Determined to reach Europe, migrants defy Moroccan crackdown

African migrants stand in a hiding place in the mountains near Tangier as authorities intensify their crackdown against illegal migrants sending them south to prevent crossings to Spain, Morocco June 25, 2019. REUTERS/Youssef Boudlal

By Ahmed Eljechtimi and Ulf Laessing

TANGIER, Morocco (Reuters) – Senegalese migrant Ismail, 26, is back in the forests around the northern Moroccan port of Tangier, not long after being stopped there by authorities and bussed 872 kilometers south in an attempt to stop him reaching Europe.

But his desire to get to Spain is unrelenting, and so the cat-and-mouse game with authorities continues.

Last year Morocco became the main departure point for migrants to Europe, overtaking Libya where the coast guard has prevented more departures with help from the European Union.

African migrants walk in a hiding place in the mountains away from sights near the city of Tangier as authorities intensify their crackdown against illegal migrants sending them south to prevent crossings to Spain, Morocco June 25, 2019. REUTERS/Youssef Boudlal

African migrants walk in a hiding place in the mountains away from sights near the city of Tangier as authorities intensify their crackdown against illegal migrants sending them south to prevent crossings to Spain, Morocco June 25, 2019. REUTERS/Youssef Boudlal

Morocco is only 14 kilometers south of the Spanish coast and shares land borders with the small Spanish enclaves of Melilla and Ceuta on its northern coast, which are surrounded by a 6 meter-high fence topped with razor wire.

Under a new crackdown this year, authorities are sending undocumented migrants they pick up to southern towns, far from the land and sea borders with Spain. They are also clearing migrant camps in the forests and halting the sale of dinghies and inflatables.

According to official figures as of May, the country had stopped 30,000 people from illegally crossing to Spain this year and busted 60 migrant trafficking networks.

Authorities say the clampdown on traffickers, in particular, saw migrant arrivals from Morocco to Spain drop in the first six months of 2019 to 12,053 from 26,890 in the same period last year, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

Morocco is also about to complete a new 3 meter-high fence within its own territory around Ceuta to deter crossings, according to residents near the enclave.

“Authorities conduct surprise raids to comb the forests looking for us, therefore we have to sleep in a spot where we can anticipate their arrival and run before they catch us and send us south again,” said Ismail.

He and other migrants live from begging and wait for their chance to jump the fence surrounding Ceuta.

   ”We do not have 3000 euros ($3,360) to pay smugglers for a sea crossing to Spain,” Ismail added.

He made his way back north hiding even deeper in the forests and avoiding walking in the streets by daylight.

“Our brothers who crossed to Spain are now having a good life,” said Ibrahim from Guinea Conackry, showing scars on his hand from a failed attempt to jump the fence last year.

The displacement campaign has drawn criticism from rights groups such as ASCOMS, a coalition of 27 Sub-Saharan civil society NGOs.

Authorities say they take migrants south to protect them from smugglers and prevent migrants from storming the borders with Ceuta and Melilla.

STAYING PUT

As crossing to Europe becomes ever harder, many Africans are now deciding to stay in Morocco and seek work, benefiting from a legalization policy launched by Morocco in 2013.

Over 50,000 migrants, 75% of whom are from Sub-Saharan Africa, obtained residency cards since 2013, according to official figures.

After five years in Morocco, Sonya, 35, from Cameroon, gave up on the idea of reaching Europe. She now sees in Morocco home for her and her daughter Salma, who attends a local school.

Sonya is taking a training course with a local NGO, hoping to boost her chances of finding work. But work is not easy to find in an economy where informal labor abounds and the unemployment rate stands at 10%, with one in four young people jobless.

Ahmed Skim from Morocco’s migration ministry said state agencies could help migrants find work, and some 400 were employed in the private sector. Moroccan schools received 5,545 children of migrants in 2018, while Moroccan hospitals treated 23,000 migrants.

Most migrants work in the informal sector doing low-paid jobs shunned by Moroccans, however.

The President of Tangier region, Ilyas El Omari, urged the EU to help Morocco and his region integrate migrants through training programs and investment to create jobs and avoid tension between locals and migrants.

