Since September, a group of Moroccan politicians have emerged as self-appointed brokers attempting to negotiate a solution on behalf of detained Salafi extremists. The arrival of the Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD) to power and the burgeoning expectations created by the political circumstances, promises offered by the Salafis themselves to renounce violence, and numerous reports by human rights groups about the poor conditions for Salafi-jihadi detainees in prison, have all failed to bring about a negotiated resolution of the problem. Faced with official silence, these other actors, namely the left-wing lawyer and former political prisoner Ahmed Rakez, Khadija Rouweissi and Nabila bin Omar (both from the Party of Authenticity and Modernity), and Mohammed al-Khalidi, the secretary-general of the Renaissance and Virtue Party, seem to have taken the initiative to mediate in recent months. It is apparent, however, that none of these new mediators has a specific plan, and that their initial move is to simply visit detainees and gather their proposed solutions. These recent initiatives raise the hopes of detainees and their families for an immediate solution—a number of them believe that the initiatives represent an indirect message from the government looking for a solution, particularly when these mediators speak of “higher authorities” or that they have been sent from the palace. This sudden involvement brings out key questions about the intentions, goals, and ultimately the success of these initiatives: which of them will actually be able to tackle this sensitive problem and provide an actual solution? With such vast ideological differences and tangled legacies, will meaningful cooperation take place between the two extremes?
In the wake of the 2003 Casablanca attacks, which killed 45 and left dozens wounded and disabled, several names were mentioned successively whenever a group was arrested for terrorism-related charges: al-Hijra wal-Takfir (Exodus and Excommunication), al-Sirat al-Mustaqim (the Straight Path), the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group, the New Muslims, Fath al-Andalus—some of which were designated in the media by their (supposed) leaders' names. But the term Salafi-jihadism prevailed as an umbrella label in security and media circles when referring to detainees held for terrorism-related accusations. Prior to the Casablanca bombings there was no established "movement" of Salafi-jihadism per se in Morocco; official authorities in charge of the investigation declared in its wake that those involved in the suicide attacks belonged to the “Islamist Salafi-jihadi movement”—hitherto an unknown group of individuals with a common set of perceptions, rather than an actual structured organization. Yet there were no public written materials about the ethics of such a movement and thus the designation "Salafi-jihadis" used in those security and media circles came to refer to all detainees suspected of terrorism—very few of whom seem to have actually been implicated in acts of violence.
In a meeting with the Joint Committee for the Defense of Islamist Detainees—currently the official representative for a large number of detainees—Minister of Justice Mustapha al-Ramid expressed his intent to open a national dialogue with the goal of reaching a comprehensive compromise amenable to all sides—but only after the Ministry of Justice finishes drafting the National Charter on Judiciary Reform. Al-Ramid’s statement was something of a letdown; until recently, the minister had inspired expectations of a much quicker and more effective response; he was, after all, a longtime rights activist and the former head of the Karama Human Rights Forum (which was one of the first organizations to speak out on this topic), as well as a vocal proponent of finding compromise to address the issue of detained Salafi-jihadis.
Ahmed Rakez waded into the debate as a lifetime opposition activist seeking to achieve the greater national good. Rakez proposes consolidating the ongoing political reforms in Morocco while activating the content of the constitution—particularly its sections related to justice, the judiciary, fair trials, and political detentions. Although he left initial meetings with prisoners with a positive impression—detainees affirmed a belief in Morocco’s “national principles”—he has yet to do anything other than hold meetings and discuss their ideas. Meanwhile, he is formulating a proposal, which he will present to the authorities.
Meanwhile, Khadjia Rouweissi and Nabila bin Omar have had their own meetings with a group of terrorism detainees, vowing to resolve the issue in a way that preserves human dignity. During a three-hour meeting with Hassan al-Khattab and Abdulqadir Belliraj— who is sentenced to life in prison—they discussed prison conditions and a possible resolution.
Similarly, Mohammed al-Khalidi met with a group of detainees in prison for similar discussion, focusing on their articulation of Moroccan nation’s principles. During his meetings, al-Khalidi stated that he was an envoy of “higher authorities,” without specifying what exactly this meant, and that he would be writing a report with summaries of all his visits to submit to those authorities. Interestingly, al-Khalidi’s move on this was without consulting his party’s leadership, which has led to some internal bickering—particularly since the idea to break the standstill had been that of al-Khalidi’s top deputy, Dr. Mustapha Kreen.
