Terrorism in Morocco: a security concern for Spain

Terrorism in Morocco: a security concern for Spain


The terrorist attacks last May 16 in Casablanca force Spain to pay a greater attention to the state of Morocco’s internal affairs. Eventual instability in Morocco would affect Spain, given the importance of Spanish interests there, of their common sea and land borders and of the nature of the recurrent problems between the two countries. Following is an analysis of how Spanish interests would be affected if the recent attacks eventually led to instability in the Kingdom of Morocco.


On May 16 of last year, the Moroccan government received an unexpected warning and several myths were disproved: first, that Morocco was immune to Islamic terrorism because the country’s king is also its religious leader; and that the Jewish community that has lived in exemplary fashion with Islam for fourteen centuries remains secure. A few inevitable questions must be addressed: Is this an isolated event or a new development on the Moroccan political scene? Is the attack against Spanish interests a reprisal for the Spanish government’s support of the war on Iraq? Is it Spain’s turn simply because terrorism always has its victims? Or is it both things at once?


First, the facts. On 16 May, 41 people, among them four Spaniards, lost their lives in five almost simultaneous terrorist attacks against Spanish interests and Jewish establishments in Casablanca. The fact that the Casa de España in Casablanca was among the terrorist targets has led to suspicion that Spain is now a target of this brand of terrorism because of the support given by the Spanish government and its Prime Minister to the war on Iraq –a consideration that should be given its due–.

Although there were no Jews among the victims, it is not widely known that there were 40 Israelis of Moroccan origin at the Hotel Farah at the time of the attacks. As has been traditional for more than a century, they had come to Morocco to gather on May 19 with almost another thousand Jews from around the world, also of Moroccan origin, at the hallula or pilgrimage to the tomb of rabbi Amran Ben Diwan, who lived and died in Morocco in the 18th century.

Jewish presence in Morocco dates back to 535 BC. Jewish culture there goes back to the origins of Western culture and the result is a mix of ancestral Jewish traditions with Berber, Arab and Sephardic influences, the latter brought by Jews expelled from Spain in the 15th century.

Compared with the 350,000 Jews who lived in Morocco at the start of the 20th century, only 5,000 remain today, though their influence on the cultural and economic life of the kingdom is far greater than their number would suggest. The Israeli government took the Casablanca attacks seriously and the Israeli Minister for Integration offered the Moroccan Jews expatriation to Israel. If they did so, a bimillenial culture would be extinguished.

The origins of terrorism
The relative sophistication of the methods used by the terrorists is not in line with the ‘amateurism’ of the poor, disinherited youths of the shanty towns of Sidi Mumem, as the press has described them. Nor does this description match the scale of the overall operation: thanks to the interrogation of the captured terrorist, police recovered explosives that were to be used later at the Twin Center, Casablanca’s equivalent of the World Trade Center, built only a few years ago by the Spanish architect Ricardo Bofill and now a luxury shopping and leisure centre for the economic capital of the kingdom. On a Moroccan scale, the Casablanca attacks respond to the strategy of this new kind of terrorism, which seems to consider the targets themselves of secondary importance, giving priority to their being poorly defended and, above all, to the opportunity to cause the greatest possible number of victims and damage.

The ferocity of the attacks, unknown until now in Morocco, brought them powerfully and brusquely to the attention of our neighbouring country. The attacks demonstrated the fragility of the supposed ‘Moroccan exception’, according to which, a country governed in the strictest Islamic tradition by a king like Mohamed VI, who both reigns and governs and is Emir al Muminim (religious leader) and descendant of the prophet, is therefore protected against the ravages of religiously motivated terrorism.

Hassan II had a very peculiar relationship with Moroccan fundamentalism. In the ‘leaden years’ of his reign he used it against the nationalist/democratic movement that aspired to modernize institutions and political life. He always repressed it with a heavy hand, as the great trials of Kenitra (1973) and Casablanca (1979) bear witness. After this period, Islamist power was severely curtailed.