The EU promised last year to give 140 million euros in border management aid to Morocco.

For Ismail, only Spain will do, however.

“I want to go to Europe for better living standards and better jobs. Salaries are not that good here,” he said.

“We are exhausted, but we will continue trying to get to Spain.”

($1 = 0.8923 euros)

(Editing by Alexandra Hudson)

Morocco’s hidden Christians see Pope trip as chance to push for freedom

FILE PHOTO: Pope Francis is seen during the weekly audience in Saint Peter's Square, at the Vatican February 27, 2019. REUTERS/Yara Nardi/File Photo

By Ahmed Eljechtimi

RABAT (Reuters) – Moroccan converts to Christianity, a tiny minority in an overwhelmingly Muslim country, are looking to Pope Francis’ visit next week as an chance to press their demands for religious freedom.

Francis will spend two days in Rabat on his first trip to the North African country from March 30-31 – the first visit there by any pope in nearly 35 years.

He will spend time with Roman Catholics – most of them expatriate Europeans, mainly French, and sub-Saharan African migrants – who are free to worship in churches such as the capital’s art deco St. Peter’s Cathedral.

But unlike those “foreign Christians”, Moroccan converts say they are forced to worship at home, in secret. Conversion from Islam to Christianity is banned – as it is in many Muslim countries – and proselytizing is punishable by up to three years in prison.

One group backing them – the Moroccan Association for Religious Rights and Freedoms – has already written to the Vatican, raising its concerns, and it is planning a sit-in outside a church in Rabat on the eve of the visit.

“We want laws that protect religious minorities in the country on an equal footing,” the head of the association, Jawad El Hamidy, said.

“We will seize the pope’s visit to put more pressure on the state to protect religious freedoms.”

“NO DISCRIMINATION”

Morocco has marketed itself as an oasis of religious tolerance in a region torn by militancy – and has offered training to Muslim preachers from Africa and Europe on what it describes as moderate Islam.

Government spokesman Mustapha El Khalfi said the authorities did not violate religious freedoms. “There is no persecution in Morocco and there is no discrimination on the basis of faith,” he told reporters when asked about the accusations.

But converts point to the constitution, which formally recognizes the existence of Moroccan Muslims and Jews – but not of Moroccan Christians. They also point to their day-to-day experience.

“When I went to a church to declare my faith, I was told that I was prohibited to do so by Moroccan law,” said a 40-year-old Moroccan Christian who gave his name as Emmanuel and asked not be shown while filmed.

“We call on Moroccan authorities and the Holy Father to seize the opportunity offered by this papal visit to launch a sincere dialogue on religious freedom for Moroccan citizens,” the Coordination of Moroccan Christians, a local lobby group, said.

There are no official statistics, but leaders say there are about 50,000 Moroccan Christians, most of them from the Protestant Evangelical tradition – outnumbering the estimated 30,000 Roman Catholics in the country.

There was no immediate response from the Vatican to the Association’s letter. But the most senior Roman Catholic in Morocco – the Archbishop of Rabat, Cristobal Lopez Romero – offered his support.

“We as Catholic Christians appreciate that we fully enjoy the freedom of faith but we will be happier if the Moroccan people could also enjoy that,” the Spanish cleric told reporters.

“I would love to be able to become Moroccan without having to change my religion.”

(Editing by Ulf Laessing, Philip Pullella and Andrew Heavens)

Spain’s population grows for second straight year due to immigration

FILE PHOTO: The border fence separating Spain's northern enclave Ceuta and Morocco is seen from Ceuta, Spain, June 22, 2018. REUTERS/Juan Medina/File Photo

MADRID (Reuters) – Spain’s population rose for the second straight year in 2017, after having fallen between 2012 and 2015 in the midst of an economic downturn, as an increase in foreigners offset a fall in the number of Spaniards, official data showed on Monday.

The figures come as Europe grapples with a rising influx of migrants, mostly from north Africa and war-torn countries such as Syria, after Mediterranean arrivals spiked in 2015. Sixteen EU leaders met for emergency talks in Brussels on Sunday to find a “European solution” to the issue.

