Crackdown Highlights Deterioration of Moroccan-Belgian Counter-Terrorism Cooperation

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 5 Issue: 22

Anti-terrorist cooperation between Morocco and Belgium reached its lowest point in the last few months as recent security operations conducted by Rabat exposed a lack of communication between the two nations and a vast difference in counter-terrorist methods.

On May 19 Moroccan and Belgian media announced that 11 suspected terrorists had been arrested by local police in the Moroccan cities of Fez and Nador. The suspects were accused of planning a series of attacks in Brussels against the headquarters of the European Parliament (also known as “Le Caprice des Dieux”—the Whim of the Gods), a Sheraton hotel and possibly the 22-story tower where the Belgian Federal Police have their headquarters. Security forces also mentioned that the group was preparing attacks on Moroccan soil, but did not specify which targets were involved. Moreover, the network was allegedly involved in fundraising and sending prospective jihadis to Iraq and North African training camps run by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) (Aujourd’hui Le Maroc, May 21).

The leader of the group was identified as Abdellatif Benali, a 25-year-old Belgian citizen of Moroccan descent who, despite having been under surveillance by Brussels’ security forces for years, was arrested only after his arrival in Morocco. In February Benali decided to go to Nador, where he was caught by local security forces. However, the news appeared in the media only in May, taking by surprise Belgian authorities who affirmed that they had not been informed of the operation and had known about it only through the media (La Dernière Heure, May 21; Yabiladi, May 21). This failure to exchange information may be related to an earlier counter-terrorism operation in February that seriously undermined Moroccan-Belgian relations, arousing doubts and suspicions in Rabat on the reliability and methods of Brussels’ intelligence service, the Sûreté de l’Etat (SE)/ Veiligheid Van de Staat (VS).

Last February another terrorist network—with no connection to Benali’s group, according to Moroccan police—was uncovered, with 35 alleged terrorists arrested by Morocco’s police and an impressive stockpile of weapons seized during one of the raids. The head of this ring was Abdelkader Belliraj, who holds both Moroccan and Belgian citizenship. Several members of the group were affiliated to a Moroccan Islamist party, al-Badil al-Hadari, which was dissolved by Rabat immediately afterward (see Terrorism Focus, March 4). However, what had been heralded as one of Morocco’s most successful anti-terrorism operations a few weeks later turned out to be a far more complicated and murky affair, involving the Belgian secret services and their relations with Belliraj.

At the beginning of March the Belgian media revealed that the alleged head of this terrorist network was indeed a paid collaborator of the Belgian intelligence since 2000. Despite his likely involvement with a series of murders at the end of the 1980s, he was a source of information for the SE and sometimes worked as their envoy in Afghanistan and Algeria (Le Vif, March 5). The unearthing of the connection between Belliraj and the SE/VS prompted the press to question the methods of the Belgian intelligence service, while Brussels’ minister of justice, Jo Vandeurzen, asked for an investigation into this questionable relationship. In this context, similar doubts were expressed in the Moroccan press regarding the passivity of the Belgian police toward Abdellatif Benali, who was under surveillance and implicated in an alleged terrorist plot in December 2007 (see Terrorism Focus, January 15), but nonetheless was apparently free to run his network and travel between Morocco and Belgium (Aujourd’hui Le Maroc, May 22).

Against this background, it may not be surprising that Belgian authorities were not informed by Morocco’s security forces of the operation against Benali’s network. Mutual distrust seems to be affecting cooperation against terrorism between the two countries, as exemplified by the claim of Moroccan Minister of the Interior Chekib Benmoussa: “It is evident that Belgium’s security services knew Belliraj” (Jeune Afrique, March 5). Morocco’s hardened stance toward terrorism seems to be clashing with Brussels’ more flexible approach, with prospects for collaboration between the two countries looking increasingly grim despite the ever more alarming common terrorism threat.

Another interesting issue emerging from this latest crackdown concerns AQIM’s growing international connections. AQIM appears increasingly eager to establish relations with other networks in the Maghreb region and in Europe; Benali was allegedly in contact with two high-profile Moroccan members of AQIM, Abou Zakaria and Abou Nousair (Assabah, May 22). In this sense, the operation against Benali’s network highlights once more the risk posed in Europe by AQIM-related groups, which seem likely to evolve from mere fundraising to more dangerous activities in the coming years.