy is a seemingly impossible task, Morocco could invest in research into what could make their current strategy more effective.
In all, Morocco’s strategy consisting of promoting moderate Maliki Islam, investing in its population to fight poverty in the hopes of countering radicalization, paired with other traditional CT/CVE techniques has earned well deserved praise on the international stage. In 2016, then Secretary of State, John Kerry praised the kingdom for their dedication to the security of the region and discussed the United States’ “appreciation for Morocco’s leadership in countering violent extremism”.[liv] Only time will tell how effective the current strategy will be in deterring the threat of returning foreign fighters and Morocco would be wise in being proactive by exploring different ways in which they could better deal with returning foreign fighters rather than simply placing them in prison. Though their strategy has been successful in preventing attacks on home soil, with terrorism, all it takes is one successful attack to change the narrative on the CT strategy’s success. Morocco must continue to remain vigilant with regards to the terrorist threat, both domestically and internationally. Additionally, they should continue to amend their CT/CVE strategy periodically in order to counter the evolving threat.
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Dalzell, Stephen R. “Beyond Draining the Swamp: Urban Development and Counterterrorism in Morocco”. Joint Special Operations University. Report 6-9. October 2006.
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Kingdom of Morocco, ‘Official Bulletin: no.5112’ May 29, 2003.
Kingdom of Morocco. “INDH”. Ministry of Culture and Communication. Nd.
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[i] Dalzell, Stephen R. “Beyond Draining the Swamp: Urban Development and Counterterrorism in Morocco”. October 2006.
[ii] Kingdom of Morocco, ‘Official Bulletin: no.5112’ May 29, 2003.
[iii] Neefjes, Ricardo. “Counterterrorism Policy in Morocco”. Utrecht University. June 20, 2016.
[iv] Human Rights Watch, ‘Morocco: Human Rights at a Crossroad’, 16 (2004) 6.
[v] Masbah, Mohammed. “The Limits of Morocco’s Attempt to Comprehensively Counter Violent Extremism”. May 2018.
[vii] Maghraoui, Driss. “The Strengths and Limits of Religious Reform in Morocco”. July 14, 2009.
[viii] King Mohammed VI. “Speech on the Occasion of the 63rd Anniversary of the Revolution of the King and the People”. August 20, 2016.
[ix] Maghraoui, 2009.
[xiii] Neefjes, 2016.
[xiv] Guerraoui, Saad. "Morocco's Anti-Terror Chief Highlights 'Multidimensional Strategy'." December 18, 2016.
[xv] France24. “Morocco’s anti-Jihadist Strategy”. March 25, 2016.
[xvi] El-Katri, M., ‘The Institutionalization of Religious Affairs: Religious Reform in Morocco’. 2013.
[xvii] France24, 2016.
[xviii] North Africa Post, ‘Morocco Showcases Anti-Terrorism Strategy at European Parliament’ December 9, 2016
[xix] El-Katri, 2016.
[xx] Kalpakian, J., ‘Current Moroccan Anti-Terrorism Policy (ARI)’. May 13, 2011.
[xxiv] Maghraoui, 2009.
[xxv] Masbah, 2018.
[xxvi] Abi Nader, Jean. “Countering Violent Extremism: The Moroccan Way”. August 13, 2014.
[xxvii] Maghraoui, 2009.
[xxix] Masbah, 2018.
[xxxi] Malka, H, & J.B. Alterman, ‘Arab Reform and Foreign Aid – Lessons from Morocco’. 2006.
[xxxii] Masbah, 2018.
[xxxiv] Kingdom of Morocco. “INDH”. Ministry of Culture and Communication. Nd
[xxxv] Kalpakian, 2011.
[xxxvi] Abi Nader, 2014.
[xxxvii] Kalpakian, 2011.
[xxxix] Chebatoris, Matthew. “Morocco’s Multi-Pronged Counterterrorism Strategy”. May 18, 2009.
[xli] Baverel, A, ‘Best Practises in Slum Improvement: the Case of Casablanca’. 2008
[xlii] Neefjes, 2016.
[xlv] Chapin, Ellen. “Beyond the Caliphate: Islamic State Activity Outside the Group’s Defined Wilayat: Morocco”. 2018
[xlvii] Igrouane, Youssef. “1631 Moroccans Have Joined ISIS since 2012: Minister of Interior”. May 13, 2017.
[xlviii] France24, 2016.
[l] Masbah, 2018.
[li] Watanabe, Lisa. “The Next Steps of North Africa’s Foreign Fighters and Returnees”. March 9, 2018.
[lii] Neefjes, 2016.
[liii] Human Rights Watch, ‘Morocco: Human Rights at a Crossroad’, 16 (2004) 6.
[liv] Moroccan American Center for Policy, ‘Morocco Plays Central Role in Global Counterterrorism Forum’s Newest Initiatives’. November 24, 2014.