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Morocco’s Outlaw Country Is the Heartland of Global Terrorism

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The northern Rif mountains have been home to hash-peddlers, smugglers, and outlaws for centuries. Now they’re a breeding ground for Europe’s jihadi terrorists.
APRIL 7, 2016       
In the weeks since terrorists struck the Belgian capital, authorities and journalists have wasted no time mapping out the links between the Brussels and Paris attacks — between Molenbeek, Schaerbeek, and the French banlieues, between a hideout location here, and a fingerprint found there. The lines connecting the complex web of kinship and friendship ties across national borders are starting to resemble a Jackson Pollock drip painting with a disturbing message: These are the squiggles and dots that can usher deadly terrorist plots from conception through to execution.
Mapping out the form and content of Europe’s terrorist cells is certainly vital investigative work. But lost in all these lines connecting Europe’s gray urban landscapes are the sun-drenched hills, valleys, and towns of northern Morocco. And it is to Morocco that we must go, tracing links that go back generations to the colonial era, crossing the Mediterranean — a sea that binds, rather than divides, Europe and North Africa — to fully understand what has spurred young men to wreak havoc in Western European capitals.
At the heart of terrorist strikes across the world over the past 15 years lies the Rif. A mountainous region in northern Morocco, stretching from the teeming cities of Tangier and Tetouan in the west to the Algerian border in the east, the Rif is an impoverished area rich in marijuana plants, hashish peddlers, smugglers, touts, and resistance heroes that has rebelled against colonial administrators, postcolonial kings, and any authority imposed from above. For the children of the Rif who have been transplanted to Europe, this background can combine with marginalization, access to criminal networks, and radicalization to make the vulnerable ones uniquely drawn to acts of terrorism.
The Rif’s links to jihadi attacks probably first came to light in 2004 following the March 11 Madrid bombings, when it was discovered that nearly all of the plotters had links to Tetouan. Three years after the Madrid attacks, when reporter Andrea Elliot, in an article for the New York Times Magazine, visited that hardscrabble city in the heart of the Rif, she found a number of Tetouan youth, inspired by the Madrid bombers, making their way to Iraq to wage jihad on U.S. troops with al Qaeda in Iraq, the precursor to the Islamic State.
Nearly a decade later, the same jihadi tourism trail has led to the Paris and Brussels attacks. One of the latest Riffians to gain international notoriety has been Najim Laachraoui, the Islamic State bomb-maker who traveled to Syria in 2013, where he perfected his explosives expertise. We’ve all seen him by now: He’s one of the three men captured on CCTV footage pushing trolleys in Brussels Airport on the morning of March 22. Initial reports claimed he was the “third man” — also known as the “man with a hat” — who got away. But Belgian prosecutors now say Laachraoui was one of two suicide bombers who blew themselves up at the airport.
Laachraoui was Riffian: a Belgian national predominantly raised in the Schaerbeek neighborhood of Brussels but born in Ajdir, a small Moroccan town with a proud Rif history. Paris attack suspect Salah Abdeslam and his brother Brahim, who was one of the Paris attackers who targeted bars and restaurants in the 10th and 11th arrondissements before blowing himself up at a popular Paris eatery on Nov. 13, 2015, were also both Riffian by parentage. (Ringleader Abdelhamid Abaaoud was not of Riffian origin, for what it’s worth — his family came from southern Morocco.)
The region’s baggage goes back a long way. The history of the Rif is choked with battles between Berber kingdoms in the precolonial era, which gave way to major wars and rebellions against the Spanish and French during the colonial period. Independence in 1956 brought French and Spanish withdrawals, but a continuation of power struggles between the newly independent Moroccan elites and their Berber populations sparked another cycle of rebellions and crackdowns by Moroccan King Mohamed V, followed by his son, King Hassan II. For its historic rebelliousness, the Rif was rewarded with decades of state neglect.
King Hassan II famously never visited his palaces in Tangier and Tetouan. Government services in the region were negligible, Islamists filled the void, and Wahhabi teachings spread like wild fire in the slums and shanties of cities like Tetouan. Today, the region has the highest rates of poverty, maternal death, and female illiteracy in the country, coupled with Morocco’slowest growth indices. So, though the current King Mohammed VI has invested in the region and makes it a point to vacation in the Rif, the largesse has not trickled down to ordinary Riffians. As Elliot put it in her New York Times Magazine piece, “[m]any of the locals find their rickety cars are no match for the smooth new highways or that they are woefully untrained to compete for jobs in the area’s lavish resorts.”
The story of the Abdeslam family fits a typical Riffian pattern. The parents hail from the village of Bouyafar in the Nador province of the Rif, a region they quit for Algeria, then a French territory, where Berber mountain men worked on French-owned farms or settled in Algeria’s rapidly expanding coastal cities. It was in French-controlled Algeria that the Abdeslams got French citizenship, resulting in all their children being French nationals as well. Step two of the Riffian migration saw millions joining the postwar wave of low-skilled workers feeding Western Europe’s mines and factories during the postwar boom years; the Abdeslams came to Belgium in the 1960s.
But while Europe offered the sorts of economic opportunities for which the first generation of migrants was grateful, the next generation has struggled. The economic downturn since the late 1970s has not helped. The Belgian heavy industries and coal mines that once drew Moroccans from their villages have now shut down, leaving behind areas of urban blight. Belgium’s national unemployment rate, which hovers around 8 percent, climbs to more than 20 percent among the youth. For Belgians of Moroccan or Turkish origin, that figure can double to around 40 percent.