The Sahara conflict of 1975 reconciled Hassan II with the nationalists, but the King always had an ambiguous relationship with fundamentalists as a counterweight against nationalists. His strategy was simple: repress them to the point of physical elimination if they broke the rules of the game he himself had established and, as Emir al Muminim, fight the ‘prêt à porter’ theologies that these already violent preachers and emirs were starting to import, first from Egypt and then later from Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Whatever the case, radical fundamentalism, which I prefer to call Islamism –understood as the use of a reinterpreted religion to take power and restructure society– developed in Morocco under Hassan II.

Professor Mohamed Tozy has indicated that along with the ‘politically correct’ Islamization that the regime itself encouraged, another angry and violent Islam with simplistic slogans began to spread, finding fertile soil in poverty, the lack of democracy and freedom, administrative corruption and the abuse of power at all levels.

In the eighties, Tozy was already making reference to hundreds of clandestine mosques that were cropping up throughout the country, recruiting and training new preachers who proposed an Islam obsessed with Western progress. Their preachers lacked the intellectual stature of, among others, the Jamal Eddin Al Afgani, Rachid Reda, who in the 18th century asked why the Muslim world had stagnated while the West progressed, proposing a reinterpretation of doctrine to create a modern Islam that would enable progress. All that remains to modern Islamism of that intellectual activity is a banalization of the West, which is considered irremediable, godless, immoral, corrupt, greedy for riches and pleasures and secular.

Mohamed VI came to the throne in 1999 with the apparently good intention of ‘governing in a different way’ and putting Morocco on the road to real democracy. However, two years into his reign he had to put aside his projects under simultaneous pressure from the gathering forces of Islamism and a conservative, traditional class that saw democracy as an adventure they did not want to embark on. The flagship of his attempts at democratization, the reform of the conservative Family Code that legitimized what women consider to be the greatest abuse they suffer in Muslim societies –polygamy and the right of the husband to repudiate his spouse– is now dry-docked in a commission, which in Moroccan metalanguage means deferred to the ‘Greek calends’, ie, until never.

Lacking the capacity or the will to be a repressor, nor endowed with his father’s intellectual brilliance or international recognition, unable to solidify democracy, and having dismantled the Ministry of the Interior that had been so useful to his father, as a result of the terrorist attacks in Casablanca Mohamed VI finds himself pushed even further into the arms of military security services that, like those in Algeria, succumb to the temptation to eradicate. The only positive side of the attacks is that the Moroccan parliament very quickly and unanimously passed the anti-terrorist legislation that the government had rejected weeks before.

Under the reign of Mohamed VI, Islamism, both of the violent, radical kind and the kind considered moderate, has become more visible, has strengthened and, at the same time, has become more complicated. The Islamisms of Iran and Saudi Arabia have successfully penetrated into Morocco. Numerous Moroccan groups have adopted Saudi wahabism although it is true that they have been stimulated by generous financial donations. Shiism has also found a doctrinal niche in the monolithic Moroccan Malachite rite, in this case encouraged by the influence of the Iranian revolution, which today appears to propose an Islam more acceptable, more modern and more political than the Saudi version.

The ‘doctrinal’ situation is so confused that the Moroccan government dismissed its Minister of Habus (religion) for having let this happen, affirming that ‘the spiritual security of the Kingdom is in danger’. Some analysts have even claimed that the incidents with Spain in the summer of 2002 surrounding the Islet of Perejil were really meant as a diversion from the danger of Islamism.

The ‘wahabized’ Moroccan fundamentalist groups adopted Saudi positions as well as those of al-Qaeda and Bin Laden. The ‘moderates’ set out to repress what they consider attacks on Islamic morals –consumption of alcohol, mixed sex schools, sports centres and swimming pools, along with beauty contests– and in poor neighbourhoods they imposed the veil on women by force, as well as pressuring men to attend prayer and Friday sermons. The most violent of them took Bin Laden’s lead and created paramilitary organizations and training camps like the one in Rabat’s Maamora Forest, which came to light at the trial against them, and tried to carry out suicide attacks against NATO ships passing through the Strait of Gibraltar. Leaders and preachers of the two organizations implicated, Salafiha Yihadia and Takfir ual Hijra (Anathema and Retreat) have also been –and continue to be– judged for violent crimes against persons.

