Another round of suicide attacks on Saturday, April 14, 2007, in front of the American Cultural Center in Casablanca, Morocco, prompted fear among Western and North African governments that further attacks were forthcoming. Within hours of the two attacks, Moroccan police arrested the ringleader and his deputy of the terrorist group allegedly responsible for Saturday’s and last week’s attacks (Terrorist Incident, Terrorist Incident, Previous Report).
Although these two terrorists were arrested, police are still looking for at least eight additional suicide bombers ready to attack. This has left Morocco in a vulnerable position for additional suicide attacks in the near future.
In light of the dramatic increase in terrorist attacks this past week in Morocco and Algeria, security officials have boosted security measures around potential target areas, like Western infrastructures and state buildings . However, the governments’ campaign to combat terrorism must also address other important aspects, namely civil society participation and cooperation, in order to effectively decrease the threat of terrorist activity in North Africa.
Police on the Offensive
Police in Morocco and Algeria have been successfully pursuing terrorists in their respective territories for several months. In addition to effectively apprehending terrorists in Morocco, security authorities have been able to locate cell hubs and uncover viable information that could unearth other planned attacks. For instance, the apprehended leader and his deputy responsible for the attacks in Morocco this weekend, led the police to an apartment which contained communications equipment, documents, and two bags that may have been used for planning attacks (source). More importantly, these arrests enabled the police to identify other group members and the police are now actively searching for them.
In Algeria, police conducted a successful offensive earlier this month, resulting in the arrest of 50 to 70 terrorists and the killing of 20, including top insurgent Soheib Abu Abderhamane (source). The recent increase in attacks has led to officials tightening security around viable targets within their borders. Moreover, the US consulate in Casablanca released a statement explaining that, “Moroccan authorities continue to disrupt groups seeking to attack US- or Western-affiliated targets,” leaving the country on high alert for more attacks in the near-term (source). However, it is important to note that strengthening security and gathering intelligence are not sufficient in the effort to deter the intentions of the terrorist groups operating in North Africa.
Civil Society Must Engage
The success of North African governments’ counter-terrorism efforts will also depend on their ability to actively and effectively engage civil society in the fight against terrorism. An issue that may be easily overlooked and yet could make the difference between arresting one terrorist and disrupting an entire cell, is the productive support of civilian populations. In a police crackdown in Algeria last month, a local village woman was attributed to be the source of the location of one of the al-Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb’s (AOIM) cells in the desert mountain area. Likewise, if it were not for the Internet café owner locking the door of his store and refusing service to the former suicide bomber, chances are high that the March 11, 2007, incident would have taken place at the intended target location (Terrorist Incident, Previous Report).
Unfortunately, not all people are as cooperative when it comes to combating terrorism. We find that the majority of Moroccans and Algerians, who are against radical and militant Islam, are middle class workers and/or individual small business owners, especially those whose business caters to Western tourists and foreigners. Most natives living close to city centers and the capital are shocked and appalled by the surge in radical Islamism and acts of terrorism in recent months.
Those who are more supportive or sympathetic to the terrorists’ cause fall under two categories. The first group is comprised of unemployed, poor youths. Although Morocco is a moderately religious nation, a large percent of unemployed poor youth seem to align themselves with the jihadist cause. They blame their government and Western allies for their misfortune and are more sympathetic to political and religious movements that feed off of their circumstance.
The second category is political instability in the predominantly Berber-speaking mountain regions. Since the Algerian government’s large offensive earlier this month, up to 500 insurgents remain at large, mainly in the Berber Kabyille region, either because of family ties or because the region is still poorly policed. Nonetheless, the area’s perpetual political instability has disrupted police efforts to establish stability. Berber speakers have long had a tense relationship with the authorities, stemming from what they see as discrimination by the Arab majority. The Berbers’ cooperation is paramount to the success in the fight against terrorism in North Africa because of the volume of fighters who reside in their region. If AOIM and other militants feel they have a safe haven in the mountainous Berber region, they are likely to continue to train their fighters there and host their recruitment centers in their midst.
Forecast: Increasing Security Does Not Equal Decreasing Attacks
North African governments will need to broaden their perspective on combating terrorist activities in the Maghreb. Although policing methods have improved and security authorities are yielding impressive results – apprehending terrorists and disrupting cells – a more comprehensive strategy that encourages civilian participation and cooperation must expand and advance. It is important to have the Berbers on the government’s side given the volume of knowledge possessed about the whereabouts and functions of AOIM cells and training camps.
We believe that increasing security measures alone does not effectively translate to decreasing the threat of attacks in North Africa. We believe that terrorists will continue to strike Western- and government-affiliated targets with little regard to increased police security. However, we suspect that if the Algerian and Moroccan governments enhance counter-terrorism methods and gain civilian support, terrorists will likely slow down their plans of attack, giving authorities more time to effectively disrupt them.