Morocco’s Misguided War on Terror

How the persecution of Islamists across North Africa, in the name of fighting terrorism, is sowing the seeds for future instability.

Aida Alami
Aida Alami

On a rainy Tuesday morning in February, a group of about 20 veiled women — most of them dressed in black niqabs, the full-body veils favored by the most conservative Muslims — stand silently in the street in front of the Rabat administrative tribunal. These wives, mothers, and sisters of alleged terrorists detained by the Moroccan government have come from across the country to show their support for one of their own, Fatiha Mejjati. Inside the courtroom, Mejjati is bringing a suit against the Moroccan government for wrongfully detaining her and her then-11-year-old son for nine months in 2003.

Since the May 16, 2003, bombings in Casablanca, when 14 terrorists launched a series of suicide attacks on several sites in the city, including the Belgian Consulate and a Jewish community center, killing 45 people, Morocco has adopted its version of the USA Patriot Act. This law increased the punishment for terrorist-related activities and, most importantly, criminalized the "intent of committing an act of terrorism," a crime the government interpreted broadly, using it to convict hundreds of people.

The U.S. government has embraced Morocco as a "moderate" ally in the region, more than tripling economic aid to the country since 2003. "Morocco is a leader in the fight against terrorism," said the U.S. ambassador to Morocco, Samuel Kaplan, in a televised interview in early February. He insisted that the efforts taken by the Moroccan government were "clear, direct, and strong." Indeed, the Moroccan government has taken staunch measures in the name of security over the last few years.

Human Rights Watch, on the other hand, stated in its 2010 annual report that "human rights conditions deteriorated overall in 2009 in Morocco." The report cited the unfair detention of presumed terrorists among the reasons for this decline.

Following the 2003 terrorist attacks, more than 2,000 adherents to a conservative interpretation of Islam, known as Salafism, were arrested and sentenced to terms ranging from 30 years to life in prison. Today, Morocco’s Salafist population still labors under government suspicion and has been the target of repressive measures, including trials over trivial matters, kidnappings, and arbitrary detentions. These counterterrorism policies have particularly affected the families of the presumed terrorists. Many children remember very well their fathers’ arrests and have themselves been exposed to scrutiny. Their parents warn that they themselves can be bombs waiting to explode.

Inside the courtroom, Mejjati, dressed all in black and holding a Samsonite briefcase containing pictures of her son, is making her case against the Moroccan government. She is the widow of Karim Mejjati, the deceased al Qaeda operative who was allegedly involved in the planning of the Casablanca attack, as well as the 2004 Madrid train bombings, which claimed 191 lives. He was killed in a shootout with Saudi forces in 2005.

In 2001 and 2002, Karim Mejjati took his family to live in Afghanistan and then Pakistan, with the stated goal of meeting Osama bin Laden, before settling in Saudi Arabia as a midlevel field operative for the organization. Fatiha Mejjati claims that one morning in March 2003, while she and her son Elias were on their way to the doctor, they were arrested and sent on a private CIA jet to the Moroccan prison of Temara, where they were detained for nine months. Fatiha Mejjati said she was interrogated about her husband’s terrorist activities solely in relation to the United States. She said they underwent all sorts of tortures, such as sleep deprivation. Morocco denies Elias and his mother were ever detained.

Today Elias has serious mental and physical problems, including depression, paranoia, hormonal dysfunctions, and obesity. He is prone to violent outbursts. He does not attend school and only leaves the house to go to the doctor. "They ruined Elias’s childhood; they must pay for it," said Fatiha Mejjati.

While Mejjati is inside the courtroom waiting for the judges to decide her case, her support group is waiting outside. Demonstrations such as these, a frequent occurrence in Morocco, are organized by An-Nassir, an organization that assists families of detained Salafists. All these women have a son, a brother, or a husband in a Moroccan prison. They all have a story to tell: the horrible detention conditions of their family members, daily repression from local authorities, denial of their rights as citizens, discrimination in the workplace, and marginalization of their children at school.

