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Democracy can weaken Al Qaeda

Opinion: Morocco's reform is effective regional model to combat terror.

However, I saw commitment behind reform last fall when I met and queried parliament member Mbarka Bouaida, Marrakech mayor Fatima Zohra El Mansouri and social activist Aicha Ech-Channa. All three women described their daily efforts to reduce poverty (down from 15 percent to 9 percent in the past decade) and increase the power of Moroccan citizens in a country that increasingly encourages women leaders.

Poverty is still a major problem in Morocco. Tens of thousands of people in the city of Marrakech lack access to plumbing or electricity. But slow progress is better than none.

To discourage extremism, Morocco’s national council of Ulemas promotes a tolerant, peaceful Islam. The king’s pioneering mourchidate (female counselor/scholar) program was established to train women to perform many tasks of imams and counsel worshippers in mosques across the country.

Today, Moroccans do enjoy greater democratic freedoms and political participation in a multi-party parliamentary system. Reforms continue, with plans to overhaul the judiciary system and combat corruption. Workers are free to unionize, the right to protest is guaranteed, women’s rights are greatly improved in a recently revised family law, and Morocco hosts more than 12,000 non-governmental organizations.

Since 2003, Morocco has had relatively few attacks and no civilian deaths from terrorists. Vigilance remains high. Last month, Morocco dismantled an Al Qaeda terror cell in the disputed territory of Western Sahara. In December, it uncovered an Al Qaeda-linked smuggling ring to traffic cocaine from South America into Europe.

Unfortunately, according to a new report from the International Center for Terrorism Studies (ICTS), the regional threat from terrorism is on the rise.

Attacks by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and other terrorist groups in the Maghreb and Sahel jumped 558 percent since 9/11. There is growing evidence AQIM is recruiting Polisario Front members from Algeria, and others disaffected by the appalling conditions in refugee camps in Algeria.

Intelligence reports also confirm Al Qaeda has linked with Latin American cartels to traffic drugs across the Atlantic through West and North Africa into Europe. And ICTS reports that AQIM is poised to take advantage of unrest in North Africa in its efforts to destabilize the region.

This poses a “grave concern,” the report says, for North Africa and a broad “arc of instability” stretching from Somalia on the Red Sea to Western Sahara on the Atlantic. Al-Qaeda’s rise in Africa also threatens its ultimate targets in Europe and the United States, and requires increased security cooperation among Maghreb and Sahel nations.

The sooner people across the Middle East and North Africa region believe they have a stake in the future of their countries, the sooner terrorists will be denied fertile recruiting grounds, and these societies will become more resilient and stable to overcome the challenges ahead.

Alison Lake is a staff writer at The Washington Post, who has written recently on Western Sahara and terrorism in North Africa for the Post and Foreign Policy magazine.