In the last few years, the issues of security and counter-terrorism have gotten to the center of European interest. This trend is especially obvious in the mutual cooperation between the EU and its North African neighbors. Brussels is increasingly concerned about the large number of foreign fighters from North African countries who fought in the jihadist ranks in different conflicts across the Middle East. Europeans have a strong interest in understanding the security landscape and threats that emanate from North Africa as well as in cooperating with North African countries to address these.
Despite the fact that the terrorists keep on permeating the borders of North African countries, national borders remain to have a major impact on the fight against terrorism. Because of the near-total breakdown of the Libyan state, jihadists have succeeded in establishing a solid presence in Libya. Importantly, from the European perspective, establishing relations and cooperation with functioning North African states is key. Tunisia and Morocco stand out in this respect: both countries have close ties to the EU and its member states, and are engaged in major campaigns against terrorism and radicalization. The trio together makes up the front line in the effort to establish zones of security on the southern shore of the Mediterranean.
Tunisia and Morocco have capabilities to shape the fight against terrorism through their different approaches and distinct history. Nonetheless, the counter-terrorism strategies of both countries share a common shortcoming: they have prioritized the prevention of attacks and the disruption of terrorist cells, but have not paid sufficient attention to the legal and judicial regulations and laws to deal with people detained on terrorism charges. They have likewise omitted a wide range of factors that contribute to radicalization.
Therefore, the EU’s role lies in supplementing its current focus on technical and operational security assistance with more emphasis on areas such as the treatment of arrested suspects, socioeconomic factors that may contribute to radicalization as well as the state’s broader relationship with communities that are disproportionately vulnerable to terrorist recruitment.
Brussels has worked closely with both Rabat and Tunis to fight jihadists within their territory and in Europe. This cooperation has been effective in many ways but more can be done. In Tunisia, it is important to follow through on the existing programs and encourage further openness within the Ministry of the Interior to help the institution improve its cooperation with citizens. Greater professionalism within the security services would also make a difference and it would make it easier for Europeans to share intelligence with Tunisia.
In Morocco, the EU members, particularly France and Spain, should promote and support measures to fight corruption and abusive practices within the security services. While Morocco is not likely to establish a culture of genuine public accountability anytime soon, the EU should seek to encourage greater professionalism to make sure that the attention is focused on real threats while reducing public alienation from the authorities.
Nevertheless, the most significant challenge is the same in both countries – the treatment of radicalized individuals and the prevention of further radicalization. Since this is a complex issue that influences both North Africa and Europe alike, all sides should work together to explore better ways to handle radicalized individuals and to establish a mechanism by which to distinguish between committed jihadists and those who are more open to reintegration.
‘The Southern Front Line: EU Counter-Terrorism Cooperation with Tunisia and Morocco’ – Policy Brief by Fatim-Zohra El Malki and Anthony Dworkin – European Council on Foreign Relations / ECFR.
(The Policy Brief can be downloaded here)