Burke on Morocco

Jason Burke, author of "Al-Qaeda: Casting a Shadow of Terror", has a long Magazine piece in today's Observer. It's pretty much your standard Morocco at a crossroads between modernity and tradition piece of the kind that gets written all the time by foreign journos, even if it does contain a decent and eclectic selection of interviewees. While worth a read, I found it ultimately disappointing particularly as it has no particular focus when it talks about the need for reform and does not really seriously look at the presence of al-Qaeda inspired groups in Morocco, which should be very timely.

The recent arrests and attacks in Casablanca are very much worth investigating. In Morocco itself there is a debate between those who believe the group was linked to al-Qaeda or merely inspired by them. The government is pushing the line, credibly from what I've gathered from Cairo, that they were an amateur group that was much less sophisticated than, say, the group behind the 16 May 2003 bombings or the recent bombings in Algeria. There is also a debate in the Moroccan media about whether prisons are in effect becoming indoctrination centers for Islamists. Some of the men involved in this latest group were minor Islamist fellow travelers who were apparently radicalized in prison. They were pardoned and released a few years ago, as part of a royal amnesty on Islamist prisoners since so many had been rounded up after 16 May 2003. Burke's piece largely points to poverty as the key radicalizing factor -- a dominant analysis of the success of Islamist groups in Morocco (both non-violent and violent). Although there's no denying that Morocco is a country of much poverty and many injustices, I have problems with this way of looking at things. It dismisses the very real, pragmatic manner in which a terrorist cell is formed: someone not only has to provide the guiding radical ideology (not mainstream Islamism, but rather its violent radical form) as well as the knowledge and resources to acquire and build weapons, stay secret, escape police surveillance, and more.

The group that was recently dismantled obviously did not have any great training. But to say it was merely the result of poverty is obscuring the threat of individuals, or networks of individuals, that are propagating this type of radical Islamism. Terrorists can be rich or poor, we have seen. Last year, the Moroccan security services dismantled another cell that included of former military officers -- not the poorest of the poor. To keep on pointing to the poor allows to escape accountability on the really important sources of terrorism: radical Islamist websites, funding networks from the Gulf and elsewhere, information networks such as the ones led by "former" radical Islamists in London, and the experience of veterans from the Afghan civil war and now the Iraqi civil war. And, of course, the regional and global symbolic context of a "clash of civilizations" or "war on Islam" backed by very real occupations, daily scenes of injustice and selective disregard of national sovereignty does not help. Some types of poor people -- notably young men -- may be easy to recruit from, but focusing on poverty brings the risk of considering the poor inherently suspect.
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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.