How Morocco is helping counter terrorism in Europe

Moroccan intelligence services are playing a central role in Europe’s efforts to counter ISIS terrorism. Despite a sharp increase in the number of terrorist attacks in the Maghreb region between 2011 and 2014, Morocco has remained largely immune, with only one attack occurring in April 2011. This is despite the region being a hotbed of instability and violence.

Since 2002, Morocco’s intelligence services have thwarted 341 terrorist attacks and dismantled 167 terrorist cells.[i] The success of Morocco’s intelligence services has not been limited to preventing attacks within its own borders, but includes assisting other European countries’ counterterrorism operations. Due to the increased threat from terrorism in recent years, as well as the cross-border nature of the threat, European countries have increasingly turned to Morocco for assistance. As a result, the North African nation has become a key player in the global fight against terrorism.

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Morocco’s intelligence apparatus has increased its collaboration with its European counterparts in recent years. Closer intelligence cooperation has proved effective in identifying terrorist cells and thwarting potential attacks. Moroccan security services have been extremely proactive and efficient in sharing information on suspected jihadists and in tracing the authors of attacks.

Paris attacker Abdelhamid Abaaoud, an ethnic Moroccan

Moroccan intelligence provided crucial information that led to the localisation of the suspected ringleader in the Paris attacks, Abdelhamid Abaaoud. While French authorities had been tapping the phone of a Moroccan born national, Hasna Aït Boulahcen, as part of a drugs investigation, they were unaware that Boulahcen was the cousin of Abaaoud, a fact that would only become known with the involvement of Moroccan intelligence services.[ii] Following his capture, French President Francois Hollande publicly thanked the King of Morocco for the vital information provided in the hunt for Abaaoud.

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Alongside a powerful intelligence agency, national police force and paramilitary police, the country created the Central Bureau of Judicial Investigations (Morocco’s version of the FBI). The involvement of second and third generation Morocco nationals in the major terror attacks in Spain, Paris and Brussels has contributed to increased surveillance measures in European countries on the part of the Moroccan security services. Responding to this threat, Abdelhak Khiame, head of the Central Bureau of Judicial Investigations, announced that the Moroccan government was working on a plan to monitor and track radicalised Moroccan born individuals in European countries.[iii]

This will involve establishing offices in partner countries, further deepening existing collaboration with Europe. According to Issandr El Amrani, North Africa project director at the International Crisis Group, the large Moroccan diaspora in European countries means that ‘Moroccan intelligence services are more successful in infiltrating these communities than Western services’.[iv]

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In part due to its proximity to Morocco and its two enclaves in Moroccan territory, Spain has benefited from a closer partnership with Morocco on counterterrorism. Moroccan and Spanish intelligence services have led a series of joint operations to dismantle international terrorist cells and arrest jihadists prior to possible attacks. A joint Spanish-Moroccan operation in 2014 resulted in the arrest of 9 suspected jihadists linked to ISIS and other extremist organisations.[v]

In 2017, Spanish interior minister Juan Ignacio Zoido described Morocco as ‘Spain’s best partner’ in the fight against global terrorism.[vi] In a statement to the Spanish news agency EFE, Juan Ignacio Zoido said that ‘Morocco [had] helped Spain arrest 178 dangerous individuals and cooperated in the dismantlement of 10 terrorist cells.’[vii]

Despite these successes, not all of the intelligence shared by the Moroccan security services has been acted upon by Morocco’s European allies. In 2015, the Moroccan government revealed that it had twice warned Germany’s federal intelligence service (the BND) about the risk posed by ethnic Tunisian Anis Amri, who went on to kill 12 civilians in a terrorist attack at a Christmas market in Berlin.

Amri’s extremist leanings were cited, including an alleged meeting between Amri and two followers of ISIS described as “dangerous”.[viii] Moroccan officials also allegedly named some of his contacts, but apparently none of them were in Germany.[ix]

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References

[i] Youssef Igrouane, “Morocco Thwarted 341 Terrorist Attacks in 14 Years,” Morocco World News, December 25, 2015,  https://www.moroccoworldnews.com/2016/12/204445/morocco-thwarted-341-terrorist-attacks-14-years/

[ii] Ann Marie Wainscott, Bureaucratizing Islam: Morocco and the War on Terror, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 2017)

[iii] Voice of America, “AP Interview: Morocco to Expand Counterterror Efforts Abroad,” Associated Press, https://www.voanews.com/a/ap-interview-morocco-to-expand-counterterror-efforts-abroad/4036984.html

[iv] Mail Online, “Morocco plays key role in Europe’s security, but has jitters,” Associated Press, December 30, 2015, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/wires/ap/article-3378911/Morocco-plays-key-role-Europes-security-jitters.html

[v] New York Post, “Spain, Morocco arrest 9 in ISIS terror cell,” Associated Press, September 26, 2104, https://nypost.com/2014/09/26/spain-morocco-arrest-9-in-isis-terror-cell/

[vi] The North Africa Post, “Intelligence Failure to Blame for Catalonia Terrorist Attack,” August 25, 2017, http://northafricapost.com/19505-intelligence-failure-blame-catalonia-terrorist-attack.html

[vii] The North Africa Post, “Intelligence Failure to Blame for Catalonia Terrorist Attack,”

[viii] Morocco World News, “Moroccan Official: Germany Was Informed About Tunisian Suspect Before the Attack,” December 2, 2016, https://www.moroccoworldnews.com/2016/12/204265/moroccan-intelligence-services-informed-germany-about-tunisian-suspect/

[ix] Spiegel Online, “Why Did Germany Fail to Stop Terrorist?” January 5, 2017, http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/germany-knew-terrorist-was-dangerous-but-failed-to-stop-him-a-1128423-2.html

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