After an initially turning a blind eye to jihadis leaving for Syria and Iraq, Morocco stepped up its efforts to crack down on recruitment networks for the Islamic State (IS) through surveillance and revamped anti-terrorism legislation. These measures have also drawn criticism from civil society activists for their impact on civil liberties.
Sada interviewed the executive director of the Karama Human Rights Forum, Mohammed Hakiki.
North African jihadis fighting in Syria constitute one of the largest groups of foreign fighters, and the so-called Islamic State has specifically targeted North African youth in its appeal for recruits. What sort of impact has that had on youth already inclined in the jihad direction?
Those who belong to the so-called Salafi-jihadi movements have felt humiliated in their countries, and some were subjected to gross violations of human rights. They feel that their countries have failed to support Muslims and Muslim minorities in some regions of the world, while also aligning with the United States to fight terrorism. Many considered this a targeting of their very existence and [part of] a desire to eradicate them. Thus, whenever a region appeared that was affected by foreign intervention, they quickly moved there, whether in Mali, Iraq, or Syria.
“Moroccans returning from Syria have reasons for coming back, first and foremost disappointment in what they had considered jihad.”
Over the past few months, Moroccan security authorities have reported busting several IS recruitment cells—the most recent on January 17—and stepped up their efforts to identify those planning to leave. Has this made Morocco’s Salafi movement more outward-looking or has it created a divide between its Morocco-focused and internationally-focused supporters?
The so-called Salafi-jihadi movement in Morocco does not represent a cohesive entity, but rather includes many Salafi expressions such as scholarly and doctrinal Salafism. Therefore one cannot say that the recent amendment to the anti-terrorism law has divided the Salafis into two segments. Until now, the arenas of jihad, according to these people, are the regions where they believe there is foreign intervention against Muslims. The Syrian arena was the most attractive for them because it included foreign intervention—which they consider Crusader-like—as well as the intervention of Iran and Shi’a Hezbollah, not to mention the movement of fighters from Iraq and the establishment of the so-called Islamic State.
It’s been pointed out that the majority of Moroccan recruits come from northern provinces. Do you have a sense of why that area’s youth have been susceptible to the appeal of the so-called Islamic State?
Residents of northern Morocco, especially rural areas, grapple with marginalization and weak economic conditions, resulting in many of them making a living through growing and smuggling drugs. I think that these circumstances have contributed to making the youth from the cities of northern Morocco an easy target for recruitment to fight in Syria, especially considering that IS offers attractive compensation to fighters. It should be noted that a number of fighters have traveled from other areas of Morocco, which means that the state does not address this phenomenon with a comprehensive approach that takes into account all levels. It believes that its task ends with merely throwing the accused in prison, neglecting its job when it comes to helping those serving a sentence and follow-up care for detainees who have completed their prison terms.
Moroccan authorities seem concerned about the impact the return of Moroccan jihadis on national security. How do you assess such a threat?
Those returning from fighting in Syria were arrested because, according to the law, they pose a threat to public safety and the state’s domestic security. Yet in my view, there is no existing threat, as is the case in Tunisia or Libya. Moroccans returning from Syria have reasons for coming back, first and foremost disappointment in what they had considered jihad. They discovered that it was a war against Muslims, or rather against “mujahideen,” thus they returned to Morocco to escape IS. There are means that can be used to ensure their reintegration into society.
In January 2015, the Moroccan parliament adopted an amended version of the terrorism law. How do you think the amended law will impact the highly contentious Salafi-jihadi detainee issue in Morocco?
The anti-terrorism law in Morocco was in fact amended to include tightening measures—such as criminalizing travel to conflict regions and joining extremist groups. The punishment for doing so is imprisonment from five to fifteen years, as well as a fine of up to about $50,000.
In my opinion, the amendment will not affect the issue of so-called Salafi-jihadi detainees in the way that is expected, because this is purely a security measure. We have observed that former detainees have joined the fighting in Syria, with some joining the ranks of IS, and the security forces continue to break up cells sending fighters to Syria despite the new amendment.
“It is necessary to boost trust between the concerned parties and the so-called Salafi-jihadi detainees who are ready to engage in a national reconciliation.”
Analysts and observers of Moroccan affairs have been critical of the crackdown and fear it would have significant impact on civil liberties. Do you share the same concern?
Yes, some rights activists express concerns that human rights might be violated during efforts to counter terrorism, due to an absence of effective guarantees for protection or commitment to specific standards on security governance. These concerns are increased by the fact that the human rights movement is not involved in monitoring the integrity of procedures at all stages—from arrest, to police custody, to trying the accused in the presence of a lawyer. We should also recall that the anti-terrorism law has been used to try some journalists, which activists considered a restriction on the freedoms of opinion, expression, and the press.
There have been calls to work with some of the Salafi figures inside Morocco’s jails to refute the so-called Islamic State, their ideology, and that of similar extremists fighting in the name of Islam. Can you speak about these initiatives and what you think it would take to ensure their success?
Many of those imprisoned under the anti-terrorism law have expressed—and continue to express—their rejection of terrorism. We at the Karama Human Rights Forum introduced a conciliatory approach on this topic in 2008, and in 2011 we organized a consultative meeting to understand the situation of Salafism in Morocco. We submitted two memoranda to the prime minister, the first concerning the rights of those imprisoned under the anti-terrorism law and the second relating to the social integration program for former so-called Salafi-jihadi prisoners. However, these initiatives require serious reciprocation from the security agencies and official bodies.
Recently, calls have emerged to confront the actions of IS, especially after the group burned the Jordanian pilot. A discussion took place among detainees regarding their position on the Islamic State and its actions, and some stressed the need to revive the “Reconciliation and Review Committee Inside Prisons,” which was established by detainee Hassan al-Khattab, leader of the Ansar al-Mahdi group. This initiative calls for the formation of a national front to push back against the appeal of IS ideology in Morocco.
In order for these initiatives to succeed, it is necessary to boost trust between the concerned parties and the so-called Salafi-jihadi detainees who are ready to engage in a national reconciliation and confront IS thought. In addition, this must include the active involvement of human rights organizations and concerned parties—such as the National Council for Human Rights, the Inter-ministerial Delegation for Human Rights, the Ministry of Justice and Liberties, and the Ministry of Interior—in the initiative, along with providing conditions to create a public debate on this phenomenon. We believe that the security approach alone is not able to contain the threat. We are in need of bold decisions such as those taken by Saudi Arabia, where a group of detainees held on terrorism charges was released and Saudi citizens involved in the fighting in Syria were given a deadline to return without legal repercussions and accompanied by efforts to integrate them into society.
Mohammed Hakiki is the executive director of the Karama Human Rights Forum (forum de la dignité pour les droits de l'homme). This interview was conducted via email, translated from Arabic, and edited for style.