Spring/Summer 2015
Number 28

Needed: A New Counterterrorism Alliance in North Africa

José María Gil Garre

MADRID—Relations between Spain, France and Morocco are increasingly central to the security and development of the Maghreb. Global terrorism is evolving, and throughout North Africa its various manifestations—most recently in the form of the Islamic State and its various franchises in Libya and the Sahara—have added to the complexity of the regional environment, and to the potential dangers it holds for Europe and the United States.

This evolution requires a more comprehensive, networked and effective response than exists to date. Here, a new security axis encompassing Paris, Madrid and Rabat could serve an important—and beneficial—purpose.

Recall that each of the three countries, by virtue of their geographic position (Spain), role in the Muslim world (Morocco) and involvement in African security (France) has emerged as a notable target for extremist forces. This shared status creates a common interest for reliable intelligence, and military and legal cooperation that could help ameliorate the threat. In turn, such an integrated system of intelligence collection and analysis and strategic coordination could rebound to the security of the larger European community, and of the United States.

To be sure, practical hurdles to this type of coordination remain. Among the most significant is the question of the Western Sahara, the current, uncertain territorial status of which has allowed threats to proliferate. That is an unfortunate state of affairs, given that a workable solution was put forth some time ago by Morocco, in the form of a proposal for “advanced regionalization” and autonomy under Moroccan rule. But, without a firm international consensus on the status of the region, local threats have evolved—and exploited the territory’s uncertain status. Most notable among these is the Polisario Front, a rebel group created, promoted and financed by Algeria, which has used the Western Sahara as a conduit for criminal activities, as well as for its long-running fight against the Moroccan state.

This represents a dangerous state of affairs. As recent experience has clearly shown, situations of this sort—regardless of their nature—present an attractive target and an arena in which jihadist groups can proliferate. The clearest examples of this phenomenon can be seen in the nearby cases of Libya and Mali, but the rule also pertains to the more high-profile conflict now raging in Syria.

Despite this and other problems, however, broader regional cooperation is feasible—and necessary. Effective internation military action requires information-sharing, prompt intelligence analysis, and a “fusion” of these functions among involved parties. The same is true in the case of counterterrorism. And with regional threats from North Africa increasingly migrating to threaten the Eurozone, the frontline states of Morocco, Spain and France are uniquely positioned to serve as a buffer.

Institutionalizing a more durable counterterrorism partnership among the three requires moving beyond existing bilateral cooperation treaties on security and legal matters into a more consolidated, and effective, framework. Doing so faces many practical challenges (not least the unique bilateral politics between Morocco and its two one-time colonial powers, France and Spain). But this shared history is precisely what makes a tripartite counterterrorism partnership so feasible—and so potentially effective. Put simply, all three know each other well, and—putting other political issues aside—have a shared interest in deeper and more effective coordination against the Islamist threat.

Recent events in Libya, and the growing salience of the Islamic State beyond the Middle East, necessitates this type of thinking. North African security stands at a vital crossroads, and it is clear that, in the face of the metastasizing threat of global terrorism, there is considerable strength in numbers.

Professor Gil serves as the director of counterterrorism studies at the Instituto de Seguridad Global in Madrid, Spain (www.institutodeseguridadglobal.com).