The population of Spain increased to 46.66 million to Jan. 1, 2018, a rise of 132,263 people than a year earlier, the highest since Jan. 1 2013, the National Statistics Institute reported.

Spain saw a net increase of migrants arriving in the country of 146,604 people, after the arrival of almost half a million people last year, the largest migrant influx in 10 years, the data showed.

The total number of deaths in Spain in 2017 outpaced the number of births at the fastest pace since records began in 1941, data showed last week as the number of births dropped 4.5 percent while the number of deaths rose 3.2 percent.

The largest increases in migrants came from Venezuela, Colombia, Italy and Morocco, while the largest decreases were from Romania, Britain and Ecuador, INE said.

(Reporting by Paul Day; Editing by Jesús Aguado, William Maclean)

Fifteen dead in food aid stampede in Morocco: ministry

People gather at the place where 15 people were killed when a stampede broke out in the southwestern Moroccan town of Sidi Boulaalam as food aid was being distributed in a market, in Sidi Boullaalam, Morocco November 20, 2017.

By Zakia Abdennebi

RABAT (Reuters) – Fifteen people were killed and five more injured when a stampede broke out in a southwestern Moroccan town on Sunday as food aid was being distributed in a market, the Interior Ministry said.

A hospital source put the death toll at 18, adding that most victims were women who had been scrambling for food handed out by a rich man in the small coastal town of Sidi Boulaalam.

A local journalist said the donor had organised similar handouts before, but this year some 1,000 people arrived, storming an iron barrier under which several women were crushed.

King Mohammed ordered that the victims’ families be given any assistance they needed and the wounded treated at his cost, the ministry said in a statement, adding that a criminal investigation had been opened.

Last month, the king dismissed the ministers of education, planning and housing and health after an economic agency found “imbalances” in implementing a development plan to fight poverty in the northern Rif region.

The Rif saw numerous protests after a fishmonger was accidentally crushed to death in a garbage truck in October 2016 after a confrontation with police, and he became a symbol of the effects of corruption and official abuse.

In July, the king pardoned dozens of people arrested in the protests and accused local officials of stoking public anger by being too slow to implement development projects.

 

(Writing by Ulf Laessing; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Cynthia Osterman)

 

Spain hunts for driver in van rampage, says Islamist cell dismantled

A man lights a candle at an impromptu memorial where a van crashed into pedestrians at Las Ramblas in Barcelona, Spain, August 19, 2017

By Angus Berwick and Andrés González

RIPOLL/BARCELONA, Spain (Reuters) – Police were searching on Saturday for the driver of a van that killed 13 people when it plowed into a crowd in Barcelona and were trying to determine whether two other suspected Islamist militants linked to the attack had died or were at large.

The Spanish government said it considered it had dismantled the cell behind Thursday’s Barcelona rampage and an attack early on Friday in the Catalan seaside town of Cambrils.

Police arrested four people in connection with the attacks Barcelona and Cambrils, where a woman was killed when a car rammed passersby on Friday. Five attackers wearing fake explosive belts were also shot dead in the Catalan town.

“The cell has been fully dismantled in Barcelona, after examining the people who died, the people who were arrested and carrying out identity checks,” Interior Minister Juan Ignacio Zoido told a news conference.

But authorities have yet to identify the driver of the van and his whereabouts are unclear, while police and officials in the northeastern region of Catalonia said they still needed to locate up to two other people.

Investigators are focusing on a group of at least 12 suspects believed to be behind the deadliest attacks to hit Spain in more than a decade.

In little more than a year, militants have used vehicles as weapons to kill nearly 130 people in France, Germany, Britain, Sweden and Spain.

None of the nine people arrested or shot dead by police are believed to be the driver who sped into Las Ramblas, leaving a trail of dead and injured among the crowds of tourists and local residents strolling along the Barcelona boulevard.

A Moroccan-born 22-year-old called Younes Abouyaaqoub was among those being sought, according to the mayor’s office in the Catalan town of Ripoll, where he and other suspects lived.

