Morocco: Highlights from the summit of the Global Coalition to Defeat IS

By Julian Pecquet, Soufiane Khabbachi
Posted on Tuesday, 17 May 2022 11:46

Ministers attending the Global Coalition to Defeat IS summit in Marrakech on 11 May 2022. © Jalal Morchidi/EPA/MAXPPP

On 11 May, Morocco hosted the 9th summit of the Global Coalition to Defeat IS in Marrakech. The kingdom used this as an opportunity to push its agenda on Western Sahara and encourage the US, the meeting’s co-chair, to extend its influence on the continent.

Nasser Bourita, the head of Moroccan diplomacy, described the inter ministerial meeting – which was attended by more than 70 countries, of which some 40 were represented directly by their foreign minister – as “a success on several counts”.

Created in September 2014, the Global Coalition to Defeat IS is composed of 84 member countries. The organisation’s aim is to counter the influence of the Islamic State (IS) and – more broadly – fight against all terrorist groups around the world.

A first for Africa

This 9th edition was co-chaired by Morocco and the US. In the absence of the head of US diplomacy, Antony Blinken, who had contracted Covid-19 a few days before the start of the event, the interim was assured by Victoria Nuland, the US under-secretary of state for political affairs.

Holding this meeting in Marrakech allowed Morrocan officials to reiterate, on several occasions, the kingdom’s desire to be at the forefront of the fight against terrorism in Africa and the world, particularly in Europe, via its intelligence services.

In recent years, the continent has become an increasingly popular target for terrorist groups. This trend has been reinforced by certain regions’ chronic instability, such as the Sahel.

According to the head of Moroccan diplomacy, 27 terrorist entities are still present on the continent. Sub-Saharan Africa alone accounts for 48% of deaths (or 30,000 people) linked to terrorism. Terrorist violence has reportedly led to the displacement of over 1.5 million people to West Africa.

‘Hijacking’

Although the official discourse was – unsurprisingly – focused on security issues, several ministers took advantage of the summit and the presence of many delegations to advance their agenda.

This was the case for Sylvie Baipo-Temon, the Central African foreign affairs minister, who made no effort to hide the fact that she had attended the summit in the hopes that the Moroccan authorities would agree to cooperate more closely with her country in the field of intelligence.

For its part, Moroccan diplomacy took this opportunity to increase the number of bilateral meetings, but also and above all to advance the unavoidable issue of Western Sahara.

The ‘harvest’ proved rather fruitful. Although several countries have voiced their support for the Moroccan autonomy plan, such as Serbia and Hungary to name a few, the Netherlands’ decision to pronounce itself in favour of the Moroccan option has been the most remarked upon.

By midday, at the end of a bilateral meeting that served as a final rehearsal before the big talk, Bourita and his Dutch counterpart, Wopke Hoekstra, held a press briefing during which the latter described the Moroccan autonomy plan as a “serious and credible contribution to the UN-led process to find a solution to this issue”.

We need African leadership and African voices at the table to ensure our security system is targeted to where it’s needed most.

Without mentioning the Polisario independence organisation, the Moroccan minister tried to identify terrorism and separatism, saying that the two phenomena “are very often two sides of the same coin”, referring to the porosity between the organisation and certain Islamist terrorist groups.

This statement did not escape Algiers, whose ministry of foreign affairs issued a statement accusing its neighbour of having “diverted the conference from its announced purpose” and transformed it into “a racket of statements orchestrated by the host country, which has worked to make the said gathering an event devoted to Western Sahara”.

Paris in the background, Washington in the front line

France’s foreign affairs minister Jean-Yves Le Drian attended the summit, but was very discreet; and even though Bourita issued several statements praising the US, the Moroccan authorities barely mentioned France.

Across the Atlantic, the American government has clearly stated its plans for the African continent. Christopher Landberg, the acting principal deputy coordinator for counterterrorism at the US Department of State, called the ministerial an “important milestone” for the “ongoing evolution” of the coalition’s mission, given this was the first time that it had been held in Africa and that Benin had joined as the coalition’s 85th member. He said 13 African delegations had attended the summit.