Pressure from ‘moderate’ Islamism led to the censoring of filmmaker Nabyl Ayuch’s latest film, which included a brief nude scene. Ayuch was accused by Mustafá Ramid, one of the top leaders of the Justice and Development Party (PJD) of ‘attacking Islamic values’ and, more insidiously, of being part of a ‘Francophone and Zionist fifth column’.

Much more disproportionate, perhaps, was the so-called ‘Satanist’ trial held under Islamist pressure in April of last year. Fourteen youths who belonged to a hard rock group they had decided to call ‘Satanic’ were accused by the State prosecutor of ‘attacking the Muslim faith’ because of the tight trousers and T-shirts with the image of the devil that they wore at their performances.

Some of the organizations that rose in defence of these youths reported that during his cross-examinations, the prosecutor asked them if they knew how to pray and reproached them for singing in English, while the Moroccan Human Rights Organization reported the sexual aggressions they apparently suffered not only in prison but also –according to the press– at the time of the hearings.

Thanks to pressure applied by the democratic parties and several NGOs, the youths were acquitted, but Moroccan democracy and rule of law revealed their limitations. So much so, in fact, that some democratic newspapers, such as ‘Tel Quel’ and ‘Le Journal’, now speak of ‘preventive fundamentalism’.

In the legislative elections of last September, the PJD (Islamist party) obtained 41 of the 380 seats that make up the first Chamber, only seven less than the winner, the USFP (Socialist Union of Popular Forces), and became the third-strongest political force in the country. They obtained this result despite having presented candidates in only 56 of the country’s 91 electoral districts, not for lack of them, as their leaders later explained, but so as not to score a frighteningly overwhelming victory. And the PJD is not Morocco’s main Islamist party. Al Adl ual Ihsane (Justice and Charity), led by the charismatic Sheik Abdessalam Yassin, refuses to participate in the system but sets out to be the main Islamist force in Morocco, something that is widely acknowledged.

With the experience of the September legislative elections and perhaps with Algeria in mind, the Moroccan government has postponed the general elections that should have been held this May. Some analysts say this was done out of fear that Islamist forces would take over the majority of local authorities, as occurred in Algeria in 1991.

Morocco today is certainly not like Algeria in 1990. It is a monarchical regime and the ‘tempo’ of monarchs, who reign –and in this case to govern too– without time limits or electoral concerns, is slower and more cautious than that of the Algerian generals, despite their lingering on in power.

The curious thing about Morocco, according to some experts, is that the leadership of this moderate Islamism comes from the same sociological spectrum as that of the pro-Western and democratic left of the seventies and eighties: professors and teachers, the liberal professions, small businesses and technical universities.

Attack against the West
Since the attacks on Casablanca were committed only a few weeks after the end of the Iraq war, like those a few days earlier in Saudi Arabia and a few days later in Turkey, they have been explained as a result of that conflict. The fact that Spanish interests were those most affected has led to the conclusion that the intention was to punish the support given by the Spanish government and its Prime Minister, José María Aznar, to the coalition led by the US.

This explanation of the terrorist attacks on Casablanca is understandable, but not complete. Since the first Middle East wars and the conflicts engendered by the colonization of the 19th and 20th centuries, Western interests and citizens have quite indiscriminately been the targets of terrorist attacks.

In the weeks before the attacks on Casablanca, the ulemas, imams, and preachers of the north of Morocco effectively requested that the spirit of Jihad be invoked and that the Muslim community be encouraged to resist, ‘boycotting American, British and Zionist products, as well as those of all the countries that were part of the coalition’.