Spanish media reported that Abouyaaqoub may have been the driver of the van in Barcelona, but police and Catalan officials could not confirm this.

The driver in the Barcelona attack abandoned the van and fled on foot on Thursday after plowing into the crowd. Fifty people were still in hospital on Saturday following that attack, with 13 in a critical condition.

Many were foreign tourists. The Mediterranean region of Catalonian is thronged in the summer months with visitors drawn to its beaches and the port city of Barcelona’s museums and tree-lined boulevards.

Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attacks in Cambrils and Barcelona, a statement by the jihadist group said on Saturday.

 

RAIDS

Police searched a flat in Ripoll on Friday in their hunt for people connected to the attacks, the ninth raid so far on homes in the town nestled in the foothills of the Pyrenees near the French border.

The flat had been occupied by a man named as Abdelbaki Es Satty, according to a search warrant seen by Reuters. Neighbors said he was an imam, a Muslim prayer leader. His landlord said he had last been seen on Tuesday.

Scraps of paper covered in notes were strewn around the flat, which had been turned upside down in the police search.

Three Moroccans and a citizen of Spain’s North African enclave of Melilla have been arrested so far in connection with the attacks.

Apart from Abouyaaqoub, authorities are searching for two other people though it is not certain they are at large.

One or even both of them may have been killed in Alcanar, where a house was razed by an explosion shortly before midnight on Wednesday, a spokeswoman for Catalonia’s home affairs department said.

Casting new doubts over the investigation, El Pais said late on Saturday that biological remains of at least three people had been found in the ruins of the Alcanar house. It was not clear whether they could be from the three suspects still sought by the police or if more people were there.

Police believe the house in Alcanar was being used to plan one or several large-scale attacks in Barcelona, possibly using a large number of butane gas canisters stored there.

The Spanish government maintained its security alert level at four, one notch below the maximum level that would indicate another attack was imminent, but said it would reinforce security in crowded areas and tourist hotspots.

Spanish media also said that security at the border with France was being beefed up.

 

TRIBUTES

Of the 14 dead in the two attacks, five are Spanish, two are Italians, two are Portuguese, one Belgian, one Canadian and one a U.S. citizen, emergency services and authorities from those countries have confirmed so far.

A seven-year-old boy with British and Australian nationality who had been missing since the attack in Barcelona was found on Saturday in one of the city’s hospitals and was in a serious condition, El Pais newspaper reported.

Spain’s King Felipe and Queen Letizia on Saturday visited some of the dozens injured whose nationalities ranged from French and German to Pakistani and the Filipino. They are being treated in various Barcelona hospitals.

The royal couple are expected to take part in a Catholic mass on Sunday morning at architect Antoni Gaudi’s famous Sagrada Familia church, a Barcelona landmark, in honor of the victims of the attack.

Barcelona’s football team will wear special shirts, bearing the Catalan words for “We are all Barcelona”, and black armbands in memory of victims when they play their opening league game of the season on Sunday evening against Real Betis.

 

(Additional reporting by Sarah White, Julien Toyer, Carlos Ruano, Rodrigo de Miguel, Alba Asenjo and Adrian Croft, Writing by Sarah White and Julien Toyer; Editing by Janet Lawrence, Edmund Blair and Lisa Shumaker)

 

The Maute brothers: Southeast Asia’s Islamist ‘time bomb’

A policeman stands on guard behind a window full of bullet holes as government soldiers assault the Maute group in Marawi City, Philippines

By Neil Jerome Morales and Tom Allard

MARAWI CITY, Philippines (Reuters) – On his Facebook profile page Omarkhayam Romato Maute describes himself as a “Walking Time-Bomb”.

When a band of militants led by Omarkhayam and one of his brothers over-ran a town in the southern Philippines on May 23, festooning its alleyways with the black banners of Islamic State, the Facebook description seemed appropriate.

Governments across Southeast Asia had been bracing for the time when Islamic State, on a back foot in Iraq and Syria, would look to establish a ‘caliphate’ in Southeast Asia and become a terrifying threat to the region.

