Wednesday, 5 March 2008

MOROCCAN AUTHORITIES DUBIOUS TERRORISM CHARGES

Jamestown Terrorism Focus
March 4, 2008 – Volume 5, Issue 9

Morocco Charges Cooperation Between Terrorists & Organized Crime

Moroccan intelligence is claiming its greatest success against
terrorism since the 2003 suicide attacks in Casablanca that killed 45
people. Two weeks ago, the government announced the arrest of 35
alleged members of a cell led by Abdelkader Belliraj, who holds both
Belgian and Moroccan citizenship. The revelation came as a surprise to
Belgian intelligence, which monitored Belliraj and other suspects for
years without finding evidence of their involvement in terrorist
activities. If Moroccan accusations are confirmed, the case could rock
the counter-terrorism community for two reasons. First, the Belliraj
network could become one of the most glaring illustrations of a
growing nexus between terrorism and organized crime. Second, it would
confirm the existence of a long-debated connection between Shiite and
Sunni radical groups. The question is whether the Moroccan allegations
have any real substance.

Since February 18, Moroccan police forces have arrested 35 persons.
Surprisingly, the suspects include politicians, businessmen,
bureaucrats, a police commander and the correspondent of Hezbollah’s
al-Manar TV (Radio television belge de la communaute francaise,
February 21). A stockpile of arms was found during the police raids,
including AK-47 assault rifles, Skorpio machine pistols, Uzi machine
guns and detonators (Actualites du Maroc, February 20). According to
the authorities, it was the most formidable arsenal ever seized in a
terrorism case in Morocco.

On February 20, the small Islamist party al-Badil al-Hadari (Civilized
Alternative) was dissolved by the Moroccan government in the aftermath
of the arrests, with the government claiming strong connections
between the party and the Belliraj network (Le Soir, February 21).
Among the 35 detainees, several were affiliated with the party,
including its secretary general. The members of the Belliraj network
were charged with a long list of crimes led by “setting up a criminal
gang to prepare and commit terrorist acts as part of a collective plan
aimed at undermining public order through fear and violence” (Maghreb
Arabe Presse, February 29).

According to Moroccan Minister of the Interior Chakib Benmoussa, the
targets of the cell included government ministers, high officers of
the Forces Armees Royales (Moroccan armed forces) and Jewish Moroccans
(Le Matin, February 22). Chakib Benmoussa claimed that the Belliraj
network had prior contacts with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, the Groupe
Islamique Combattant Marocain (GICM) and the Algerian Groupe Salafiste
pour la Predication et le Combat (GSPC) (Maghreb Arabe Presse,
February 20). The Belliraj network is also reported to have sought
permission to train in camps of the Lebanese Hezbollah in 2000
(Aujourd’hui le Maroc, February 28).

The allegations of the Interior Minister offer the picture of a
terrorist cell that scorns religious and ideological cleavages. The
alleged leader, Abdelkader Belliraj, is a 51-year old Moroccan-Belgian
Shiite. He moved to Brussels in the 1980s, where he was known for
militancy on Palestinian issues. He was also allegedly close to the
Syrian Muslim Brothers (Le Vif, February 27). Other members of the
network previously had contacts with several radical movements,
including Chabiba Islamiya (Islamic Youth), created in the 1970s (Le
Soir, February 21). To make things even muddier, some of the suspects,
including Mustapha Moatassim, secretary general of the dissolved
Islamic party al-Badil al-Hadari, were close to leftist movements.
Despite occasional Sunni-Shiite collaboration in the past, the
Belliraj network appears to be an exceptional case of a militant
Shiite group with ideological ties to far-left politics, created with
the help of Sunni organizations.

Other allegations of the Moroccan government are related to events
that occurred in Belgium and Luxemburg. According to Interior Minister
Benmoussa, Belliraj was responsible for six unresolved cases of
assassination in Belgium between 1986 and 1989. Belliraj was
questioned by Belgian investigators concerning the murder of the
rector of the Brussels Grande Mosquee, Abdullah al-Ahdal, in March
1989, but was released due to a lack of evidence (Le Soir, February
25). Some of these attacks were claimed by the now-defunct Abu Nidal
group, raising the possibility that Belliraj was a hitman for Abu
Nidal.

In addition, Rabat pointed to the Belliraj network as the culprits in
a series of hold-ups between 1992 and 2001. In 2003, Abdellatif
Bekhti, another Belgian-Moroccan, was sentenced to prison for the hold-
up of a Brink’s depot in Luxembourg in 2000. He escaped two months
later and disappeared until his arrest in the Belliraj case two weeks
ago. It is estimated that Bekhti received about $5 million of the $24
million taken in the robbery. That money was later laundered through
Moroccan hotels and real estate and was used to finance the group,
according to police (Le Quotidien, February 21).

Not every terrorist group receives $5 million in its bank account
overnight. Questions arise over why the group undertook such a
dangerous plan and what the ultimate destination was for the funds
collected through this and other robberies. There is a growing concern
among specialists regarding a potential nexus between terrorism and
organized crime—the Columbian FARC and the Taliban are often mentioned
as illustrations. But the nexus, in their case, primarily involves
drug trafficking. Cases of grand banditry are much rarer. Conducting a
major hold-up in Western Europe requires skill, sophistication and
careful planning.

Belgian authorities remain relatively dubious concerning the Moroccan
allegations. Indeed, Belliraj was well-known in Belgium. He was
monitored and even interrogated but always released. According to
Belgian intelligence, Belliraj did not have the profile of a terrorist
(Le Soir, February 20). Given that there was no bilateral cooperation
on this case, Belgian investigators wonder what information Moroccans
have that Belgium does not. Belgian police officials have been sent to
Rabat to pursue the matter.

Belgian newspaper La Libre Belgique wonders whether Moroccan
intelligence officials are not merely attempting to please the
Moroccan king (February 22). Some specialists interpreted the firing
of General Hamidou Laanigri, head of the Direction Generale de la
Surete Nationale (DGSN—Moroccan domestic intelligence) by King
Mohammed VI in 2006 as a consequence of the DGSN’s poor performance in
eradicating terrorism. Another Belgian paper added to the confusion by
claiming Belliraj had for several years been an informer for the
Belgian domestic intelligence agency, Surete de l’Etat (De Standaard,
February 29).

The light has yet to dawn on this case. More information should become
available in the coming days or weeks as Morocco and Belgium exchange
information. So far, three conclusions can be drawn with some
certainty. First, terrorism remains one of the main concerns of
Moroccan authorities. Second, Morocco has a willingness to demonstrate
its efficiency in counter-terrorism to both its own people and to the
international community. Rabat is trying to become one of the world
centers of counter-terrorism, as demonstrated by the summit on nuclear
terrorism held in February in Rabat. Third, the threat of terrorism is
likely to rise in Morocco as jihad is spreading in North Africa and
Moroccan fighters are returning from Iraq with lessons to teach to
would-be terrorists. It will be interesting to see if the nexus
between terrorism and organized crime is confirmed, as well as the
alleged cooperation between radical groups with apparent religious and
ideological incompatibilities.

Thomas Renard is a Washington-based freelance journalist and
occasional collaborator with Le Soir, the main French-speaking
newspaper in Belgium.

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