Inside Morocco’s Counter-Terror Success

Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca

Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca

By Ben Tannenbaum

Photograph of Hassan II Mosque courtesy of Africa Geographic

For most casual observers, Morocco likely recalls images of fez caps, couscous, or the movie Casablanca. Counter-terror campaigns do not immediately come to mind. Yet given its precarious geopolitical location, today Morocco stands on high terrorism alert. Morocco risks repercussions from destabilizing events in both North Africa and more central portions of the Middle East. Close to home, Morocco’s neighbors in Algeria, Mali, and Mauritania have all battled extremist insurgencies. Yet Morocco also faces the consequences of events further afield, as demonstrated in 2011 when the Arab Spring shook the country’s political establishment and led to a new constitution. Despite its dangers, however, Moroccan authorities have navigated the recent turmoil rather skillfully. Morocco has matched military muscle with attempts to address the root causes of extremism, leading to its counter-terror success.

The military serves as a key component of Moroccan policy. Morocco has a relatively robust security force. Defense spending makes up 3.55% of the nation’s GDP- good for 14th in the world and just ahead of Singapore and Russia. The Moroccan military has worked hand in hand with the United States. This American alliance assists Morocco with cyber-technology and border security. Morocco has also cooperated closely with the French initiative against extremists in Mali. Additionally, last year Morocco’s armed forces implemented an assertive terror-prevention plan known as Operation Hadar. During Hadar, the security force increased its presence in Morocco’s major cities and helped ward off extremist threats. Morocco’s muscular military maneuvers have played a key role in combating terrorism.

More creatively, the Moroccan government has sought to use religious and social policies to co-opt extremist ideology. King Mohammed VI appointed a council of religious scholars known as the Rabita in order to refute radical versions of Islam. While difficult to objectively measure the Rabita’s impact, other countries have sought to emulate the model. By the same token, Moroccan authorities have cracked down on imams that preach extremism. King Mohammed has also sought to use progressive economic policies to strike at the roots of extremist enrollment. He launched an “anti-slum” campaign in order to wipe out extreme poverty from urban areas that served as hotbeds for terrorist recruitment. The government has also promoted agricultural reform in the nation’s rural regions. Such programs have made strides in addressing the grievances that drive people towards terrorism. This far-reaching strategy can prevent the military successes from becoming an ephemeral desert mirage. By countering extremist ideology and reforming the economy, Morocco has sought to strike at the root causes of terrorism.

Despite its achievements, however, Moroccan counter-terror policy still faces substantive challenges going forward. Morocco’s involvement in Western Sahara remains a source of unrest. Tensions in this disputed territory could strain Moroccan cooperation with the United States. Additionally, 1,000 Moroccans currently serve with the Islamic State, posing a potential risk upon their return. Nevertheless, King Mohammed VI has admirably sought to solve the social problems that help fuel extremism. Perhaps the Moroccan model can serve as a counter-terror gameplan for other nations in the region.

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