The women have a hard time containing their outrage. "Why are they in jail? Where are the proofs? Where are the bodies? Where are the bombs? To justify putting my brother in jail for 30 years?" demanded Khamissa Rtimi, the sister of Abderazak Karaoui. Her brother is innocent, she claims, and was arrested solely because he lived next door to one of the terrorists who conducted the Casablanca attacks.

Another woman, Rachida Baroudi, stands by herself. Her head is not covered, and she is dressed in pants and a jacket. Her son was arrested and jailed for a comment he wrote on a blog in which he expressed his anti-Western sentiments. "He is a prisoner of opinion. He has not done anything and is not prone to violence," his mother said. "I have to financially support his wife and his two children. One of them was born while he was already in jail. She only knows her father inside a prison."

The word "Salafist" is very often misunderstood and confused with terrorism. That is because al Qaeda’s religious ideology rests on a particular jihadi branch of Salafism that encourages violence. However, the jihadists are the minority among adherents of Salafism. Most do not believe in using violence to spread their beliefs. The distinctive dress of Salafists — the women are fully covered, and the men have beards and wear long blouses — might make them easy to pick out of a crowd, but their ideology is poorly understood by most.

In fact, there is a politically quietist strain to many Salafist movements. French scholar Gilles Kepel, a visiting professor at the London School of Economics IDEAS center and an expert on political Islam, describes the original Salafist trends as nonviolent. "They are not advocating the revolt against one who holds power, against the powers that be," he said in a PBS Frontline interview. "They are calling for re-Islamization at the daily level."

In Morocco, however, all Salafists are treated as a potential threat to national security. Thousands have been thrown in jail over the last few years. Abderrahim Mouhtad, who runs An-Nassir, said the estimated number of prisoners today is around 1,000. Human Rights Watch’s annual report denounces the conditions of suspected Islamist extremists of the 2003 bombings, who continue today to serve prison terms. "Many were convicted in unfair trials after being held that year in secret detention for days or weeks, and subjected to mistreatment and sometimes torture while under interrogation," the report states.

The Salafists have attempted a few hunger strikes to protest their detention, but with little effect. "There are a great number of innocent Salafists in the Moroccan prisons," said Mohamed Darif, a political science professor at Hassan II University in Mohammedia, Morocco. "There wasn’t enough proof against the majority. They were convicted even if it wasn’t clear that they were involved in any kind of terrorist activity."

According to him, Morocco’s example is not unique. Many North African regimes, such as Algeria and Mauritania, in a bid to consolidate their power, have used the U.S.-sponsored war on terror as an excuse to crack down on their Salafist populations. "After 9/11, the American government has pushed many countries to fight religious extremism. The Moroccan government instrumentalized the May 16 attacks to pass an anti-terror law," Darif said.

King Mohammed VI, Morocco’s ruler, has tried to soften the edges of his country’s harsh treatment of Salafists. In an interview with the Spanish newspaper El País in 2005, he admitted that the measures taken in the past may have been "exaggerated." The king said that "there are no doubts that there have been abuses" and pledged that "it is necessary that such events never occur again." In 2006, he pardoned a few Salafists as a goodwill gesture.

According to Selma Belaala, who studies North African Islamic movements at the Centre d’Études et de Recherches Internationales in Paris, the Moroccan government successfully cast its counterterrorism efforts as a set of policies that not only employed the security services, but also aimed at reforming the country’s legal and cultural norms. "The king did not only engage in a wide repression; he also reformed the laws, and society with a new family code," she said. "Women gained more rights, and the population was more educated. This is an effort to culturally fight radicalism."

From the Rabat courtroom, Fatiha Mejjati has a different perspective. She is waiting impatiently for the judges to deliver their decision. She paces in and out of the courtroom, thanking her "sisters" for coming all the way to the country’s capital to show their support. She even fights with the security guards, asking them to let the other women in the courtroom so they don’t have to stand in the rain. Near noon, the judges finally read their judgment: Her motion is denied.

"This court is a masquerade. God will give us our payback," Mejjati yells. She then walks out of the courtroom and hands the women assembled outside pictures of her son, Elias, showing him before and after his detention. A normal looking 11-year-old has transformed into an obese, sickly, acne-ridden teenager. The women start marching peacefully under the rain through the streets of Rabat in protest, followed closely by the police.

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