A couple of weeks ago I was in Morocco for a conference about the Social Media, at Al-Akhawayn University in Ifrane; and then went on down to Rabat for a day or two. It was a visit bracketed by terrorist attacks in Tunis and Sana’a, with much blood shed and much more, I’m afraid, to come. Odd, in the circumstances, that in all the perceptive and stimulating discussion of the social media at AUI there was no single mention of what is so close to the top of our own minds in Europe, the use of those same media for terrorist propaganda and recruitment. It’s not that it’s not happening in Morocco: it is. A former salafist prisoner is quoted in the Moroccan press this week as saying that while al-Qaeda’s recruitment was a relatively long, slow process of indoctrination, “Today, thousands of young people train themselves in their own bedrooms with nothing more than a 3G key.” It was a lacuna in a future-scoping conference, given the relentless virtuosity with which Daech has developed and deployed its social media skills.
I find a growing concern amongst Moroccan friends at the reach of the terrorists and the presence of returned jihadis; and growing discomfort at Morocco’s fecundity as a source of recruits. The attack on the Bardo in Tunis is a chilling reminder of how tourism offers a soft underbelly of a target, with immense economic implications. In recent months there has been a marked stepping-up of visible security in Rabat with hadar – vigilance – patrols of well-armed security personnel (always a policemen and two soldiers, a strutting dactyl in pink epaulettes) patrolling the city and the major roads around it.
I sat happily in Rabat cafés reading a pile of newspapers and magazines with my coffee. In Spain, I read, a Moroccan woman has been arrested after arranging the journeys of as many as 40 other women to Syria from right across Europe and the Arab world. A specialized e-procuress, targeting breeding-stock for the caliphate. Recounting the story of this 30-year old woman, originally from Tetouan, who emigrated to Spain in 2000, Akbar al-Yaoum writes that it all started when she turned to the internet to fill a void in her life. On Facebook she made a virtual friend who showed her a better future in Syria for her and her son, as well as a reasonable salary if she agreed to join the “women who defend Islam.” According to the paper, which picks up an article originally published in El Pais, Samira was quickly indoctrinated to turn even against her own husband. Furthermore, she quickly became an effective recruiter of women on behalf of Daech, and especially of young women of child-bearing age. The newspaper expresses astonishment that this young woman defended, tooth and nail, during her judicial interrogation, the doctrines of Abu Bakr al- Baghdadi, making it quite clear that she would happily show her young child the YouTube videos of hostages being decapitated by the bloodthirsty men of Daech.
And all this, at least according to the writer, because she needed something to fill a void in her emigrant life, and found that something in the abyss of the internet. It’s a useful prototype of the process – a personal emptiness solaced by virtual contact, with material inducements offered, followed only later by indoctrination – but indoctrination that seems to have led to real, tooth-and-nail commitment.
Meanwhile TelQuel has a cover story on Daechi recruitment, focusing on Morocco itself, where the Ministry of the Interior counts 1,500 jihadis who have gone to Syria and Iraq. A high proportion comes from the north coast, the old Spanish protectorate where the Rif runs down to the sea (and where of course lies Tetouan, home of Samira the e-procuress). Of Morocco’s 1,500 jihadis no fewer than 500 come from the single town of Fnideq, two kilometres from Sebta (Ceuta) on that coast. With a population of about 50,000, Fnideq has the – perhaps unique – distinction of seeing one percent of its entire population fighting in Syria and Iraq. Most of them come from the quarters that are, in that delicate French euphemism, defavorisés – quarters at the top of the town called Ras Lota, Kondessa, Lebrare, and Lmarja. Here the proportion is much higher than one percent – perhaps (and I’m guessing) ten or fifteen percent of young adult males.
Of the current second generation of jihadis, reckons ONERDH (the Northern Human Rights Observatory), 60 percent have in some sense been recruited through the internet and – as so often in Britain – they have mostly given no signs of radicalization before leaving. As one father from Fnideq put it, “He had no beard, nor anything else. He never went to the mosque. He was an electrician and earned a good living. One day he told me he was going to Larache for work.” Others are less prosperous, 50 percent in casual employment, 57 percent with no education beyond primary school. And 67 percent of them are under 24 years old. ONERDH identifies two distinct generations, already, of Moroccan jihadis. The first “was attracted by the prospect of helping destitute people, and by holy war.” The second, today’s, generation is driven by “self-fulfilment, the lust for adventure and the search for material well-being.”
This lattercategory are uncannily similar to the economic migrants who buy a dangerous passage on a fishing smack to Spain, and the ‘second generation’ analysis suggests that the motivations may not be dissimilar. The north coast of Morocco is prime migration country. In Leaving Tangier, Tahar Ben Jelloun describes the young men sitting listlessly after sunset at a seafront café looking across the strait to Spain: The customers know one another but do not converse. Most of them come from the same neighbourhood and have just enough to pay for the tea and a few pipes of kif. Some have a slate on which they keep track of their debt. As if by agreement, they keep still. Especially at this hour and at this delicate moment, when their whole being is caught up in the distance, studying the slightest ripple of the waves, or the soud of an old boat coming into the harbour. Sometimes, hearing the echo of a cry for help, they look at one another without turning a hair. The cafés of Fnideq are perhaps very similar, young men tempted by different dreams, different ways out, and looking across the sea for bright lights and transformative hopes.
Parents in Morocco as in Britain, say that their children showed no obvious signs of changing lifestyle before legging it to Larache or Gatwick. The process of radicalization, which we speak about as though we understood it, is as varied as the people who pass through it. Some are religious, many are not. The encouragement and support of a small group of friends seems important, as Marc Sageman pointed out as long ago as 2004: “social bonds play a more important role in the emergence of the global salafi jihad than ideology,” whether in a Fnideq café, a Sudanese teaching hospital or a Bethnal Green school. It also suggests an explanation for the role of online grooming, the constant iteration of messages from those who have gone before, calling like sirens to friends and acquaintances. Since Sageman wrote in 2004, the social networks themselves have spread across the world, and much of the intense conversation that used to take place in cafés and on street-corners now spins out internationally, in virtual space. Morocco’s security forces are pretty good at rolling up actual physical recruiting networks (a Daech cell was busted in Fnideq as recently as January). But the café and the 3G key seem still to provide simple answers to some of life’s old problems.