MAX Analysis Morocco: Threat of regional militancy and local jihadist presence in Syria, Iraq likely to require bolstered security measures August 24, 2014

Current Situation

Over the past weeks, borange alert oth Moroccan and foreign authorities have increasingly warned of an uptick in militant threats, starting from the announcement of a state of high alert by the Moroccan Interior Ministry on July 9, reportedly in response to the militant threat presented by the Islamic State (IS) against Morocco. As of July 2014, Morocco’s national intelligence agency reportedly estimates that there are about 1,500 Moroccan nationals operating in Iraq and Syria. Of these, an estimated 30 percent are former convicts who served time under anti-terrorism laws.
  • The July 9 decree included an order to regional governors to heighten security measures within their jurisdictions, an expanded security presence at vital installations throughout the country, and the launching of a public relations campaign to warn Moroccans against the potential security threat. Also on July 9, Morocco heightened its security protocols at its international airports following a recommendation from the American government.
  • Additionally, on July 18, an “orange alert” was declared for all American-owned restaurants operating in Morocco in anticipation of a possible militant attack. On July 21, the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) updated its travel advice for Morocco, warning of an “increased threat of terrorism.” The FCO cited Moroccan authorities’ warnings of an increased threat connected to Moroccan national militants operating in Syria and Iraq. 

  • Most recently, on August 15, anti-aircraft batteries were reportedly deployed in Casablanca’s el-Hank district along with tanks, and at military outposts. Following the initial reports, similar deployments were noted in Marrakech’s airport, Tangiers, Mohammedia, Ouarzazate, Oujda, Laayoune, and Dakhla, as well as several critical infrastructure sites in the country including water dams and major mines. This includes the port of Jorf Lasfar, and a water dam near Nora. Additionally, reports indicate that the military has been placed on high alert and that reinforcements were deployed along the border with Algeria.
  • Several militants cells have additionally been dismantled other the past months. On August 10, security forces reportedly dismantled an Islamic State (IS)-linked militant cell at the Toulal Prison in Meknes. Moroccan security forces reportedly claimed that the militants had been in contact with members of IS through the internet.
  • Prior to this, Moroccan security forces reportedly arrested a French citizen in Tangier on July 28, on charges of links to al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliated organization active in Syria, and Ansar al-Sharia in Libya, as well as recruiting and financing for these organizations.
  • On July 23, a militant cell was reportedly arrested in Fez on charges of armed robbery. The Interior Ministry was reported to have said that the members of the five-man cell were Salafists, and were engaged in criminal activities to finance their militant operations.
  • Meanwhile, on July 15, Morocco’s Interior Minister confirmed in parliament the construction of a 70-km electronically monitored chain link fence along the border with Algeria to protect against militant threats emanating from Algeria and the Sahel region. The fence will cover strategic routes used by smugglers operating between the two countries, stretching southward from Saidia.
  • Meanwhile, on August 7, the US and Morocco signed an agreement to strengthen cooperation in the fight against Islamist militancy, focused on new training programs for counter-terrorism specialists.
Assessments: Return of jihadists from Syria along with government crackdown on jihadist recruitment cells may legitimize attacks against Moroccan government, security forces
  1. The reported presence of about 1,500 Moroccan nationals in militant groups active in Iraq and Syria highlights a serious security concern for the Kingdom. The Kingdom has been used by militants as a recruitment and financial platform; however jihadists had not expressed any intention to stage a prolonged insurgency and militancy campaign in the country. We assess the effective return of Moroccan nationals fighting in Syria and the likely potential that they will pursue jihadist activities in the country would change such militant strategy, leading Morocco to increasingly be seen as a land of “jihad” rather than a recruitment base. The return of such fighters is further reflected in the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s July 21 warning, which stated that “The Moroccan authorities have warned of an increased threat linked to the number of Moroccans belonging to international terrorist organisations operating in Syria and Iraq.” The threat described in the FCO warning indicates that those Moroccans operating abroad are likely to return home with significant combat experience, with the ideological goal of overthrowing the government.
