North Africa: Maghreb Greets New Year Amid Tight Security - Morocco, Algeria, Mauritania On Alert

Casablanca and Nouakchott — Morocco deployed extra security officers to protect New Year revellers, with National Security chief Bouchaib Rmail urging all judicial police officers to be especially vigilant on Tuesday (January 1st).

"Security chiefs will focus primarily on the protection of strategic buildings and sites, Christian and Jewish places of worship, restaurants and monuments, and tourists and foreign nationals in general," he said in Casablanca on December 22nd.

Rmail advocated a four-pronged security strategy: "anticipation, prevention, interaction and suppression of crime".

Ever since an al-Qaeda cell in Morocco was dismantled last month, Interior Minister Mohand Laenser has repeatedly underlined that security services needed to be hyper-vigilant.

The group allegedly recruited young Moroccans to join al-Qaeda and the Movement for Tawhid and Jihad (MUJAO) in northern Mali.

In another incident, members of a new Ansar al-Sharia offshoot group were arrested last month for allegedly plotting large-scale terrorist strikes across Morocco.

"This cell, which was seeking to obtain financial and military support from AQIM, was planning attacks on sensitive buildings, security headquarters and tourist sites," he said.

This operation came just a few days after Morocco thwarted an attempt by another terrorist group to set up a training camp in the Rif mountains.

Given the recent uptick in terrorist activity, checkpoints have been set up at town entrances and along main roads across all regions of Morocco.

In Casablanca, deployment is in full swing. In addition to police roadblocks, administrative police officers on foot or on motorbikes are seen around the city centre, the tourist sites of Ain Diab, Morocco Mall, around the Hassan II Mosque, the tram network, the Al-Maghrib bank and other financial and administrative buildings.

The main purpose of the roadblocks is to check the identities of all drivers of vehicles which arouse suspicion.

The disappearance of several known salafists is another major concern for security services. They include a man known as "Rachid", who was previously apprehended at Casablanca Airport while preparing to board a flight to Mali. He had been jailed in 2010.

The authorities fear that these men may have joined sleeper cells either within or outside the country in order to carry out terrorist acts.

Algeria boosts road patrols

Algerian security forces are also taking special measures to protect people and property during the New Year celebrations. Some 75,000 officers are protecting sensitive locations for New Year's Eve and New Year's Day.

Various teams would be deployed to safeguard the public, the National Gendarmerie said in a December 30th statement.

Uniformed and plain-clothes officers are out patrolling main roads in the big cities.

Security forces are covering highways and roads "since the school holidays coincide with the New Year celebrations, a time when large numbers of people are on the move", the statement said.

The Directorate-General for National Security said that "exceptional measures had been taken to maintain and manage general security across all wilayas (provinces) of the country".

Significant human and material resources have been allocated to protecting entertainment venues during the New Year celebrations. Border police have also taken steps to make crossings easier for those visiting or leaving Algeria.

"The police presence is reassuring," said Mounib Sayeh, a young student who planned to ring in the New Year by partying.

"There will definitely be a lot of people on the streets and it's essential to make sure everything goes smoothly," he told Magharebia.

Malika Chihab also expressed appreciation for the special security measures.

"I don't have any specific plans for New Year's, but the fact that security will be strong will encourage me to go out with my kids," she said.

"Being able to wander around the streets of Algiers without having to fear for my safety or that of my loved ones gives me peace of mind," she said.

Mauritania focuses on borders

Ahead of New Year revelry, Mauritanian security services visibly increased their presence around Western embassies and along the country's borders.

The activity is driven by more than just holiday celebrations. Mali instability is causing action in Mauritania.

Troop movements have been reported over the last few days in the capital, with soldiers travelling aboard all-terrain vehicles equipped with weapons and ammunition.

On December 27th, President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz reportedly proposed large-scale military manoeuvres along the border with Mali to begin over the next few days.

According to terrorism analyst Sidati Ould Cheikh, "the main aim of these exercises is to prepare the Mauritanian army to take on terrorist and other armed groups in the border region of Azawad".

"This is why Mauritania, which is directly threatened, is creating special counter-terrorism units and taking the necessary steps to defend its territorial integrity," the analyst said.

"SIGs (Special Intervention Groups) are mobile units made up of powerful Toyota pick-ups armed with heavy machine guns, which are stationed permanently in the desert and move around on the basis of intelligence obtained by aerial reconnaissance services," Ould Cheikh added.

To make it easier to detect potential terrorists, a large part of the Mauritanian desert was declared a restricted military area. For the past five years, no civilians have been allowed to enter the area, so all vehicles are regarded as suspicious.

Even the smallest convoy is immediately spotted, intercepted and searched by SIGs.

Magharebia, by Hassan Benmehdi in Casablanca and Hayam El Hadi in Algiers and Bakari Gueye in Nouakchott (January 1, 2013) -- Maghreb authorities are at red alert for the end-of-year festivities.

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