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Attacks in Spain Put New Focus on Europe’s Moroccan Diaspora

The alleged involvement in last week’s terrorist attacks in Spain of a number of Moroccan nationals has Western security officials worried.


By

Benoit Faucon and

David Gauthier-Villars

The alleged involvement in last week’s terrorist attacks in Spain of a number of Moroccan nationals—one of whom is still at large—has Western security officials fretting over how deeply radical Islamic groups have penetrated a community of four million spread across the European Union.

Spanish authorities have said most of the 12-strong network they believe plotted and conducted Thursday’s rampages in and near Barcelona were Moroccan nationals or of Moroccan descent. Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the attacks in which 14 victims died. Spanish authorities said Sunday they take this claim at face value, adding that some of the bombing material had the trappings of the militant group.

Concerns over the dispersion of Moroccan radicals, many of whom grew up in Europe, escalated further after Finnish police said a man suspected of stabbing two people to death in the provincial town of Turku on Friday was an asylum seeker from Morocco.

In a statement released Thursday, the Council of the Moroccan Community Living Abroad, which represents the country’s diaspora, said it “condemns this abominable terrorist act” and appealed to its members “to reject terrorism and extremism and to intensify their efforts to defy the destructive ideologies which spread feelings of fear and hatred in societies.”

Morocco’s monarch, Mohammed VI, also expressed his country’s “total commitment to international efforts seeking to address the plague of terrorism and eradicate it.”

Ali Yassine, president of the predominantly-Moroccan Annour Islamic Community of Ripoll, a town at the foot of the Pyrenees where some of the alleged Barcelona attackers had lived, also decried the assault. “People have to understand that we Muslims aren’t guilty, what these people do is outside of Islam,” Mr. Yassine said. “People who launch these terrorist attacks are cowards.”

In Spain, investigators say they believe the group used a house in Alcanar, a seaside town southwest of Barcelona, to stockpile more than 100 gas canisters and prepare their attacks. The finding, if confirmed, would suggest members of the Moroccan diaspora, possibly without direct connections to Islamic State, succeeded in stealthily using a European base as an incubator to recruit and train young operatives—one was 17 years old—before springing into action.

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Ahead of last week’s attacks, counterterrorism officials were worried that large Moroccan communities established in Spain, as well as in France and Belgium, provided fertile ground for the development of radical cells. That is in part because some members of those communities have access to steady flows of illicit revenue from the trade of cannabis resin, of which Morocco is the world’s largest producer, one Western counterterrorism official said.

“Jihadi connections within Moroccan diasporas in Europe are becoming increasingly worrisome,” the person said, citing ties uncovered in the past year between terrorism cells and Moroccans ensconced in Spain and Belgium.

About a year ago, such concerns prompted Spain to use an anti-Islamic State coordination forum to solicit help from other EU members in tracking suspected radicals of Moroccan origins, according to security officials. Spain has strained to contain the rise of radical members of the diaspora in Ceuta and Melilla, two Spanish cities on the Mediterranean coast of Morocco.

A terrorist mowed down pedestrians with a van in the heart of Barcelona, Spain, on Thursday, killing at least 13 people and injuring scores in an attack claimed by Islamic State. Witnesses recalled their panic and shock. Photo: AP.

The role of Moroccans inside Islamic State came into sharp focus in late 2015 when it emerged that a Belgian-Moroccan, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, had used connections within the Moroccan diaspora in Brussels to travel back from Syria, and organize coordinated attacks on Paris. In the French capital, he had also relied on logistical support from a female cousin, before both were killed by police.

Some émigrés turned terrorists without receiving Islamic State training. One of the two Moroccans involved in the London Bridge attack last June, Youssef Zaghba, had sought to reach Syria, according to his Italian mother, Valeria Collina. After his travel plans were foiled by Italian police, he went to the U.K. where he took part in a truck-and-knife rampage.

The presence of Moroccans in modern-day terrorism networks harks back to the 1980s and the fight against Soviet forces in Afghanistan. A decade later, Moroccans who had taken part in that war set up an al Qaeda franchise: the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group.

Known under its French acronym as GICM, the group vowed to establish Shariah rule in its home country and, like the broader al Qaeda, attack Western interests. It had operatives in Europe, according to the Combating Terrorism Center, which is part of the U.S. Military Academy in West Point. Investigators in Morocco and Spain have tied it to suicide bombings in Casablanca in 2003 and the coordinated attacks on Madrid trains in 2004, in which 191 people were killed.

After civil war broke out in Syria in 2011, scores of Moroccans, including former Guantanamo detainees, faced few obstacles to travel to the Middle East and join radical groups. Earlier this year, Moroccan police said an estimated 1,600 nationals have rallied to Islamic State and other extremist groups in Syria and Iraq. Including Moroccans carrying passports from EU countries, the estimate rose to 2,500, police said.

Moroccan authorities initially didn’t restrict this migration flow, according to Mohamed Ben Aissa, an expert with the Morocco-based Center for the Study of Terrorism and Extremism. “They treated the problem with some leniency,” he said.

Morocco has since shifted to a much tougher policy, cracking down on both networks that help recruit new fighters and those returning from combat zones, Mr. Ben Aissa said.

In 2015, Morocco strengthened its legal arsenal against terrorism, toughening criminal sentences against its nationals who participate in combat groups abroad. The government also created a special agency with the authority to conduct judicial investigations to prosecute terrorist suspects.

—Jon Sindreu and Jeannette Neumann contributed to this article.

Write to Benoit Faucon at benoit.faucon@wsj.com and David Gauthier-Villars at David.Gauthier-Villars@wsj.com

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