Morocco to expand counterterror efforts abroad

Morocco flag. (iStock)
Morocco flag. (iStock)

Sale - A top Moroccan security official says his government is working on a new strategy to track Moroccans who become radicalised in Europe, part of beefed-up counterterrorism efforts by a country that is both a key player in the global anti-extremism struggle and a source of international jihadis.

Preventing radicalisation of Moroccans abroad is especially important after Spanish extremists with Moroccan origins carried out last month's deadly Barcelona attacks, Abdelhak Khiame, director of an agency known as Morocco's FBI, told The Associated Press in an interview.

"We are obliged to take it into account," Khiame said in his polished headquarters in Sale, near the capital Rabat. "We are trying to establish a strategy for this."

He would not elaborate on what surveillance measures that monitoring strategy would entail, but insisted on the importance of intelligence cooperation across borders, and said his agency is working on establishing offices in partner countries.

His agency, the Central Bureau of Judicial Investigations, is also cracking down on Moroccans returning from fighting with the Islamic State group in Syria, Iraq and Libya. It has arrested 85 men, 14 women and 27 children returnees to date, he said.

Moroccans make up an unusually large subset of ISIS foreign fighters - a total of 1 664 people at the agency's last count. The agency, created two years ago to consolidate and strengthen anti-terrorism and anti-crime efforts, says it has dismantled 42 Islamic State cells and five others.

Human rights groups warn that counterterrorism authorities are being overzealous and have caught up innocent bystanders in the dragnet. Thomas Gallay, an imprisoned Frenchman who converted to Islam, is among those that Human Rights Watch says is being unfairly held. Khiame insisted that the government has proof of his extremist activities.

Beyond jail and prosecution, Khiame said the government recognises the need to solve the roots of radicalism through tackling poverty, training moderate imams and banning extremist preachers, and re-integrating former radicals.

He warned of a risk of "reverse terrorism," or Moroccan emigrants who become radicalised in Europe then come to Morocco to stage attacks.

He cited the example of a man who embraced extremism while living in Catalonia and who was interrogated by Moroccan authorities after the Barcelona attacks, and found to be plotting violence in Morocco.

The man had no link to the Barcelona attacks, which left 16 people dead after a partially failed attempt by a network of teens and other young Spaniards to set off explosions in the area.

Khiame's agency helped identify the suspects and is working closely with Spain on the investigation.

The agency was also instrumental in helping French police find a leading suspect in the November 2015 attacks on the Bataclan theater, cafes and a stadium in Paris.

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