Morocco plays key role in Europe's security, but has jitters of its own, beefs up security

Moroccan intelligence services are playing a central role in Europe's effort to uncover extremist threats — and doubling down with their own security ahead of New Year's festivities.

Increasingly, armed security patrols can be seen pacing around major sites, from churches to museums in the capital city of Rabat and elsewhere. Popular nightlife spots have boosted security, with systematic bag checks to enter.

At the Es Saadi Gardens & Resort in Marrakech, a magnet for Western tourists, there are three security checks, including for cars.

"Everywhere in Marrakech, you'll find some sort of security at the entrance," said a hotel employee, who asked not to be named out of fear of losing his job.

Marrakech was the site of a bomb attack in 2011 that killed 17 people, mainly vacationing Westerners.

This year's security clampdown began in earnest after the Nov. 13 Paris attacks — claimed by the Islamic State group — that killed 130 people enjoying a Friday night on the town.

Morocco, a Muslim kingdom across the Mediterranean, doesn't consider itself immune from the threat that has France on high alert and neighboring countries on guard.

At least six of the 12 people known to have been directly linked with the Paris attacks were French or Belgian citizens of Moroccan descent, some of whom had traveled to Syria. Three others remain unidentified.

The Pentagon announced on Tuesday the death of a Frenchman of Moroccan descent, Charaffe Al Mouadan, in a coalition air strike. U.S. Army Col. Steve Warren said Al Mouadan was directly linked to Abdel Hamid Abaaoud, thought to be the leader of the Paris attackers.

French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said the path that led authorities to Abaaoud, a Belgian of Moroccan descent, came from "a country outside Europe." He did not name the country, but press reports cited Morocco, and President Francois Hollande received Moroccan King Mohammed VI days later. Abaaoud was killed in a police raid outside Paris on Nov. 18.

"Several attacks that recently would have been committed in European countries, notably France, Spain and Belgium, were foiled thanks to a very important intelligence exchange between Moroccan security services and their European counterparts," Abdelhak Khiame, head of Morocco's recently created Central Bureau of Judicial Investigations, said in an interview this week with the Belgian newspaper La Derniere Heure, and carried by Morocco's state-run MAP news agency.

The interview was published as Belgian authorities arrested two men suspected of planning Paris-style attacks during the holiday season. It was not known whether Morocco had a role in that tipoff.

The Judicial Investigations bureau was created in March and touted as a Moroccan FBI, part of a gradual increase in security that was visibly stepped up after the Paris attacks and with the approach of the New Year. The bureau has been dismantling alleged extremist cells on a nearly monthly basis. This month, it took down what it described as a "dangerous" nine-person cell that included people loyal to the Islamic State with alleged plans to carry out an attack at home.

Less than two weeks ago, a man was sentenced to four years in prison for selling expired produce and using the money to "directly finance" the Islamic State, according to MAP, the state-run agency.

Issandr El Amrani, North Africa project director at the International Crisis Group, an independent think tank, said Morocco, unlike other countries in the region, is uniquely positioned to provide intelligence to European governments because of the large number of Moroccans and Moroccan dual-nationals in Europe.

"Moroccan intelligence services are more successful in infiltrating these communities than Western services," El Amrani said. "And everything points to how true this is."

But Morocco is also dealing with its own jitters.

The country has seen no extremist violence since the 2011 attack on the Argana Cafe on the main square in Marrakech. But there are reasons to worry.

Up to 1,500 Moroccans have gone to Syria to fight with the Islamic State. Morocco is nominally a member of the international coalition carrying out airstrikes in Syria, is actively engaged in the Saudi-led offensive in Yemen and has signed up with Saudi Arabia's recently-announced Muslim military alliance to fight terrorism.

"People think it's inevitable that there will be an attack," said El Amrani, of the International Crisis Group.

Abla El Malki, a university student from Sale, next to Rabat, said she feels a threat to her security, "especially because of the amount of security there (now) is."

Keeping tourists coming is one force driving the stepped-up security. Tourism represents 12 percent of the country's GDP, according to the Tourism Ministry.

"Cells have been dismantled over the years and that's been part of the approach," Tourism Minister Lahcen Haddad said in an interview.

He remains upbeat, like the owners of the Argana Cafe — which reopened last week after extensive renovations.


Elaine Ganley in Paris contributed to this report.