The daily newspaper At Tajdid (Renovation) official organ of the PJD, invited Muslims on 1 May to ‘reverse the course of things’ and claimed that ‘every Muslim from here on has the right to fight to save humanity’. The paper called for the closure of ‘the embassies of aggressor countries’ and for a boycott of ‘American and Zionist products’. It claimed that ‘only the holy war and martyrdom of the Muslim community’ would enable it to reclaim its dignity.

But what stands out most in the mobilization of the radical fundamentalist media, in which the terrorist attacks were brewed, is the call to arms against the West in general because the West proposes a world and a society, a religion and a culture that are successful but which they consider contrary to universal principles that they likewise believe exist in their particular understanding of Islam. The word most repeated in their communiqués, ‘crusaders’, includes all Western nations without distinction and evokes Medieval religious wars. The Islamists do not make a special distinction between the countries that supported the US and those that did not, nor do they appear at all grateful to those who opposed the war. On the contrary, they have used France, Russia and Germany’s support of the US request that the embargo on the sale of Iraqi oil be lifted to return them to the ranks of the hated West, accusing them of wanting to get ‘their share of the booty’. The intellectual and material authors of the attacks came from this sector. The explosives destined for the Twin Center in Casablanca, the symbol of capitalism in Morocco, confirm this absence of discrimination between Western and Arab countries.

Those who have indeed expressed their opinion –almost to the point of insult– on the attitude of Spain’s Prime Minister in the war in Iraq are the nationalist and modernist sectors in Morocco, along with their media bodies, though they were not behind any terrorist attack. The only Western country given special treatment by fundamentalists is the US, which must be understood in Palestinian-Israeli terms, or as they prefer to describe it, in Islamic-Zionist terms.

It is also logical to interpret the Casablanca attacks in a Moroccan context. The aforementioned daily paper, At Tajdid, commented on 19 April that ‘Morocco is once again about to normalize relations with the Zionist enemy and become more involved with the US in what they call the fight against terrorism. Morocco must urgently return to the concerns of the Muslim community.’

The border with Spain
It seems inevitable that this situation is a cause of concern for Spain. We are Morocco’s most immediate Western neighbours, with land and sea borders that are sensitive for Spain, Europe and NATO and which are places where religions, cultures and people freely mix –it is very permeable, almost by necessity–.

The biggest mafias in this part of the Mediterranean operate along the Spanish-Moroccan border-and for some years have also been operating in the Canary Islands-Sahara zone. They traffic in human beings, in narcotics and in merchandise. Some Moroccan intellectuals have calculated that 50% of Morocco’s GDP is powered by mafias, contraband, drugs, the abuse of administrative and political power and corruption. As European institutions specialized in monitoring narcotraffic have indicated, in Spanish-Moroccan cross-border affairs, this goes on with widespread, high-level complicity on the part of the Moroccan administration, even involving people related to the royal family and with certain impunity.

Four issues –contraband goods, narcotrafficking, human exploitation (illegal immigration) and money laundering– condition the daily life of Ceuta, Melilla and the Canary Islands and, of course, of Morocco. They are also powerful factors causing uncertainty regarding the creation of the projected Euro-Mediterranean Free Trade Zone.

The drug trade alone, according to statistics in a report by the International Narcotics Control Board of the State Department in 2001, moves three billion dollars, is the mainstay of the economy of the north of Morocco, with about 85,000 hectares (100,000 according to other European sources) devoted to growing more than 2,000 tons a year of hashish and cannabis, which go mostly to Europe. The mafia networks are no longer only in the north of Morocco, but have spread to Rabat, Casablanca, Agadir, Tan-Tan and El Aiún.

Other reports indicate that in recent years these trans-border mafias facilitated the movement of terrorists and other violent persons between Spain and Morocco, which was essential for the coordination of some of the terrorist operations carried out and others that were prevented.

Although in the early nineties Hassan II promised to put an end to these mafias in seven years, Morocco claims that by itself it cannot assume the social cost involved in stopping this organized, criminal underground economy and that Spain and the European Union should help find alternatives for the economic development of these regions. In turn, the EU does not help out as much as Morocco would like because it does not perceive that Morocco has a real will to put an end to these practices.