“The Middle East seems a long way away but it is not. This is a problem which is amidst us,” Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told Australian radio on Saturday as the battle to re-take Marawi neared the end of the third week, with a death toll of nearly 200. “It is a clear and present danger.”

Omarkhayam and Abdullah Maute grew up with several other brothers and sisters in Marawi, a Muslim-majority town in a country where over 90 percent of the population is Christian.

Marawi is, historically, the center of Islam on Mindanao, a sprawling island where violent resistance to authority has been a tradition since the era of Spanish colonialism, spurred in recent decades by poverty and the neglect of successive governments.

As teenagers in the 1990s, the brothers seemed like ordinary young men, said a neighbor of the Maute family: they studied English and the Koran, and played basketball in the streets.

“We still wonder why they fell to the Islamic State,” said the neighbor, who was once an Islamist militant himself and surrendered to the government. “They are good people, religious. When someone gets to memorize the Koran, it’s unlikely for them to do wrong. But this is what happened to the brothers.”

In the early 2000s, Omarkhayam and Abdullah studied in Egypt and Jordan, respectively, where they became fluent in Arabic.

Omarkhayam went to Al-Azhar University in Cairo, where he met the daughter of a conservative Indonesian Islamic cleric. After they married, the couple returned to Indonesia. There, Omarkhayam taught at his father-in-law’s school, and in 2011 he settled back in Mindanao.

It may have been then, and not when he was in the Middle East, that Omarkhayam was radicalized.

In Cairo “none of his fellow students saw him as having any radical tendencies at all, and photographs show a young man enchanted by his baby daughters and playing with the growing family by the Red Sea,” Jakarta-based anti-terrorism expert Sidney Jones wrote in a 2016 report.

Little is known about Abdullah’s life after he went to Jordan, and it is not clear when he returned to Lanao del Sur, the Mindanao province that includes Marawi.

Intelligence sources said there are seven brothers and one half-brother in the family, all but one of whom joined the battle for Marawi.

Men identified by Philippines Intelligence officers as Isnilon Hapilon (2nd L, yellow headscarf) and Abdullah Maute (2nd R, standing, long hair) are seen in this still image taken from video released by the Armed Forces of the Philippines on June 7, 2017.

Men identified by Philippines Intelligence officers as Isnilon Hapilon (2nd L, yellow headscarf) and Abdullah Maute (2nd R, standing, long hair) are seen in this still image taken from video released by the Armed Forces of the Philippines on June 7, 2017. Armed Forces of the Philippines/Handout via REUTERS TV

SMART, ARTICULATE

The Mautes were a monied family in a close-knit tribal society where respect, honor and the Koran are paramount.

Military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Jo-Ar Herrera said the ‘Maranao’ clan, to which the Mautes belong, has a matriarchal tradition, and so their mother played a central role.

He said Farhana Maute, who according to the neighbor had furniture and used-car businesses, helped finance the group, and she drove recruitment and radicalization of local youths.

On Friday, she was stopped outside Marawi in a vehicle loaded with firearms and explosives and taken into custody. It was a major blow for the militants, according to Herrera, as she had been the “heart of the Maute organization”.

A day previously, the brothers’ father, an engineer, was arrested in Davao City, 250 km (155 miles) away.

When the Marawi siege began, several hundred militants were involved, including men from nations as far away as Morocco and Yemen. But most of the marauders, who took civilians as human shields and torched the town cathedral, were from four local groups allied to Islamic State, and in the lead were the Maute, military officials said.

According to Jones, the Maute group has “the smartest, best-educated and most sophisticated members” of all the pro-Islamic State outfits in the Philippines.

Samira Gutoc-Tomawis, a local civic leader who knows some of the Maute’s extended family, said the brothers rely heavily on social media to recruit young followers and spread their “rigid and authoritarian” ideology.

“The Mautes are very active online. On YouTube, they upload their ideas” she said. “They are articulate, they are educated, they are idealistic.”

The Maute family’s neighbor, who requested anonymity for his own safety, said the group’s fighters are fearless too.

