The Problem of Assigning Extremist Origins – David S. Bloom

David S. Bloom
September 7, 2017

David Bloom, Director of Research and Policy Analysis

David Bloom, Director of Research and Policy Analysis

In the wake of the latest terrorist attacks in Western Europe, there has been much consternation in the press over who or what is responsible, as people look for patterns and try to understand what ties these incidents together. It is a natural response in the search for answers and eventual solutions. Many point to social and economic marginalization. Many more point to religion or country of origin and don’t give it another thought. Yet the obvious truth is that the problem has always been a complex one, and the root issues cannot be addressed if the presumed cause is one-dimensional and misappropriated.

After the recent attacks in Spain and Finland this month, many news articles tried to make the somewhat lazy assertion that this wave of terrorism is of Moroccan “origin.” The term itself is draws complications, in this case pooling native Moroccans together with multi-generation Europeans. Many jumped to counter the assertion, arguing that even despite their widely varying connections to Morocco, most of the perpetrators were clearly radicalized in Europe, where the vast majority spent their formative years. A microcosm of this debate played out on the pages of the Financial Times, where an article, “Spain atrocities throw spotlight on Moroccan militants,” inspired a letter to the editor entitled “Morocco is a partner in fight against terrorism,” which inspired its own letter to the editor, entitled “Beware of drawing too simple conclusions on counter-terrorism.” Morocco’s own press had a series of articles and responses as well as it grappled with the domestic implications of the issue.

A recent report by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) made excellent work of this confusion. First, it dispelled the simplistic approach of much of the recent press that attempted to draw conclusions about Moroccan connections to extremism. While the perpetrators of the Finland attacks were “economically and socially marginalized” as “underemployed, transient, unsuccessful asylum seekers,” the Barcelona attackers were “relatively well integrated into their Spanish communities and did not suffer from any demonstrable economic hardships.” So there’s no simple explanation there. And while “ideology seems to have been the dominant fuel” for the Barcelona attack, some of those involved had track records of drug offenses, and their leader was radicalized relatively recently while in a Spanish prison and had “acquaintances who had been convicted of terrorism-related offenses.”

But what about Morocco? The WINEP report describes Morocco’s effective approach to violent extremism. First, sympathy for extremist groups declined sharply in Morocco following the 2003 Casablanca bombings. Morocco’s government has also adopted a comprehensive approach to Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) that dovetails short-term and long-term strategies. A 2003 antiterrorism law bolstered the security apparatus and has proven effective.

Perhaps more importantly, the WINEP report notes that Morocco has “pursued a series of reforms in the religious realm aimed at reducing the influence of extremist ideologies.” From adopting school curricula to “promote Islamic teachings compatible with notions of human rights” and tolerance, to working hands-on in prisons to stymie a convenient pool of radicalization, Morocco has demonstrated an advanced understanding of the multifaceted nature of violent extremism. Morocco has also invested heavily in imam training, incorporating moderate values and emphasizing the role of women as an important weapon against radicalization. This imam training program has attracted a flow of students from across Africa and even Europe, making Morocco a global exporter of CVE.

The lesson here, according to WINEP, is:

“…the recent prominence of Moroccan expatriates in jihadist terrorism appears to reflect not the prevalence of fundamentalist extremism in their country of origin but the opposite: Morocco remains relatively inhospitable to such violence for a combination of cultural and security reasons. As a result, the small proportion of Moroccans inclined in that direction have evidently sought sanctuary abroad; others may have become radicalized in their adopted European homes, rather than importing the ideology from Morocco.”

While this is not to say that violent extremism is exclusively Europe’s problem, it does counter many of the shortsighted assertions in the media about the nature of this problem. Rather than seek to assign blame, the public would be better served by examining the deeper context and nuances of these attacks rather than putting a magnifying glass to their lowest common denominator.

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