Morocco: Africa's Great Stabilizer
On May 14, the U.S. Senate showed rare bipartisanship in authorizing the extension of the African Growth and Opportunity Act — a bill designed to foster U.S.-African trade and investment and incentivizing African countries to foster the conditions for free markets. It was a signal that, nearly a year since President Obama welcomed African leaders to Washington, the United States remains keen to play a role in the development of some of the fastest-growing economies in the world.
But Americans are also increasingly alert to the growing problem of terrorism emanating from Africa, which threatens to hold the continent hostage as well as imperil Americans and their allies globally. As Long War Journal editor Thomas Joscelyn noted in his testimony to Congress in April, declassified documents recovered in Osama bin Laden’s compound document the extent to which Africa has been on the grid in al-Qaeda’s international operations. Bin Laden saw Qaeda affiliates south of the Sahara as a potent source of foot soldiers for attacks on the West. Meanwhile, with the expansion of ISIS from its beachheads in the Sinai and Libya through the Sahel and into West Africa, the prospect of new ISIS “provinces” is poised to jeopardize the painstaking progress many countries have made in stabilizing their economies and political systems.
How the United States and its allies manage the opportunities as well as the threats emanating from Africa over the next decade will profoundly affect global security as well as the global economy.
Unfortunately, the United States is under equipped to engage the continent. Whereas rivals like China and Russia — not to mention Sunni Islamists and the proxies of Tehran — have been working to build their presence in the region, the United States is a relative latecomer. Not only are its formidable military resources stretched thin, but its soft power capacities to affect political outcomes without the use of military force are weak. The limited American efforts at counter-radicalization tend to begin at the borders of Libya and move north and east into the Arab heartlands. Meanwhile, in the private sector, American businesses have not established the networks that their European counterparts have maintained for decades. All of these factors, in turn, affect the relative capacity of American intelligence establishments to cultivate human sources on the ground.
In seeking to navigate these challenges, one ally with which the United States can potentially partner is the Kingdom of Morocco: From a political development and counter-radicalization standpoint, the country has been working hard to share its own soft power tools with its southern neighbors, in support of stabilization efforts in fragile states. In terms of trade and investment, Morocco’s business and banking networks are well ensconced and growing. It is therefore warranted to briefly review Moroccan capacities in Africa and consider the means by which the United States can tap them — and incorporate the partnership into its broader strategies, both on the continent and beyond.
With numerous fragile African states at its doorstep, Moroccans are viscerally vested in shoring up their defenses. Part of the threat lies in the radicalization of those neighbors’ youth populations by Qaeda and ISIS-affiliated clerics. Fortunately, Morocco, a global bastion of Islam’s moderate Sufi “mystical” strand, has both the credibility and human infrastructure to compete and beat these hardline networks on the ground.
Last March, Rabat inaugurated the “Mohammed VI Institute” for the training of Imams — and the student body includes more than 400 foreign nationals, emanating largely from Mali, Guinea, Conakry, Ivory Coast, and Gabon (not to mention Tunisia, France, Belgium, and even the Maldives.) This represents the institutionalization of a technique initially developed at the request of the new government in war torn Mali last year: 500 imams were trained from that country, in order to counter the pro-Qaeda strand in religious leadership, which briefly occupied a piece of the country’s north the size of France.
Training for all these religious leadership figures takes down the warped interpretation of Islamic proof texts, which is the radicals’ stock in trade. It also stressed the salubrious role of women — including as leadership figures: Female imams, known as “murchidate” (“female guides”) learn to share in the administration of mosques and inculcation of their worshippers. J. Peter Pham, Vice President of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa, has studied the Moroccan experience and described Morocco as a “model” and a “beacon” for Africa.
America’s own approach to counter-radicalization is based on partnership with local moderate institutions. Its efforts to work with seminaries in the Arab east are at a junior stage, and in any case less relevant to Africa south of the Sahara. By expanding its cooperation and support for the Moroccan efforts, Washington can help make a serious dent in radical inculcation in the region.