He was trapped for five days in his three-storey house last month watching the battle between the militants and the Philippines armed forces unfold, with sniper fire pinging around him and OV-10 aircraft bombing from above.

“During the bombing runs of the OV-10, they just carried on eating biscuits, not running for cover,” he said.

On May 28, a group of seven fighters – he recognized Omarkhayam among them – came to his house and asked why he had not left. When he told them that he feared being caught in the crossfire, they guided him and several others to a bridge leading out of town and gave them a white cloth to wave.

“I WANT TO KILL THEM NOW”

The Maute group first surfaced in 2013 with a bombing of a nightclub in nearby Cagayan de Oro. Its stature has grown since then, most notably with the bombing last year of a street market in President Rodrigo Duterte’s hometown, Davao City.

Maute members who were captured said the Davao attack was ordered by Isnilon Hapilon of Abu Sayyaf, a group that has fought since the 1990s for an independent Islamic province but is as well known as a vicious gang of criminals and kidnappers.

Hapilon, who was last year declared by Islamic State as its ’emir’ of Southeast Asia, was seen in a video that emerged last week showing the militants – including two Maute brothers – plotting to seal Marawi off as a separate enclave.

Herrera said the Mautes enjoy strong support in Marawi.

“This is their place, this is where their family is, this is where their culture is, this is where the heritage is. There is a huge sympathetic perspective towards the … Maute,” he said.

But Khana-Anuar Marabur Jr., a Marawi town councillor, said the Mautes had made enemies in the area with their radicalism.

He said he went to the brothers on the day the attack on Marawi was launched and they told him to the leave the town.

“They told me to leave because the caliphate … had ordered it,” Marabur told Reuters. “They treated me like an enemy.

I want to kill them now.”

(Additional reporting by Manuel Mogato in MANILA and by Simon Lewis in MARAWI CITY; Writing by John Chalmers; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

About 220 Migrants storm border in Spanish enclave Ceuta

A Spanish Red Cross worker aids African migrants after they crossed a border fence between Morocco and Spain's north African enclave of Ceuta

MADRID (Reuters) – About 220 African migrants forced their way through a barbed wire fence into Spain’s North African enclave of Ceuta on Monday, clashing with Spanish police who tried to prevent them from crossing the border with Morocco.

Thirty-two migrants were treated in hospital for minor injuries after pushing their way through two gates just before 2 a.m. ET, while three Spanish policemen also needed medical attention, the government said.

Several migrants collapsed from exhaustion after crossing into Spanish territory, Reuters photographs showed. Their legal status in Spain has yet to be determined, and police were searching for some who fled into hills inside the territory, it said.

Spain’s two enclaves in Morocco, Ceuta and Melilla, have been favored entry points into Europe for African migrants, who either climb over their border fences or swim along their coastlines.

After thousands crossed over in 2014 and 2015, Spain stepped up security, partly funded by European authorities, and passed a law enabling its border police to refuse refugees the opportunity to apply for asylum.

Since then Libya has become a more common departure point for African migrants, most from sub-Saharan countries, who attempt the crossing to Italy in rickety boats that often break down or sink. More 3,740 migrant deaths have been recorded this year in the central Mediterranean, most along that route.

(Reporting by Sarah White and Rodrigo de Miguel, editing by John Stonestreet)

U.S. arrests Indiana man it says planned to join Islamic State

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – An 18-year-old man who authorities said planned to fly to Morocco and travel to Islamic State-controlled territory to join the group was arrested in Indiana on Tuesday, the U.S. Justice Department said.

FBI agents arrested Akram Musleh, of Brownsburg, Indiana, as he was attempting to board a bus from Indianapolis to New York, from where he planned to fly to Morocco, the department said in a statement.

“The criminal complaint alleges that he planned to provide personnel (himself) to ISIL,” the statement added, referring to the militant Islamist group.

If convicted, Musleh faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, a lifetime of supervised release and a $250,000 fine, the statement said.

