Oual in Casablanca — With the same terrorist threat hanging over Europe and the Maghreb, and the entire region losing young people to foreign jihad, experts say co-operation is more urgent than ever.
North African and European countries are in this battle together, according to a recent conference in Tangier.
Dubbed "European jihadism and its consequences for security in the Mediterranean area", the event brought security officials, researchers and representatives from international organisations to the northern Morocco coastal city on Friday (May 23rd).
It was the second such meeting organised jointly by the Moroccan Centre for Strategic Studies (CMES) and the Netherlands, which indeed has reason to worry.
This time last year, Holland announced that some 150 Dutch-Moroccan jihadists had sought jihad in Syria. Moroccan immigrants, imams, families and officials quickly gathered at the Grand Mosque in Amsterdam to ask how such a thing had happened under their radar.
Concerns are equally high in France, leading authorities to set up an anti-jihad hotline. In just the first ten days after its launch, dozens of reports had been called in about men and women in their teens and twenties in search of foreign jihad, French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said on May 8th.
The threat is also growing in Spain. A joint operation with Moroccan police two months ago dismantled an international terror ring that recruited jihadist fighters for Syria, Mali and Libya, The mastermind was identified in March as a 51-year-old from Belgium who had converted to Islam.
Calls for North-South co-operation
The threat of jihadism in Europe and the Mediterranean- region has grown markedly in recent years, CMES chair Mohamed Benhammou said in his opening remarks to the Tangier forum.
"Security in the European-Mediterranean region is there for the common good," he said, calling for countries from both shores to exchange information, and learn from their success and failures.
Armed jihadist groups and emerging lawless zones "are a real threat to peace and regional and international security, and require a multidimensional and multidisciplinary response", agreed Richard Nsanzabaganwa, an advisor to the International Criminal Court (ICC).
According to Olivier Kempf, a staff researcher at the France-based Institute for International and Strategic Relations (IRIS), joint security efforts with North African states have curtailed the capacity of international terror networks in Europe. They have thus turned to online recruitment.
"Over the past few years, we have seen a profusion of forums and sites dedicated to the indoctrination of young Europeans," the conference mission statement said.
"By spreading emotive and well-crafted messages and using powerful images, which highlight the suffering of 'oppressed peoples', these networks are reaching their targets," the statement added.
Terrorists are also tailoring their messages for different audiences exploiting social networks to lure potential recruits. North-South security collaboration is emerging as a way to fight something that operates in a realm unhindered by national borders.
European jihadism on the rise
The Tangier conference sounded the alarm over the danger of European jihadism.
"It is considered one of the most important challenges facing peace and security in the Euro-Mediterranean area in the coming years," CMES chief Mohamed Benhammou said. This phenomenon, while not entirely new, took on an alarming dimension with the outbreak of the Syria conflict in 2011, he said.
"Each European country has disclosed troubling figures on the number of its nationals who joined the front. The trend thus becomes a real concern, given the profiles of these jihadists and the return of hundreds of indoctrinated elements who are prepared to take their jihad to European territory or neighbouring countries," Benhammou added.
A Portuguese expert called for "the problem of European jihadism to be tackled through a realistic, consensual and effective EU counter-terrorism policy and strategy".
The threat posed by European jihadism has implications for issues ranging from migration and banking networks to drug trafficking and other crimes, said Paulo Gorjão, who heads the Portuguese Institute for International Relations and Security (IPRIS).
"As such, a joint EU foreign policy is essential," he concluded.
The rise in emigration has brought Muslim populations to the heart of Europe, noted Milad Saad Milad of the Academy of Higher Studies in Tripoli.
There are growing Muslim minorities among European populations, the Libyan analyst said. And after three and four generations, the question is to what extent these citizens have become integrated.
Another factor is the growing number of conflicts around this region, especially in the Middle East, which is attracting an increasing number of would-be jihadists.
These new battlefields - combined with the strategic, geopolitical and political fault lines that criss-cross the region - encourage jihadist tendencies, said Mohamed Kadry Said, a retired general and head of the security studies unit at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo.
Jihadists are making use of smaller, more independent and more decentralised organisational structures, the Egyptian analyst noted.
"In the future, jihad warfare will be more focused on 'individual terrorism' practised by independent cells, in combination with jihad on 'open fronts' that could be anywhere," Said added.
'Islam has been taken hostage'
There needs to be a plan of action to deal with the problem of jihadism at its source, both in Europe and south of the Mediterranean, said Hatem Ben Salem, a former Tunisian education minister and ambassador.
"Military intelligence activities, which are essential in achieving results in this field, must no longer be just sporadic and disorganised," he said. "All resources must be mobilised through a joint command, which will use a concerted approach, considering the real concerns of the southern states."
He suggested that if operations in the field were to be successful, action should be taken to deprive jihadists of the support they receive from their community, whether within the Sahara or the outer districts of European cities.
"That is why clamp-downs alone cannot deal with the worrying rise of radicalisation," the Tunisian diplomat and legal scholar said.
"All components of civil society and the media need to be involved by taking back control of aspects connected with education and leisure activities for young people," Ben Salem added.
The role played by religious leaders in this work is crucial, experts agreed. Many speakers made the same point: that jihadists often have a perverted interpretation of Islam and sharia.
Special efforts need to be made in Europe, they argued, where Islamist activists exploit the democratic legal framework for ideological and violent purposes, and have a damaging influence on young people.
"Islam has been taken hostage," said Charles Saint-Prot, director of the Paris Observatory of Geopolitical Studies. "We need to free Islam from their clutches," he added.
When faced with an ideological war, the French analyst said, there is a need to go all-out with an ideological counter-offensive.
"Western countries would do very well to work more closely with countries that have greater experience in this area," Saint-Prot added.