Morocco intelligence helped France thwart terror attacks
Casablanca - Moroccan officials gave French authorities information that helped avert terror attacks like the ones that killed 130 people in Paris in November, a top Moroccan intelligence official said.
“This intelligence precisely allowed France to avoid more severe attacks that were planned,” Abdelhak Khiame, director of Morocco’s Central Bureau of Judicial Investigations, told the Associated Press (AP).
Moroccan intelligence services also helped French police find Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the suspected architect of the November 13th attacks in France. The Islamic State (ISIS) jihadist from Belgium was killed along with two other suspects in a gun battle with police in the St Denis district north of Paris.
French authorities had thought Abaaoud, 28, one of ISIS’s most high-profile European jihadists was in Syria, but Moroccan intelligence services informed them that he was in France.
France reactivated its intelligence cooperation with Morocco following the January 2015 attacks on the Charlie Hebdo magazine offices in Paris. Three of the seven suspected perpetrators, including Abaaoud, came from Molenbeek, a predominantly Muslim neighbourhood near the historic centre of Brussels.
Belgium issued an international arrest warrant against Abaaoud, who was sentenced in July in absentia to 20 years in prison for recruiting jihadists for Syria.
In June 2015, a list of 80 names of people radicalised was given to the mayor of Molenbeek. The names of Abdelhamid Abaaoud, Brahim and Salah Abdeslam and Mohamed Abrini, wanted as part of the investigation into the Paris attacks, were on the list. They were reported to have been “radicalised”, “gone to Syria” or “belonging to the Islamist movement”.
Khiame said that Moroccan intelligence quickly pointed Belgian police to Molenbeek.
“After the attacks that took place in Paris, Morocco communicated that they (the attackers) were connected to a Belgian affiliate in Molenbeek,” Khiame told AP.
“It was true because afterwards, thanks to the intelligence that we had, we were able to communicate to France that the mastermind of this group… Abdelhamid Abaaoud, was still in Paris at St Denis.”
Moroccan authorities arrested Abaaoud’s brother, Yassine, last October after his plane landed in his father’s home town of Agadir. Yassine Abaaoud has been in custody since.
Khiame said Yassine Abaaoud was arrested because he “belongs to a family (involved) in terrorism” although Yassine apparently did not provide helpful information about his brother prior to Paris attacks.
Morocco’s intelligence service is known to be very active in the country and overseas, reportedly thwarting terror attacks in Morocco in the last few years and tipping European counterparts to potential extremists, especially those with dual nationalities. That active participation makes the kingdom on the list of ISIS targets.
“Morocco, a Muslim kingdom that is a major US ally and bulwark of stability in North Africa, shares intelligence on potential extremists with Western allies and across the Arab world, from Libya to Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates,” Khiame said.
There are more than 3,000 jihadists of Moroccan origin fighting in Syria and Iraq, according to the Moroccan Interior Ministry. Russian air strikes in Syria forced some jihadists to flee the country, increasing the likelihood they have returned to their home countries. Khiame insisted that such suspects are being watched.
Morocco was victim of terror attacks in 2003 when 33 people were killed in Casablanca. Eight years later, a bomb attack on a café in Marrakech’s main square killed 17 people.
Since then, Morocco has tightened security and taken pre-emptive counterterrorism measures to dismantle cells across the country.
“We don’t wait for individuals to carry out the attacks… We need to act before we react,” Khiame said.
The creation of the FBI-like Central Bureau of Judicial Investigation in March 2015, with the aim of confronting terrorism, has led to the break-up of 22 terror cells, according to Khiame.
Morocco has raised the level of alert following Paris terrorist attacks as more security forces can be seen patrolling neighbourhoods in major cities.