(Reprting by Mohammad Zargham; Editing by Dan Grebler and Peter Cooney)

Morocco arrests Belgian national allegedly tied to Paris attackers

RABAT (Reuters) – Moroccan authorities have arrested a Belgian national of local origin directly linked to the attackers who carried out the Paris shootings and bombings in November that killed 130 people, the government said in a statement on Monday.

The interior ministry gave only the suspect’s initials in Arabic and said he fought in Syria with al-Nusra front before joining the Islamic State.

The suspect, whose initials could be translated to J.A. or G.A., was arrested on Jan. 15 in the city of Mohammedia, the statement added. “He went to Syria with one of the suicide bombers of Saint Denis,” it said.

Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a 28-year-old Belgian militant who authorities said was the ringleader of the Paris attacks, was killed with other suspects days after when police raided a house in the Saint Denis suburb.

Investigations showed that during his stay in Syria he has built solid ties with Islamic State leaders including the ringleader of the Paris attacks.

The suspect was trained to handle different weapons and guerrilla tactics but left Syria through Turkey, Germany, Belgium then Netherlands from where he came to Morocco.

Morocco provided the tip-off that enabled French police to locate Abaaoud, has been holding Abaaoud’s brother Yassine since October and has issued an arrest warrant for Salah Abdeslam, who is suspected of taking part in the attacks and is on the run.

(Reporting by Aziz El Yaakoubi; Editing by Patrick Markey/Jeremy Gaunt)

Europe turns to Morocco in Paris attacks investigation

AIT OURIR, Morocco (Reuters) – A few weeks before she was killed in a raid by French special forces beside the suspected ringleader of last November’s Paris attacks, Hasna Ait Boulahcen packed her bags and said her last farewells to relatives in Morocco.

The 26-year-old Parisian’s almost two-month-long trip to her father’s home town of Ait Ourir proved to be one of the last stops on her journey from fun-loving party girl to devout Muslim – and possibly Islamist militant.

Conversations with relatives and family friends shed light not only on her transformation but also on the role of Moroccan intelligence in helping services in France and Belgium trying to counter the threats of Islamist militant attacks.

Ait Boulahcen’s stay in Ait Ourir from early August until late September is now part of the investigation into the attacks which killed 130 people and were claimed by Islamic State, and has increasingly drawn in Morocco’s intelligence services.

On Nov. 18, five days after the Paris attacks, she and her cousin Abdelhamid Abaaoud were killed in a barrage of bullets when special services opened fire on the apartment she had led him to in the French capital, possibly as a hideout.

Morocco provided the tip-off that enabled French police to locate Abaaoud, has been holding Abaaoud’s brother Yassine since October and has issued an arrest warrant for Salah Abdeslam, who is suspected of taking part in the attacks and is on the run.

A week after the attacks, French President Francois Hollande received King Mohammed of Morocco in Paris to thank him for Rabat’s “efficient help”.

On Nov. 23, after it became clear some of the attackers had planned the attacks from Brussels and were of Moroccan origin, Rabat said Belgium’s King Philippe had also called King Mohammed to enlist the help of the North African country’s intelligence.

“We are exchanging information with them on a very professional and very good level,” said Alain Winants, who was head of Belgium’s intelligence service from 2006 to 2014 and is now Advocate General at Belgium’s Supreme Court.

Security has been tightened in Ait Ourir, a dusty potato-growing town in central Morocco where Ait Boulahcen’s father Mohammad has a modest concrete home. Relatives and neighbors told Reuters they had been questioned by police, who kept a close watch on the town from cars parked on many street corners.

The Moroccan authorities have not said what their inquiries have thrown up but a relative in Ait Ourir told Reuters that Ait Boulahcen was accompanied by one of her brothers when she arrived in early August and the other brother joined them later.

She was stopped at the airport when she flew in, one of her uncles said, but was allowed to enter the country when her father and an uncle gave the authorities their addresses.

It was not clear why she was stopped or whether she was on any security watch list. Police did not comment.

BIG CHANGE

Ait Boulahcen, her brothers and a sister were born in France to their father’s second Moroccan wife after his first marriage, which produced two daughters and a son, broke down. He returned to Morocco from France when his second marriage also collapsed.