“The focus on Africa for the coalition is fairly new,” Landberg told reporters on a 12 May press call. “It really has developed over the past year, although obviously Africa has been dealing with terrorist threats and related instability for quite a while.”

He added that the US “strongly supports adding African leadership to coalition functions. We need African leadership and African voices at the table to ensure our security system is targeted to where it’s needed most”.

Landberg spoke of the need for the coalition to focus “on the African continent to assist our sub-Saharan partners.” In financial terms, the latest US contribution was $119m for sub-Saharan Africa alone, out of a total of $250m in aid over the past three years.

We are deeply concerned about the spread of instability in West Africa…

Rather than a specific geographical focus as in Syria and Iraq, the coalition’s aim on the continent, Landberg said, is to support sub-Saharan partners on biometrics, provide battlefield evidence used to prosecute terrorists, and border security.

“Many of the members of the coalition are already working in these areas, and we’ll be leveraging each other’s knowledge and capabilities, and deconflicting and coordinating our programming so that we can help our African partners really in a more coordinated and effective way,” he said.

“We are deeply concerned about the spread of instability in West Africa, and certainly are looking to support [African] countries … in helping them to deal with the threats they’re facing,” Douglas Hoyt, the Coalition’s US special envoy, said at the press conference. “One of the priorities is to prevent the possible spread of terrorist activity from Mali and Burkina Faso to neighbouring states.”

As part of its new focus, the coalition has also created a new Africa Focus Group to bolster the civilian-led counterterrorism capabilities of the coalition’s African members by drawing on its experiences in Iraq and Syria. The focus group met in Brussels in December, in Rome in March and now in Marrakesh.

In their joint communique from the summit, the ministers “stressed the importance of addressing underlying causes to insecurity in Africa, while reiterating that any lasting solution to halting the spread of IS on the continent will rely primarily on national authorities, as well as sub-regional and regional efforts and initiatives that acknowledge and address the political and economic drivers of conflict”.

The statement also condemned the proliferation of separatist movements and other non-State actors as well as “the deployment in Africa of private military companies that generate destabilisation and further vulnerability of African states and that ultimately favour IS and other terrorist and violent extremist organisations” – a not-so-veiled shot at Russia’s Wagner Group.

Demilitarisation

The coalition’s new focus on Africa comes as the Joe Biden administration has made the continent a key focus of its counter-terrorism efforts. It also stressed that terrorism cannot be eradicated by military force alone.

Last year, the State Department sanctioned the IS’s fast-growing affiliates in Uganda, DRC and Mozambique, which together operate as the groups’ Central African franchise. In March, the US Treasury Department sanctioned four South Africa-based Islamic State members accused of raising money and helping with recruitment for militants in Mozambique and beyond.

“IS members and associates in South Africa are playing an increasingly central role in facilitating the transfer of funds from the top of the IS hierarchy to branches across Africa,” the Treasury said in a press release. The latest US contribution, Landberg said, includes a $119m investment in counter-terrorism assistance in sub-Saharan Africa, on top of about $250m in similar aid over the past three fiscal years.

“We are increasing this every year,” he said. “And we’re looking to use it to improve the capabilities of our partners, civilian law enforcement and judiciary, with goals of disrupting, apprehending, prosecuting and convicting terrorists across the continent.” The issue also came up during last week’s nomination hearing for the incoming coordinator for counterterrorism at the US Department of State.

“Terrorist groups in Africa that exploit poor governance and economic despair are growing more destructive by the day. Groups like Boko Haram, al-Shabaab and Jama’at Nusratul Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), and increasingly IS, thrive in this environment and threaten our interests in the region,” former Ambassador to Lebanon Elizabeth Richard said in a written testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on 10 May. “If confirmed, I will work to increase international attention to this region.”

The Biden administration has also taken steps to demilitarise its approach, notably looking to join the Sahel Alliance aid coordination effort as the international community shifts from counterterrorism to institution-building in the conflict-prone region.

“US counterterrorism efforts are shifting from a US-led, partner-enabled approach that relies heavily on military power to one in which our partners have the will and capability to lead in addressing terrorist threats on their soil,” Richard told Congress. “As US efforts become more focused on building partner capacity, the Counterterrorism Bureau’s work will be vital.”

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