But unemployment is not the sole factor contributing to the attraction among some Belgian Muslims to the jihadi cause. Among Belgium’s Muslim minority — an estimated 5.9 percent of the total population of 11.3 million — Moroccans form the largest community (between 400,000 and 500,000), followed by people of Turkish origin. While Belgian nationals or residents of Moroccan origin dominate the country’s roster of jihadis over the past 15 years, experts have noted the lack of Turkish names on terrorist lists. In a country like Belgium — which, unlike France, has no history of colonization in the Muslim world — not enough attention is paid in intelligence and policy circles to the origins of criminals-turned-jihadis. That’s a pity, because the answers can help frame solutions for what is primarily a domestic problem with transnational implications.
Why are Belgians of Turkish descent so reliably unimpressed by jihad? The reasons are varied: For starters, they’re Turkish speakers, and so they’re less exposed to mostly Arabic Wahhabi proselytizing than their Moroccan brothers. Then there’s culture: In a recent New York Review of Booksinterview, Didier Leroy, a leading terrorism researcher at the Royal Military Academy of Belgium, talks about a “certain type of identity construction in the Turkish community,” in which “the secularist heritage of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk … probably still plays a part.” Another critical factor is how mosques are run and staffed with imams: Turkey sends its own imams to cater to the Turkish community’s religious requirements in Belgium, and most mosques frequented by Belgian Turks are run by the Diyanet, the Turkish directorate for religious affairs, which keeps a tight rein over the religious sphere in the Turkish state. By contrast, the mosques serving the Moroccan community are staffed by Gulf-trained imams who, critics say, have preached a Salafi form of Islam far more radical than the Maliki school of Islam practiced in North and West Africa.
But, lurking in the background of all this, there is still the Rif — a radicalizing factor all its own.
The region’s dynamics of pacification, mismanagement, and neglect, inherited from the colonial era, mirror those that plague Pakistan’s troubled tribal zones. Like the Rif — which, in Arabic, literally means the “edge of cultivated land” — the peripheral tribal zones of Pakistan have gotten by with traditional codes of conduct based on honor, revenge, and hospitality. When the old order collapses in the absence of state institutions, jihadi ideologies flourish in these places like marijuana crops on the Rif slopes or poppy shoots along the Helmand highway.
The baggage of neglect has affected even the relatively lucky Riffians who escaped poverty back home for Europe. The older generation arrived in then-French-controlled Algeria, Belgium, or mainland France only to find that, as residents of a former Spanish enclave, their French was not up to snuff. Neither, as Berbers speaking Amazigh languages and dialects, was their Arabic.
Under these circumstances, the old Riffian ways and mores of traditional codes of conduct, honor, justice, and suspicion of authorities were transplanted to Brussels neighborhoods and allowed to bloom and grow. Fairly or not, Belgian authorities describe the country’s Rif community as marked by lawlessness and a “tribal, more aggressive culture” that sets it apart from other immigrant communities. In an incisive Politico piece titled “Molenbeek Broke My Heart,” Teun Voeten, a former neighborhood resident and member of the borough’s bobo (“bourgeois bohémiens”) set, noted how, like many white professionals taking advantage of Molenbeek’s affordable rents, he moved in dreaming that his kids would play with their Moroccan neighbors in a multicultural love zone. But, he noted, “[t]he neighborhood was hardly multicultural. Rather, with roughly 80 percent of the population of Moroccan origin, it was tragically conformist and homogenous. There may be a vibrant alternative culture in Casablanca and Marrakech, but certainly not in Molenbeek.”
What Voeten didn’t understand — and what so many in Belgium still don’t — is that the “alternative cultures” of Casablanca and Marrakech are as far from Molenbeek as the hills of the Rif are from the royal palace in Rabat. While newcomer bobos are made to feel like outsiders, for the old migrants and their children, there are ties that bind. And it was those Riffian ties, based on old codes of conduct that place hospitality and kinship above the law laid out by distant elites, that helped Salah and Brahim Abdeslam and their criminal-jihadi brothers hide and thrive.
These are the sorts of networks that the predominantly white Belgian and French security services now must crack and infiltrate. Well, good luck to them. The old colonial chickens are coming home to roost, and the best way to address these problems is by diversifying the security services and ensuring migrants don’t hit a glass ceiling when they’re striving to find a place in Western society. While it’s important to understand the nuances of origins — particularly when it comes to hiring imams and security cooperation between European and North African authorities — it’s equally critical to ensure we don’t fall into the trap of stereotyping. It goes without saying that not all Riffians are jihadis or prone to criminal acts. Like the majority of Muslim immigrants in Europe, most Riffians find the Islamic State’s brand of nihilistic, non-Islam alien and anathema to the lived religion they practice. Europe has plenty of qualified, educated Riffians. In the Netherlands, for instance, the mayor of Rotterdam, Ahmed Aboutaleb, is a Riffian.
Last year, the Moroccan-born Aboutaleb created a buzz in Dutch political and rap circles when he told Muslims who do not want to adapt that they could “fuck off.” It’s the sort of tough talk from a homeboy who has made it that Riffians respect. I’m getting hoarse saying this, but I’ll say it once more: It’s time to involve the Muslim community in this fight in society’s highest positions. Forget about Europe’s Islamophobic white right and the politically correct left. They can argue and stew in their salons and studios. This battle must be won on the streets, from Molenbeek to Tetouan.