  2. As a result of such concerns, Morocco has increasingly cracked down on jihadist recruitment cells in the country, arresting such networks in various cities, on several occasions in cooperation with European services sharing  similar concerns, particularly Spanish authorities. While this policy may dissuade some young Moroccans from joining militant groups abroad, it may also lead others to believe the state is repressive towards Islamists. Paradoxically, the Moroccan government crackdown on the cells may contribute to shift militants’ focus and give further legitimacy to the staging of attacks not only against Western targets, as was seen before, but also against the Moroccan government itself. This was highlighted during the dismantling of a jihadist cell in December 2013, as one member confessed to have produced a remote-controlled bomb for future attacks. The militants were coming back from Syria.
  3. The threat of returning Moroccan jihadists was underlined by Justice Minister Mustapha Ramid in 2013, who stated, “Our country will not be safe even if only a hundred out of the hundreds of men who left to fight in Syria return.” With this in mind, Morocco has begun arresting jihadist fighters upon their return from foreign war zones, while thus far the government has refrained from banning travel to Syria. Moroccan intelligence services are likely to increase the monitoring of such fighters upon their arrival and further cooperate with regional and international agencies as means to coordinate and cross check their information. While such monitoring and sporadic arrests and interrogations may contain the threat coming from a small number of jihadists returning to the country, the return of a high number of Moroccans may force the government to take general measures and automatically arrests these fighters upon their arrival. As mentioned, while curbing the immediate threat of attacks, such measures in the long-term may also in turn heighten the legitimacy for attacks against the state.
  4. Furthermore, Morocco is taking increasing measures to curb the threat of radical Islam, as highlighted by a July 9 decree banning imams from political activity, and by a 2013 agreement with Mali in which Morocco trained 500 imams in advocating more moderate Islam. In this context, Morocco will likely continue and expand these efforts to push a moderate form of Islam in its mosques in order to limit the growth of the jihadist recruitment pool, an assessment reflected by the June 2014 inauguration of “a religious support program” involving the dispatching of 1,300 Rabat-trained imams to instruct preachers at some 50,000 mosques nationwide.
Assessment: Uptick in regional presence of criminal, smuggling networks likely to represent main challenge to containment of jihadist threat
  1. The Moroccan Kingdom has remained relatively immune to the growing destabilization of the region, despite an uptick in militant activity in Mali, Tunisia, and Libya and to a lesser extent Algeria. This is highlighted by the absence of a major attack against Morocco since the 2011 Marrakech bombing at a popular tourist cafe. That said, given the aforementioned return of Moroccan fighters, the security apparatus likely was concerned that the Kingdom would not be able to maintain such relative calm without significantly bolstering its deployments, particularly at the border.
  2. While Morocco may have the ability to monitor fighters directly returning from Syria to the Kingdom, the ability of smugglers to bypass border checks likely prompts concerns that porous regional borders may facilitate the passage of such jihadists. Criminal networks are highly active across the region, with Morocco seen as a major hub for the smuggling of drugs and migrants to Europe, and due to its own production of drugs particularly in the Rif Mountains, the mountainous area south of Tangier. Additionally, oil smugglers are known to be active and sell oil from Algeria on the Moroccan market on a daily basis, due to the difference in price between the two countries. While Morocco has been attempting to curb such trends for years, the increasing coupling of criminal and militant activity in the region, along with the aforementioned threat coming from experienced fighters returning to Morocco, likely explains heightened security concerns.
  3. In the context of increasing regional militant activity, Morocco is likely to continue taking steps in order to secure its land borders and other entry points against militant groups operating in North Africa. This is further highlighted by reports that Morocco decided to deploy reinforcements and build a fence at the border with Algeria. The country may also view the dismantling of criminal networks as increasingly critical to its security, while such dismantling may further alienate part of the population that depends on such activities, including in border areas and disadvantaged neighborhoods of the country. The crackdown will likely include the bolstering of the existing Financial Intelligence Handling Unit (UTRF), while also monitoring places of radicalization where criminals may be recruited by militant cells. This is particularly the case in prisons. The high rate of Moroccan jihadists in Syria and Iraq that were formerly convicts reflects a failure of the Moroccan state to limit radicalization inside prisons, and to reintegrate prisoners into society upon their release.   
