RABAT (Reuters) - Morocco has shifted from mass arrests to tight surveillance in its fight against Islamic militants and hopes a new campaign to reinforce the authority of state-appointed imams will cut off support for jihadism.
As militants reach a growing audience through DVDs and the Internet, the government has tried to seize back the initiative, revising laws governing mosques and adding new theological councils to tighten control of religious life in the regions.
Now it is preparing to send 1,500 supervisors into the north African country’s towns and villages to make sure that imams are preaching the moderate local version of Islam and respect for King Mohammed in his role as leader of Morocco’s Muslims.
Suicide bombings in May 2003 killed 45 people and tarnished a reputation for stability that helped staunch U.S. ally Morocco draw growing numbers of tourists and record foreign investment.
An anxious security sweep saw the closure of unregulated mosques and the arrest of more than 3,000 people on terrorism-related charges.
“The security services may have been badly prepared, which explains why we arrested thousands of people,” said Moroccan political analyst Mohamed Darif. “They have now begun to master the situation and no longer arrest just anyone.”
Around a third of those rounded up since 2003 remain in prison and Islamist advocacy groups say many are held on flimsy evidence after being forced to sign false confessions, something the government denies.
Security experts say the authorities have a better grip on the situation after building up a database of potentially dangerous Islamists and managing to infiltrate some networks to ward off attacks before they happen.
European governments are hungry for Morocco to share its knowledge, fearing Algeria-based Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb could use the kingdom as a springboard for attacks in Europe, according to European security experts.
Intelligence appears to have improved -- arrests are announced less often and tend to involve smaller numbers of suspects.
Moroccans have been linked to several plots targeting European states in recent years.
Two were convicted in Spain for train bombs in the suburbs of Madrid that killed 191 people and wounded 1,857 in March 2004. A Moroccan court convicted a drug trafficker in December of links to the attacks.
Analysts say Spanish intelligence officials are increasingly worried about the establishment of al Qaeda training camps deep in the Sahara, as far away as Mali and Mauritania.
Last month, Moroccan police arrested five members of a suspected terrorist cell that was also active in Spain, according to a security source.
“There’s a suspicion that a lot of traffic goes through Morocco and lots of people who are important in facilitating that are sitting in Morocco,” said Peter Neumann, director at the Centre for Defence Studies at King’s College London.
Last year Sheikh Mohammed Maghraoui, a Saudi-funded religious figure, told followers that girls as young as nine could marry.
His comment was interpreted as a fatwa, or religious edict, and was condemned by media and human rights groups. The government ordered the closure of dozens of Koranic schools linked to Maghraoui.
In Morocco, only the Senior Council of Ulemas, or religious experts, is authorised to issue religious decrees.
Government officials say counter-terrorism is not the main goal of the imam training programme.
They say the aim is to ensure that imams have the necessary skills to do their job and are in tune with modernising reforms carried out since King Mohammed came to the throne in 1999.
Knowing a few verses of the Koran will no longer be enough to confer authority.
They will be taught how to dispense advice, arbitrate in disputes, help with literacy programmes among the poor and made aware of new laws such as one giving married women more rights.
“This is more than just a response to 2003. It’s a demand from society today that the state does what is necessary,” said Hakim el Ghissassi, a cabinet member at Morocco’s Ministry for Religious Endowments and Islamic Affairs.
“In this era of satellite TV, people no longer accept to see religious officials who are not trained.”
Morocco is also sending religious experts to Europe under agreements with countries including France and Spain that have large Moroccan expatriate populations.
A new European Council of Ulemas will help improve Islamic instruction in Europe and ensure imams are better trained and more socially involved, said Ghissassi.
“If today we deny religious instruction to the young, where will they look for it?” said Ghissassi. “On extremist Internet sites with self-proclaimed radical Imams.”
Some analysts are doubtful that improving the quality of Islamic instruction will stop young, second-generation Moroccans in Europe signing up for jihad.
“It’s not the control of religious organisations that will put an end to terrorism,” said Olivier Roy of France’s National Scientific Research Centre (CNRS). “The young who radicalise do so outside the context of the mosque.”