Amid all this, the National Revision and Integration Commission was recently established—headed by the same Mustapha Kreen. Its aim is to adopt a dialogue-based approach between Islamist prisoners and the state. Composed of politicians and rights activists, the commission offers a new vision in which Salafi-jihadis are able to revisit their core ideologies and revise their positions, while the state attempts to adopt dialogue as a mechanism to re-integrate them into society.
What is unclear is why some important figures on the jihadi side remain silent. Why have sheikhs released in groups by royal pardon—like Hassan El-Kettani, Abdelwaheb Rafiki “Abu Hafs,” Omar al-Heddouchi, Mohammed al-Fizazi, and Abdulkarim al-Shadhli (all known Salafi-jihadis)—been slow to intervene or mediate a solution for those still in prison? Their non-involvement might be attributable to an inability to vouch for all of the detainees. Considering that jihadis themselves are not of a uniform bloc, there also might be the issue of the sheikhs’ authority over them—that they have none to persuade them as a group one way or another.
Reconciliation, however, cannot be discussed as a solution for Morocco’s terrorism cases without addressing the role of the Advisory Council on Human Rights (CCDH), which is now known as the National Council on Human Rights (NHRC). Along with the Karama Human Rights Forum, the NHRC has been at the forefront of promoting conciliatory, rather than heavy-handed, approach since 2008. This is not to diminish, however, the value of King Mohammed VI’s interview with the Spanish newspaper El Pais on January 16, 2005, which was seen as paving the way implicitly for reconsideration of the security-first approach to terrorism.
From the beginning, royal pardons were seen as a way of resolving detentions—as suggested by Ahmed Harzani, head of the then-CCDH, to the Karama Human Rights Forum in his June 2008 meeting with the forum’s former secretary-general, Khalil al-Idrisi. Harzani proposed that the prisoners write up statements denouncing acts of terrorism. These statements would also renounce takfir and explicitly state their attitude towards the monarchy. A large number of detainees did actually send letters to the CCDH and Karama as part of a petition for amnesty and openly recanted violence and takfir—eventually being rewarded with royal pardons. The royal pardons eventually stopped for a period of time, suggesting that the state did not believe itself to have sufficient guarantees to continue handing out amnesty for the rest. Pardons only resumed after Mustapha al-Ramid was named minister of justice; only then were Sheikhs Abu Hafs, El-Kettani, and al-Heddouchi released.
Following its experience as the CCDH, the renamed NHRC began its human rights activism by mediating for amnesty on behalf of a group of prisoners convicted of terrorism. Among those were political prisoners from what is known as “the Belliraj case”: Mohammed al-Marwani, secretary-general of the unlicensed Umma Party, Mustapha al-Moatasem, secretary-general of the dissolved Al-Badil Al-Hadari (Civilized Alternative) Party, his deputy Mohammed Al-Amin Al-Rikala, Ma’ al-‘Aynayn al-Abadala, member of the Justice and Development Party, the journalist in Al-Manar TV Abdul-Hafiz al-Seriti, Sheikh Mohammad el-Fizazi, and Sheikh Abdul-Karim al-Shadhli. All of them were granted pardons after King Mohammed VI responded favorably to a memorandum sent by the head of CCDH Idris al-Yazmi and his secretary-general Mohammed al-Sabbar. Yet a number of their followers remain behind bars.
The Movement’s Followers
It is true that the Salafi movement today has become more open-minded in dealing with others, but the Salafis still prefer to petition on behalf of themselves—rather than with the aid of outsiders. Hassan al-Khattab, sentenced to (and serving) 30 years in jail, has said as much: he argues in his writings and through his family that the Salafi movement can only be addressed through a Salafi tack, and that the new intermediaries have entered the playing field only to politicize their cause—and that none of them have offered direct solutions for a national reconciliation. While al-Khattab and a group of his fellow prisoners believe that there is a pressing need to openly debate Morocco’s version of Salafi-jihadism to resolve its crisis for once and for all—they also agree that the topic is still too big for a single organization (even a political party) to tackle alone.
Sanaa Karim is a Moroccan journalist.