Enhancing security cooperation in Western Maghreb

17 February 2014

On February 18, Moroccan King Mohammad IV, is visiting Mali. The trip is part of an ongoing Moroccan strategy to use a 'soft-power' approach in dealings with her neighbors to the South and South-West. This approach is intended to pursue Moroccan political and business-interest throughout the region, but doing so in such a fashion that it is not perceived as threatening or intrusive. On the contrary, it's an approach modeled to extend Moroccan know-how and successful business-models to the developing countries in North-Western Sahel and sub-Saharan West African countries.

Especially, in a country like Mali, this can also be seen as an attempt to shepherd the country 'back-to-normal' so to speak, after having lived through a couple of years of political upheavals and violence. To be sure, violence is still present, particularly in the large swath of territory covering the North of the country. This is an area where remnants of groupings that took part in the civil war and Islamist uprisings in 2011-2013, still exist. Lack of border-control and negligible security cooperation between Morocco, Algeria, Mali and Niger has made this huge area (covering parts of all four countries and stretching farther afield into Libya and Chad for example) into a haven for all kinds of cross-border crime, including terrorism and kidnapping, which often goes hand in hand. Obviously, Morocco's approach in trying to extend cooperation in the area should also be seen in light of attempts to persuade the U.S. to play an even more active role as a powerful outside broker in dealing with these multitudes of threats.

We don't know the exact agenda of the visit, but in light of earlier trips and an outspoken Moroccan emphasis on better and deeper security-cooperation, it is not farfetched to believe that these security issues will be part of the discussions. The up-tick in violent attacks by various Islamists -- running the gamut from kidnappings to regular military-style attacks on energy-producing facilities -- has become more of a head-ache for the countries in the region and is clearly behind Moroccan initiatives to beef up regional security-cooperation. Furthermore; Mali is a key-country in this new more assertive Moroccan approach and there is already an agreement between Morocco and Mali whereby Morocco is to educate up to 500 Malian Imams, trying to counter extreme and violent Islamism from a religious angle.

And, in fact, there are at least a couple of cases where Morocco could play a leading role in helping to find solutions; in November 2011 a Swedish individual -- Johan Gustafsson -- was abducted (together with a British and a Dutch citizen) from an outdoor café in Timbuktu by a group allegedly belonging to AQIM. Gustafsson's case has been highlighted recently in Sweden due to the visit to Morocco by a Swedish parliamentary delegation in early February. Articles asking for the Swedish government to do more to free Mr. Gustafsson appeared and the longevity of his ordeal (more than two years) has pushed his case again.

Morocco also has a history assisting with similar cases; in 2008-9 the country helped free two Canadian diplomats kidnapped in Niger. One of the kidnapped, Robert Fowler, wrote a best-selling book about his nearly 5 months in captivity.

Finally, Morocco is in a position to, not only promote better relations (business and other-wise) as well as deeper security-cooperation throughout Sahel and western Maghreb, but also to, perhaps, play a leading role in freeing captives from some of the most militant and violent Islamist groups in the region. It is to be hoped that even such cooperation is on the agenda when the King comes visiting..