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A Bloody Reminder

By Fatima-Zahra Belkady

One of the many questions raised by the death of Osama bin Laden is what impact his elimination will have on the al-Qaida organization. Will it become clear that, in his final years, hiding in a comfortable compound Pakistan, bin Laden was little more than a symbolic figurehead? Or will it emerge that he was still involved in shaping and leading the diffuse network of affiliates and cells that al-Qaida has become in the past ten years?

In the days since bin Laden’s death, a number of analysts and commentators have pointed out that al-Qaida’s regional affiliates—especially al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)—have become increasingly central to maintaining the group’s operational capacity and global reach. Indeed, just days before bin Laden was killed by U.S. forces, there was a deadly attack in Marrakech, Morocco, which authorities suspect was the work of AQIM. The attack serves as a stark reminder that even though many of its leaders have been killed or isolated and its extremist ideology has been overshadowed recently by non-violent political transformations in the Arab world, the global salafi-jihadist movement still poses a threat—particularly in places where a lack of democratic freedoms and economic hardship continue to create political discontent.

On April 28, an explosion rocked Café Argana, located in the popular tourist destination Jamaa el-Fna Square in Marrakech. Sixteen people were killed: 13 foreigners and three Moroccans. It has been confirmed that the explosive device was detonated from a distance. Although no responsibility has been claimed, the Interior Minister declared the attack bears many of the hallmarks of an al-Qaida operation.

A Delicate Balance

If this attack is confirmed to be the work of Islamist militants, it would mark the second major terrorist attack in Morocco in recent years. In 2003, 45 people were killed and 100 people wounded when suicide bombers struck cosmopolitan Casablanca. The bombers were associated with the Salafi Jihadia group believed to be an offshoot of al-Qaida of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). This attack sparked a concerted crackdown by the government of King Mohammed VI, which resulted in the arrests of scores of suspected militant Islamists.  

Morocco’s government had previously been considered one of the more liberal of the  autocracies that until recently dominated the Arab world. But after the 2003 attack, there was an unmistakable deterioration of civil and political rights. A new anti-terrorism law passed a few days after the attacks, giving security forces the right to detain suspects in pre-arraignment up to 12 days without access to a lawyer or their families. The law also authorized wire-tapping, internet and mail surveillance, and the search of domiciles and businesses without warrants. Human-rights groups in Morocco complained that suspected militants were not afforded fair trials. Additionally, the law’s broad definition of terrorism criminalized even some peaceful political activity.

The government’s defenders argue that the anti-terrorism law and the mukhabarat network it maintains have kept the country relatively safe. Various plots have been foiled at their early stages over the years, saving many innocent lives. All along, Morocco was still able to attract investments, build infrastructure, create jobs, and even maintain economic growth amidst a world recession.

The “Arab Spring” that swept the region earlier this year raised hopes for reform. In peaceful protests all over the country on February 20, March 20, and April 24, Moroccans called for constitutional and political reform. King Mohammed VI responded by promising “sweeping” reforms: granting more power to the Prime Minister elected by the majority party in parliament; increasing human rights and gender equality; and strengthening the independence of the judiciary. The international community commended his promises for reform.

In early March, the king established a rights council to advise him on how to proceed. Following their advice on April 14, the king pardoned and reduced the sentences of 190 detainees.  Ninety-six of prisoners—some of them Islamists—were immediately released. Fourteen days later, the terrorists struck. 

Difficult Choices

Generally, Morocco is faced with dilemmas when choosing its national security priorities. Arguably, it is the most liberal of the Arab countries, yet the population is 98 percent Muslim and many sectors of society have become increasingly religious in recent years. It is under pressure from the international community to engage in a gradual democratization process, yet faces mass protests demanding swift and expansive reforms. (The country also has other security demands, including the maintenance of a major military deployment in the disputed territory of the Western Sahara.)

It is possible for Morocco to combat terrorism more effectively. The government cannot simply return to the tactics of tyranny: torture, beating, and disappearances. Yet neither can it allow violent extremists to operate freely, taking advantage of relatively light prison sentences. The key to striking the right balance will be reform of the justice system and the security services, encouraging those vital institutions to better discern between terrorist threats and legitimate political opposition.

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Fatima-Zahra Belkady is an intern at the World Policy Institute. A citizen of Morocco, she is currently pursuing a master’s degree in international relations at New York University.

Picture courtesy of Flickr user Jarek Jarosz

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