At first glance, the Moroccan state’s security-focused approach to countering extremism appears to be highly effective in preventing terrorist attacks. Even the most recent incident, a December 15 murder of two Scandinavian tourists in Imlil, seemed an isolated case. Moroccan authorities swiftly apprehended the perpetrators, and over the course of the following two weeks, authorities arrested an additional eighteen jihadis suspected of aiding them. However, a deeper look at Rabat’s broader countering violent extremism (CVE) strategy reveals its failure to rehabilitate and reintegrate former Salafi-jihadi detainees.
Rabat has long worked to counter radical groups, particularly since the Casablanca bombings in 2003. Accordingly, between 2002 and 2018, more than 3000 alleged jihadis were arrested, and 186 terrorist cells dismantled, including 65 cells linked to the Islamic State. However, there is a high rate of recidivism among jihadi prisoners. Of the jihadis imprisoned in these years, 220 had previously been arrested on terrorism charges, not counting the estimated 1300 Moroccans who have left to fight in Syria. Former jihadi detainees headed several of the terrorist cells that were dismantled since 2015. Similarly, three members of the Imlil cell were former detainees—including the leader, Abdessamad Ejjoud, who was sentenced to four years in prison in 2014 for attempting to join the Islamic State in Syria. He was released after ten months because authorities lacked proof of his intentions, after which he brought together other like-minded marginalized youth with the aid of a local imam.
Rabat’s CVE policy aims to be comprehensive in not only preventing terrorist attacks but also tackling the root causes of radicalization, such as socioeconomic inequality and extremist religious narratives. Most of the cells that have been discovered in the past few years are small—consisting of five to fifteen people—suggesting that state policies are effectively preventing jihadis from organizing into larger groups. Yet despite Rabat’s sporadic efforts to deradicalize jihadis while they are in prison, this policy remains unable to reintegrate them after they have been released. Authorities point to the “successful” reintegration of some former Salafi-jihadis whom King Mohamed VI pardoned since 2012—such as Abdelkerim Chadli and Mohammed Rafiki “Abu Hafs,” who eventually joined formal politics or founded NGOs. Yet the regime used these figures, who largely deradicalized on their own, primarily as a way to promote the idea that it was able to contain the former radical Islamists.
Only in 2016 did the state begin a more systematic approach to reintegration. The General Delegation for Prison Administration and Reintegration (DGAPR) launched the Moussalaha (“reconciliation”) deradicalization program in prisons jointly with the Mohammedia League for Scholars (Rabita) and the National Council for Human Rights (CNDH). The program aims to rehabilitate Salafi-jihadis within Moroccan prisons through a threefold approach: “reconciliation with the Self, with religious texts, and with society.” According to some participants in this program, this means “renouncing violence, accepting pluralistic interpretations of religious texts, and recognizing the legitimacy of the regime (the monarchy).”1 The apparent success of the first cohort in July 2017—several participants had their prison sentences shortened or even received a royal pardon—encouraged scores of former jihadis to join this initiative in the hope of leaving prison. For the second class, which took place in 2018, more than 300 prisoners applied for 25 spots.
While it is still early to draw conclusions from the preliminary stages of this deradicalization program, so far it has had very limited impact on jihadism more broadly. First, its objective of reconciliation is very broad: one former jihadi cynically asked, “Reconciliation between whom and whom?”2 Significantly, it only targets a fraction of jihadi prisoners, with the DGAPR accepting only about 50 volunteers for the first two cohorts of almost 1000 jihadis currently imprisoned. The first cohort in particular consisted mainly those who already expressed their “disenchantment” with jihadism in letters to the Rabita, in which they sought dialogue with religious scholars and expressed their willingness to “repent.” This indicates authorities are failing to reach enough people, especially those who have not yet renounced jihadism.
More importantly, the program does not oversee any socioeconomic reintegration for jihadis once they are released from prison. One former Moussalaha participant argued that he felt deceived by the program leaders’ unmet “promises” of reintegration: “We were told that we will be taken care of after prison, but nothing has been achieved.”3 The Mohamed VI Foundation for the Reintegration of Detainees does provide some limited care programs for all former detainees, such as issuing small grants to help them start a business. However, it has not tailored a specific program for former jihadis, who complain that reducing stigmas in their communities and providing psychological counseling are their more pressing needs. Instead, authorities rely mainly on routine security monitoring. A more comprehensive deradicalization program would include services such as family support, psychological counseling, vocational training, and forums to continue religious dialogue with credible scholars.
Post-prison reintegration of jihadis is partly falling short because civil society is absent from efforts to prevent and counter extremism. The state’s security-oriented approach does not allow non-state actors to work in this sphere, only tolerating them when they work in collaboration with authorities. Even Morocco’s socioeconomic development programs incorporate this over-securitized approach to extremism. For instance, since 2005 the Ministry of Interior has overseen the National Initiative for Human Development (INDH), which aims, among other things, to fight the “breeding grounds” of radicalization in Morocco’s impoverished areas.
In this regard, civil society organizations (CSOs) fear that working on issues related to preventing radicalization makes them subject to increased monitoring or censorship by authorities. For instance, in a July 2014 speech to parliament, then Minister of Interior Mohamed Hassad attacked the Moroccan Association for Human Rights (AMDH), a secular human rights NGO, for discrediting the government’s efforts in counterterrorism and being apologists for radicalism—likely in reality a response to the AMDH’s frequent criticism of the state. This incident has made other independent organizations wary of working on issues related to extremism lest they give the government fodder to launch similar rhetorical attacks or even restrict their activities. As part of a program to understand roots of violent extremism and build the capacity of civil society organizations (CSOs), the Moroccan chapter of Search for Common Ground found that most organizations it interviewed were highly reluctant to identify their activities as related to countering extremism or to reveal their sources of funding.4 CSOs operate in a highly sensitive context that prevents engagement in CVE activities.
When some former detainees return to their jihadi activities, CSOs face even tougher scrutiny. For instance, Anas El Haloui, an Islamist activist who spent three years in prison on charges of joining an extremist group, became the spokesperson of the Joint Committee for the Defense of Islamic Detainees after his release. He worked to defend the rights of former Salafi detainees and solicited the support of many national and international human rights NGOs. When he left Morocco in late 2013 to fight in Syria, many other human rights NGOs backed away from defending Salafi-jihadi prisoners. For instance, Al-Karama Forum for Human Rights—a human rights NGO close to the PJD—became silent on this issue and refused to allow the Joint Committee for the Defense of Islamist Detainees to hold meetings on Al Karama premises.
Morocco’s security measures seem to have been relatively effective in preventing major terrorist attacks in the last few years. However, in the absence of a comprehensive deradicalization program that includes civil society efforts to rehabilitate former prisoners, the country will remain vulnerable to growing radicalization among marginalized populations.
Mohammed Masbah is the director of the Moroccan Institute for Policy Analysis and an associate fellow at Chatham House. Souad Ahmadoun is an associate fellow at Moroccan Institute for Policy Analysis. Follow them on Twitter @MasbahMohammed and @souadahmadoun.
1. Interview with a participant in Moussalaha program, Fes, August 2018.
2. Interview with a former Salafi-jihadi, Sale, January 2019.
3. Interview with a participant in Moussalaha program. Fes, August 2018.
4. Interview with Noufal Abboud, former director of Search for Common Ground, Rabat, January 2019.