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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

Meet Morocco's 'Terrorist Hunter'

Abdelhak El Khiyame claims he has disbanded 167 terrorist cells. But is he really Morocco's answer to the FBI, or is it just hype?

Abdelhak El Khiyame, the director of the Central Bureau for Judicial Investigation speaking to the media after dismantling a militant cell based in the southern city of El Jadida, on Jan 29, 2017 in Sale, Morocco. Abdeljalil Bounhar/AP Photo
Abdelhak El Khiyame, the director of the Central Bureau for Judicial Investigation speaking to the media after dismantling a militant cell based in the southern city of El Jadida, on Jan 29, 2017 in Sale, Morocco. Abdeljalil Bounhar/AP Photo

FEZ, MOROCCO // Had it succeeded, the plot could have wiped out Morocco's valuable tourist industry overnight. Holed up in the breezy surfing town of Essaouira, a cell of would-be ISIL gunmen were plotting an armed rampage, bringing extremist carnage to a resort famous for its hippy image.

But on June 22, the four suspects were arrested before they could act, sparing the resort once frequented by rock star Jimi Hendrix from mass bloodshed.

Officials claim they were aiming to repeat ISIL's 2015 atrocity on a resort near Sousse in Tunisia, in which the group massacred 38 people and killed off the country's tourism trade at the same time.

Just how close the Essaouira cell was to carrying out their attack remains unclear. But either way, the fact that Morocco remains safe enough to attract some ten million tourists a year is testament to the record of the country's chief "Terrorist Hunter" — Abdelhak El Khiyame, the head of the Central Bureau of Judicial Investigation.

The dapper policeman, who leads Morocco's answer to the FBI, claims the country's security services have thwarted more than 340 terror plots since 2002 and dismantled 167 terrorist cells.

Much as human rights groups sometimes query his agency's methods, few can dispute the end results.

Since the 9/11 attack in 2001, Morocco has had only two major terror incidents: a suicide bombing in Casablanca in 2003 that killed 45, and a 2011 bombing in Marrakech that killed 17.

Moroccan media gives much of the credit to Mr El Khiyame, 59, a career detective who has brought modernising zeal to the country's security apparatus.

What is equally remarkable is that people actually know who he is. Unlike counter-terrorism chiefs in other Arab countries who seldom appear in public, Mr El Khiyame is a familiar face on TV, giving interviews to news channels and newspapers.

Favouring smart suits with waistcoats, ties and matching pocket handkerchiefs, he is the polar opposite of the stereotypical Arab intelligence spymaster, looking more like Hercule Poirot or a university don.

He also styles himself as a man on a personal mission, declaring: “I fight terrorism every day because these people deface the covenant of Islam I believe in.”

In breaking the mould of his shadowy profession, Mr El Khiyame aims to draw a line under a long period in which Morocco's security services were feared and mistrusted.

During the "years of lead" era — used to describe the reign of the previous monarch, King Hassan II — dissidents and democracy activists were ruthlessly suppressed and often "disappeared".

While the human rights climate has improved under Hassan's son, King Mohammed VI, the burgeoning war on terror has made the role of the security services more crucial than ever.

For as much as Morocco may have been spared bloodshed on its own soil, it has produced its fair share of violent extremists. By Mr El Khiyame's own estimate, more than 1,600 Moroccans have gone to fight for extremist groups abroad, mostly in Iraq and Syria, with around 400 killed in combat.

Members of Morocco's diaspora have also played their part in recent terror atrocities in Europe. Two of the men involved in June's attacks at London Bridge in Britain had Moroccan ancestry, as did several of those involved in the Paris attacks in November 2015.

Moroccans were among those convicted over the 2004 Madrid train bombings, which killed 192 people, and in 2006, US officials said that at least nine men involved in suicide bomb attacks in Iraq had come from the same Moroccan town of Tetouan.

Mr El Khiyame blames much of the problem on poor schooling, which allows young Moroccans to be brainwashed into joining ISIL. Following the arrest of 10 female ISIL suspects last year, he pointedly criticised Morocco's education system, asking: "Where is the role of parents, school and civil society in such cases?”

But while he supports "hearts and minds" strategies designed to turn young Moroccans away from extremism, he also backs Morocco's tough anti-terror measures — such as a law passed in 2015 making it illegal for anyone to join ISIL abroad.

His agency co-operates closely with the West, and was credited by France in 2015 for information that helped them track down the mastermind of the Paris attack, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who was killed in a raid on a Paris flat five days after the attack.

Mr El Khiyame has also accused his European counterparts of not doing enough. He claims to have warned Belgian officials as far back as 2008 that the Molenbeek district of Brussels — where Abaaoud and two other attackers grew up — "could constitute a real breeding ground for terrorists”.

“Belgium is becoming the Daesh of Europe," he warned last year. "Terrorism has no religion and no nationality".

Mr El Khiyame has his own critics too. Despite attempts by the Moroccan authorities to improve their observance of judicial process, Ahmed Benchemsi, of Human Rights Watch, said there were still cases where suspects seemed to have been deceived or coerced into signing confessions.

"This follows a pattern we have documented in the past where people were compelled to sign admission statements either by torture or psychological pressure," he said.

A media source who had dealt with Mr El Khiyame's agency added that despite his openness, it was seldom possible to verify any of the claims made about breaking up terrorist cells.

In one case, where the agency said it had arrested 45 suspects in a single village, journalists' own inquiries had suggested only one was an actual suspect and the rest were simply neighbours caught up in a sweep.

Whether last week's arrests fall into that category, nobody knows. But genuine or not, the more the agency proclaims its victories, the more the Terrorist Hunter also has to live up to. Were ISIL to stage a major attack in Essaouira now, even his considerable PR skills might be put to the test.