  4. Overall the return of militants from Syria will likely encourage the Moroccan Kingdom to implement a more global counter militancy policy that includes coordination between various Moroccan agencies dealing with different types of crimes, as well as cooperation between regional and international actors that are monitoring similar issues. Concerns that Morocco’s smuggling networks to Europe may be used by militants to stage attacks has and likely will continue to facilitate such coordination.
  5. On the other hand the dispute between Morocco and Algeria likely hinder such coordination on a regional level. While the scope of the threat and shared interests in curbing it may prompt a reconciliation or de facto collaboration, thus far the two countries have acted as rivals to be depicted as the main partner for either Europe or the US in their counter-militancy efforts. Should this rivalry continue and expand, which is likely given the persistent dispute over Western Sahara, the lack of trust and absence of coordination may limit Morocco’s ability to prevent militants from entering its territory. That said, advanced intelligence capabilities along with a general international interest in supporting Morocco due to its proximity with Europe, may continue to prevent potential militant attempts to execute attacks against the Kingdom.  
Assessment: Jihadist recruiting in Sahrawi refugee camps may prompt militant activity in Western Sahara, Morocco proper
  1. Meanwhile, over the coming months and years, Sahrawi refugee camps in Algeria and Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara may become a popular site for militant recruiting and activity, highlighted by the reported participation of dozens of Sahrawis in the 2013 Islamist campaign in northern Mali. Resentment among the Sahrawi people amidst a lack of progress on independence, squalid conditions in refugee camps, and continuous Moroccan stalling on a popular referendum since 1991 may be leveraged by Islamist groups to drive recruitment.  In turn, the latent unrest among the local Western Sahara population along with the increasing jihadist recruitment among refugees in Algeria may bolster militant capacities in Morocco.
  2. In this context, while funds received due to recent oil exploration in Western Sahara, highlighted by a Moroccan agreement with an American oil company in June 2013, may allow Rabat to implement some socioeconomic improvements in Western Sahara to prevent the spread of extremism stemming from perceptions of Sahrawi marginalization, significant steps towards autonomy for Sahrawis remain unlikely. As a result, such projects specifically may both dissuade the Moroccan government from making any compromise on its control over Western Sahara for the foreseeable future, as well as serve as targets for future attacks over the coming months and years.
  3. With this in mind, in the coming years, perceived Western complicity with the Moroccan government, including the exploitation of Western Sahara’s natural resources, suggests the possibility of Western firms being targeted. Infrastructure for oil exploration and phosphate mining may thus be vulnerable to attacks similar to those perpetrated against Egypt’s natural gas pipelines in the Sinai Peninsula. These Western-owned industrial sites may be targeted as they provide the Moroccan government with both significant funding and reason to maintain their presence in Western Sahara. Moreover, attacks on Western firms would likely turn international media attention to the Sahrawi cause and further heightened the jihadists’ recruitment ability in the Sahrawi camps in southwestern Algeria.
  4. Such attacks remain possible in the context of equipment and experience possessed by the Sahrawi People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), the armed wing of the Sahrawi national liberation movement, following 16 years of war with Morocco. With this in mind, such an attack would likely be executed by frustrated or disenfranchised SPLA members within the medium term, given growing foreign investment in natural resource extraction in Western Sahara.
  5. Moreover, the lack of cooperation between Morocco and Algeria, which disputes Morocco’s perceived occupation of Western Sahara, is likely to make it more difficult for Morocco to prevent jihadist recruitment among Sahrawi refugees, many of whom live in camps in Algeria’s Tindouf region. While Algeria is taking steps to combat al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s (AQIM) presence in its territory, the insufficient cooperation between the two countries hampers efforts to create a coherent security plan for the region, and prevents an adequate exchange of information regarding a militant presence amid Sahrawi refugee camps, and smuggling operations between the borders that fund such militant elements. 
  6. That being said, the threat of such incidents however is likely already being monitored by Moroccan security forces, with reports that the security apparatus remains heavily deployed in the Morocco-administered part of Western Sahara, while the existence of a large fence and significant amount of mines along the border with the Polisario-controlled areas of the region as well as the border with Algeria and Mauritania may further help contain the threat.