The Moroccan suspect: From drug trafficking to radicalisation
CASABLANCA - Moroccan-born Ayoub el-Khazzani may well have succeeded in committing one of the deadliest terrorist attacks in Europe had not brave train passengers wrestled him to the ground on August 21st.
Khazzani, 25, was born in Morocco’s northern city of Tetouan. He emigrated with his family at the age of 18 to Madrid in 2007, but was arrested twice for drug trafficking in 2009. The economic crisis forced his father, a scrap merchant, to move to Algeciras, in southern Spain, in 2010 where Khazzani frequented the city’s mosques, including Taqwa mosque, which is considered radical. Khazzani gained a reputation as one of the most radical Muslims in his entourage.
Khazzani was arrested again in the Spanish North African enclave of Ceuta for alleged drug trafficking. He may have been further radicalised in Ceuta, which is known as one of Europe’s hotbeds for recruiting jihadists. Spanish police have made several arrests of people in the enclave planning to join the Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria.
At the end of 2012, Khazzani was flagged by Spanish police as “potentially dangerous” in the Schengen Information System, a database used by European countries to maintain and distribute information on individuals and property of interest.
Spanish security sources said Khazzani travelled to France in January 2014 when he was offered a six-month contract by British phone company Lycamobile to work in the Paris suburb of Seine-Saint-Denis. Madrid alerted French intelligence of his arrival and French security services placed Khazzani on the country’s security “S-list” of about 3,000 people who are identified as being potential Islamist threats.
Khazzani flew from Berlin to Istanbul on May 10th in a bid to get to Syria where he might have had some training with the ISIS jihadists, according to French security sources.
“There are lot of loopholes that extremists use to avoid being caught, including the security measures within the Schengen zone that let people travel move relatively freely,” said Magnus Ranstorp, a counterterrorism expert.
But Ranstorp said he did not believe the border closures of the 26 Schengen states would control the movement of extremists, adding that “it is very costly to carry out surveillance operations in the European Union zone”.
The Moroccan terror suspect is one of the many European Muslims who have been lured by jihadist networks to join their ranks.
According to the latest assessment by Europol, the EU law enforcement agency, as many as 5,000 Europeans have joined jihadist groups in Syria, stoking fears of their returning to carry out attacks on home soil. Among them are about 1,200 French nationals and 600 Britons.
Ranstorp, who is directing a project on Strategic Terrorist Threats to Europe, criticised the inefficiency of the handover of counterterror intelligence between various countries of the Schengen bloc.
There are more than 3,000 jihadists of Moroccan origin who are fighting in Syria and Iraq, according to the country’s Interior Ministry. Most of the jihadists come from northern Morocco, mainly from Tetouan and Fnideq, which are rife with smuggling and drug trafficking.
Lack of job opportunities and solid education drives many youth in the northern region to seek refuge in religion and hence become prone to radicalisation.
The use of an AK-47 in the averted attack on a high-speed train travelling between Amsterdam and Paris is reminiscent of the Tunisia terrorist attack in June by a Tunisian gunman, also armed with an AK-47, who killed 38 tourists, most of them British, in the Tunisian resort of Sousse.
Many of the terror attacks in Europe and on European targets overseas have been carried out by jihadists of North African origin. Many European countries, including Spain and France, are cooperating with Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia on intelligence sharing about recruitment cells of extremists and their imminent threats.
“European countries need to address the main issues that drive their Muslim youth to join the ranks of extremist groups in Syria and Iraq,” said Ranstorp.
“Prisons are incubators of extremism. A heavy work needs to be done in prisons across Europe in order to prevent young offenders from being radicalised and conduct terrorist acts on home soil.”