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As UN Climate Change Conference in Marrakech Approaches, What is the State of Morocco’s National Security?

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An official of the Central Bureau of Judicial Investigation shows confiscated weapons, after Morocco’s counter-terrorism unit announced the dismantling of a militant cell based in Essaouira, in contact with the Islamic State group, in Sale, Morocco, 14 September 2015. Photo Paul Schemm

Morocco has engaged in a multifaceted strategy to counter terrorism on its own soil, and increased its security collaboration and intelligence sharing with Western governments in the wake of last year’s terrorist attacks in France.

The strategy is based on effective cooperation between the Directorate General for Territorial Surveillance and the National Brigade of the Judicial Police to trace and map terrorist networks. In parallel, the Directorate of Studies and Documentation (DGED), Morocco’s external intelligence agency, tracks potential jihadist fighters and their activities on foreign battlefields.

These measures are motivated by the significant number of Moroccans who have joined the Islamic State (IS) since 2014. In June 2014, some 1,193 Moroccans were reportedly fighting in Syria and Iraq, according to the general director of the DGED, Mohamed Yassine El Mansouri. In April 2015, a report by the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Committee revealed that the largest foreign contingents of Jihadists in Iraq and Syria were Moroccans and Tunisians.

A key component of IS’s appeal is economic. A jihadist earns, on average, $1,400 per month – a substantial sum for young men, often from poor families, who are unemployed or earn around $150 a month doing odd jobs at home. Given that many Moroccan jihadists have only a primary-level education, and only 10% hold a university degree, opportunities for economic advancement at home seem limited. Of course, there are also personal reasons, though religion seems to be secondary to visions of adventure and bravery in battle. Whether it is to become a ‘hero’ or to make money, an average of 30 Moroccans have joined IS each month since the Syrian civil war began in 2011.

Aware of these ‘pull factors’, and no doubt concerned about security at the forthcoming UN climate change conference, scheduled to take place from 7-18 November in Marrakech, the authorities have stepped up their counter-terrorism efforts. These have borne some fruit. For example, over the past several months, the number of Moroccan jihadists in the Levant has started to decline, and the number of new jihadists joining them has dropped considerably. According to the Moroccan North Observatory of Human Rights, only 16 fighters travelled to Syria and Iraq in the first six months of 2016. However, this drop could also be attributed to IS’s loss of territory in Syria and Iraq, following US-led airstrikes.

The question that arises at this juncture is: what is the state of security today in Morocco? An initial answer would be that the country is still vulnerable for a number of reasons. According to recent reports, Moroccan jihadists are continuing to join IS in Libya and are increasing communication and coordination with sympathizers back home. In July alone, 143 people were investigated for possible involvement in terrorist activities and, of those, 52 were arrested. Moroccan authorities have also uncovered a growing number of cells claiming ties with IS.

As journalist Morgan Winsor notes, “Morocco’s rippled sand dunes, sheltered coves and white sand beaches have long lured tourists looking for a taste of the Maghreb without compromising security. The narrow country, which borders the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, has been hailed for years as a success story in the Arab world and the last safe haven in North Africa. But a surge in Islamic State group supporters is threatening that stability.”

The main danger lies in IS’s recruitment tactics. Despite strict government censorship, local mosques have mobilized young people and are exploiting their socioeconomic grievances to indoctrinate them, say analysts.

The other main threat to Morocco’s security is the returning jihadists, who constitute a permanent source of radicalization. Having been exposed to intense propaganda, they will seek to continue their jihad in one way or another.

In November 2013, Minister of Justice Mustafa Ramid stated that, “[Morocco] will not be safe even if only a hundred out of the hundreds of men who left to fight in Syria return.”

Returnees take various forms. For example, several media reports say that Dutch authorities have established a list of 250 dual nationals fighting with IS, of whom 200 are said to be of Moroccan origin. Following a vote in the Dutch parliament last May that will see dual nationals stripped of their Dutch citizenship if they join terrorist groups, these fighters are likely to head to Morocco or be deported to Morocco from the Netherlands. Other jihadists are returning following the substantial weakening of IS in Syria and Iraq. Still other ‘repentants’ are returning from Libya and Europe. They all constitute a threat to Morocco, one that demands increased vigilance as well as structural reform to the country’s educational and religious domains if terrorism is to be defeated.