Relatives and neighbors saw a huge change in Ait Boulahcen this summer. She had ditched the modern clothes she wore during her first visit to see her father in 2013 and now had on the full face veil favored by more conservative Muslim women.

“We had problems with her when she came the first time because she used to smoke and drink, and in our town it is shameful for a girl to act like that. She was so happy when she said she’d changed and was a good Muslim now,” an uncle said.

“She said she wanted to come back and get Moroccan identity papers and a passport,” he said, without making clear how far she had got.

He and other family members said they believed Abaaoud had exploited his cousin’s naiveté and led her astray. How close they were is unclear but Ait Boulahcen’s half-sister, Nezha, said they had not discussed Abaaoud during her stay.

Aitboulahcen unwittingly led police to Abaaoud by speaking to him on her mobile phone, which was tapped as part of a drugs investigation. Police then saw her meet Abaaoud and lead him to the apartment where they and a third suspect were killed.

French police located Abaaoud after they received a tip-off from Morocco that he may still be in France and honed in on Aitboulahcen. Until then they thought he had fled the country.

It is not clear why Abaaoud’s younger brother Yassine has been held since landing in Morocco in October. Their father, Omar Abaaoud, declined comment.

LONG HISTORY OF COOPERATION

European intelligence has cooperated with Rabat since guest workers from Morocco began arriving in the 1960s because monitoring them was impossible without knowledge of their culture and languages, Moroccan Darija and Amazigh, experts say.

Morocco has stepped up its tracking of militant cells since Islamist attackers killed 17 people in Marrakesh in 2011.

“Morocco has shown itself to be extremely reactive in passing on crucial information that has prevented terrorist attacks and whose value has been appreciated by countries targeted, ranging from France to Spain and the United States,” said Moroccan scholar El Mostafa Rezrazi, author of a book on security cooperation between Morocco and Europe.

A Moroccan security source said the foreign intelligence service DGED (Direction générale des études et de la documentation) has “operations” in Belgium but did not confirm estimates by experts that it has about 150 “contacts” there.

Cooperation almost broke down in 2008 when Belgium asked the DGED to pull out three officers who had not kept it informed about their actions, and Rabat pulled out all of its agents.

“That didn’t last long because, with 600,000 Moroccans in Belgium, neither the Moroccan service nor the Belgian service could stay in a situation where there was no contact,” said Winants, the former Belgian intelligence chief. “I went very rapidly to see my counterparts in Morocco and we started again on a new basis.”

CRITICISM BY RIGHTS GROUPS

Cooperation between France and Morocco also dates back many years although relations were strained in 2014 when French authorities sought to question Abdellatif Hammouchi, the head of Morocco’s domestic intelligence, over torture allegations.

This led to Morocco suspending cooperation agreements with France, despite concerns in Paris that Moroccans and French of Moroccan origin were heading to Syria to train as jihadists.

The two countries resumed cooperation in January 2015, after Islamist gunmen killed 12 people in an attack on the offices of satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo in Paris.

Moroccan officials estimate that 2,000 Moroccan fighters have joined armed groups in Syria and Iraq, including Islamic State and the al-Qaeda linked Nusra Front, and about 200 have been jailed on their return home.

But Morocco’s experience of battling militancy dates back at least to the 1979-1989 Soviet-Afghan war, when hundreds of Moroccans went to Afghanistan to fight Soviet forces.

A number of militants from Morocco or of Moroccan origin were arrested over the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States and were linked to other attacks such as suicide bombings that killed 33 people and 12 attackers in Casablanca in 2003 and the Madrid bombings that killed 191 people in 2004.

The DGST domestic intelligence (Direction générale de la surveillance du territoire) has been accused by Moroccan and international human rights organizations of torturing suspects, including on behalf of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency during President George W. Bush’s “war on terror”.

Morocco has denied the charges.

(Philip Blenkinsop reported from Brussels, Additional reporting by Morade Azzouz, Marie-Louise Gumuchian and John Irish in Paris, and by Thomas Escritt in Amsterdam, Writing by Patrick Markey and Timothy Heritage, Editing by Janet McBride)