Prison Radicalization and Recidivism Threaten Moroccan and European Security

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 17 Issue: 5


Three months after an Islamic State-inspired cell slayed two Scandinavian hikers in Imlil, authorities continue to uncover more and more small terrorist cells. Many of these groups are comprised of similar individuals—disenfranchised or previously imprisoned Moroccans with financiers and planners currently in Europe or those of European nationality residing in Morocco. In the case of the Imlil murders, it was the latter. The attackers were, allegedly, quickly organized, in contact with, and provided basic training by Kevin Zoller, a Swiss-Spanish national arrested in Marrakesh. Moroccan authorities have also accused Zoller of recruiting and financing other locals as well as individuals transiting through Morocco to Europe.

Despite the successful attack in Imlil, Morocco remains effective at identifying and arresting individuals involved in terrorism-related crimes—ranging from plotting attacks and financing terrorist groups to possession of propaganda. One of the most significant challenges Morocco faces, however, is within its prisons. This challenge presents itself not only in Morocco’s penal system, but in numerous countries across Europe.

Morocco has one of the most well-defined counter-terrorism strategies in Africa and maintains security partnerships with countless countries, including the United States, France, and Spain. Despite Morocco’s close counter-terrorism partnerships with European countries, a significant number of attacks in Europe have been committed by individuals of Moroccan origin and there has been a notable number of Europeans of various origins seeking haven in, or returning to, Morocco. Most notably, almost all of the individuals responsible for the attacks in Barcelona and Cambrils in 2017 were of Moroccan origin and some were apparently radicalized while in prison.

Morocco has been lauded for its countering violent extremism efforts and plans to reintegrate offenders into society. Morocco created the Mohammed VI Institute for the Training of Imams, Morchidines, and Morchidates in 2015 to help spread a moderate interpretation of Islam, and the country keeps a close track of activity within the country’s mosques and religious institutions.

In 2018, the General Delegation for Prison Administration and Reintegration (DGAPR) started a reintegration program for released prisoners. However, evidence still indicates that Morocco has a high rate of recidivism for terrorist offenders—several of the Imlil cell were formerly imprisoned—and there is an increasing nexus between terrorism and organized crime involving Moroccan prisoners (Le360, March 24, 2015; Morocco World News, February 15). Given the number of individuals arrested on terrorism charges (918 since December 2018), the country faces an extremely daunting challenge in not only attempting to reintegrate those released after being charged with terrorism offenses but also preventing further radicalization while in prison (Morocco World News, February 15).

The new Moussalaha deradicalization program launched in 2018 seeks to address this issue by working directly within the prisons, but hundreds of prisoners are competing for the attention of only a couple dozen spots, and the program does not account for those detained abroad that are actively working to strike Morocco. In August 2018, King Mohammed VI granted a royal pardon to 22 people convicted for charges of extremism and terrorism that had completed the Moussalaha program, including individuals convicted for the 2003 attacks in Casablanca. The pardons created concern in Spain as authorities noted the released individuals posed a potential threat if they illegally migrated to the country, where they could easily connect with already well-established networks within the Moroccan diaspora.

There have also been countless incidents suggesting recruitment and financing efforts to commit terrorism in Morocco are organized from numerous European prisons. Most recently, on February 4, Spanish authorities dismantled a terror cell within the Valdemoro prison in Madrid. The cell was led by a Moroccan man, with many activities facilitated by a prison guard. According to authorities, the cell was well-organized and had established a drug distribution network to finance their operations and had begun efforts to recruit people outside of the prison (Yabiladi, February 26). While Moroccan authorities would likely be tracking these individuals upon their release, it is unclear how the country handles reintegration for those imprisoned abroad. Opportunities for deradicalization in European prisons are negligible.

Morocco, meanwhile, has become a destination for radicalized European nationals of various origins, with numerous such people being arrested on terrorism charges in the past year, including three French nationals on February 12 (Telquel, February 12). The dismantling of several terror cells throughout last year has often revealed former prisoners or European nationals, as could be seen with the Imlil attackers. In the past year, Morocco’s Financial Intelligence Processing Unit has reported a rise in crimes related to money laundering and terrorism. Moroccan security forces have concurrently noted an uptick in the discovery of terrorist cells operating in the country.

With already established networks between Morocco and Europe as well as an apparent increase in the number of terrorist cells identified, the pardoning and reintegration of individuals convicted of terrorism presents a threat both in Morocco and Europe. As has already been seen, radicalized Europeans have sought safe haven in Morocco and connected with locals, while released Moroccan prisoners have similarly made their way to Europe where they have connected with criminal and terrorist networks.