What is unsustainable from all standpoints is that for their business the mafias have speedboats, high precision radar systems and other sophisticated ways of detecting and avoiding the surveillance of the Spanish security forces, and that their bosses are known but never bothered either in the north of Morocco or in Ceuta and Melilla.

It is these two cities that are most worried about the internal development of Morocco, given the repercussions that this could have on them. Muslims and Spaniards each make up about 50% of the population of both cities. On the human level, their large, marginalized and practically lawless districts make them increasingly resemble Moroccan cities. The security of Ceuta, in particular, is fundamental because every year more than two million Maghrebis pass through on their way to and from their vacations. Both cities see a large daily traffic of people, goods and trucks, but particularly in Ceuta, controls are practically non-existent when coming back onto the Spanish mainland.

Due to illegal immigration, both cities have had to significantly reinforce their land border crossings and have protected themselves against illegal entries with double barbed-wire fences watched by cameras and movement sensors. Both, however, depend to a large extent on their surroundings for a supply of fresh fruit and vegetables and for trade, since their economic model has never changed, despite many warnings to this respect.

The result is that the current difficulties faced by the tens of thousands of Moroccans who have to cross the borders daily to work or shop in the two cities, have significantly damaged business and, in turn, municipal tax collection. The Ceuta Merchants’ Association, for example, calculates that business volume has dropped by 30%.

Proof of Spanish concern is how Spanish autonomous regions bordering on Morocco, such as Andalusia and the Canary Islands, have established special, direct relationships with their African neighbour. Catalonia, which has a large Maghrebi population, has also done the same.

The government of Catalonia is apparently the one that has gone the furthest, by opening a Catalonian House in Morocco, inaugurated by Artur Mas himself. The president of the Andalusian community, Manuel Chávez, is a regular visitor to Morocco and his region cooperates with the north of Morocco on development plans, as the Spanish government was also going to do on a large scale before the fishing agreement was broken in 1999.

The last to travel to Rabat was Román Rodríguez, president of the Canary Islands government. He wanted to ask for Moroccan cooperation in controlling certain mafias, especially those devoted to trafficking in illegal immigrants. These now operate out of Agadir, Tan-Tan, Bojador and Laiun.

These problems could have been eased in the past with the cooperation of both cities and the national government in the economic development of Morocco to encourage greater entrepreneurial presence in Morocco and greater cooperation, particularly with development projects in the north of Morocco. Attachment to Europe may be another kind of aid, but Moroccans today are debating their opportunities and needs and terrorism could affect the willingness of the Spanish public and private sectors to cooperate.

At the political level, Morocco has no alternatives to democracy. Islamists reject it, nationalists propose that it be reinvented to accommodate their ‘traditions and particularities’, which means maintaining their privileges and ‘changing so that nothing changes’, while secular democrats are a minority under fire from everyone around them.

Morocco, as the IMF noted in its April report, has improved its macroeconomic indicators, but satisfying the IMF has had a high social cost, while the macroeconomy has not had immediate effects on the microeconomy. Social indicators now place Morocco among those at the bottom of the standings in the 2002 Human Development Report prepared by the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme).

In the absence of substantial short-term changes in the Moroccan economy or a strong will to establish true democracy, Morocco’s neighbours have no option but to continue cooperating economically and developing even closer relations on security issues.


The reislamization of Moroccan society is not recent. It dates back to the seventies and its intensity has always been inversely proportional to the satisfaction of democratic expectations. Terrorism is not new either, though it is sporadic. The attacks in Casablanca in mid-May confirm both the increasing violence of a minority sector of Moroccan anti-establishment Islam and the increasing connections between this sector and Middle Eastern terrorism, principally al-Qaeda. In this context, whatever the objectives of these attacks may have been, the West appears to be the single global enemy of these terrorists.

Domingo del Pino