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Morocco's Crime-Terror Nexus

Where the developed and developing worlds meet, criminal enterprises tend to percolate.

August 22, 2004|Mitchell Koss | Mitchell Koss is a television news and documentary producer in Los Angeles. His work has appeared on PBS, ABC, MTV, CNN and NBC. He reported this story with Laura Ling.

Last month, Spain's leading investigative magistrate testified that there were 100 Al Qaeda cells in Morocco -- which at its closest to Spain is a mere seven miles away, across the neck of the Mediterranean -- ready to cross over into Europe.

The warning came in the aftermath of the March train bombings in Madrid that killed 190 and wounded more than 1,500 people. Part of the way that these cells were able to finance themselves, the magistrate noted, was through drug trafficking, an ominous nexus of terrorism and organized crime.

Having just toured both nations, I'd say it's important to realize that the organized crime didn't spring up to support the terrorism, but that the connection seems embedded in much larger forces at work in places where the developing and developed worlds touch.

According to the United Nations, Morocco is the world's largest exporter of marijuana. Though illegal, the drug is grown in the Rif Mountains, in the country's northeast, a region where the government's hold has traditionally been tenuous.

The U.N.'s Office on Drugs and Crime, or UNODC, which is conducting its second survey of Moroccan cannabis production, estimates that 1 million people in the Rif are engaged in the cultivation of cannabis. Transformed into 3,000 metric tons of hashish and exported across the Mediterranean, the crop generates an estimated $12 billion to smugglers and European drug dealers -- and, potentially, terrorists.

Earlier this month, I traveled with UNODC surveyors in Morocco. We visited a farmer wearing a New York Yankees baseball hat who demonstrated how to make hashish. He got out a shallow metal bowl about three feet across, covered the top with a black cloth, put some marijuana plants on top of the cloth, covered the whole in a plastic garbage bag, and then beat the bag with a stick. After a few minutes, he stopped to show us that a few tablespoons of pollen, a fine powder, had passed through the cloth into the bowl -- hashish. He told us that in a good year, his family of 12 clears about $10,000 on hashish. Other ventures, such as cattle and corn, hadn't worked out as well for them.

Farther on, in an area where the forest had newly been cut back to plant cannabis, another farmer invited us into his home. He showed us a newly produced kilo of "first quality" hashish, a small brown loaf reminiscent of gingerbread, one of four that his family of 14 produces in a year and sells at $1,000 apiece. His 17-year-old son plans to finish school, then join the family cannabis business.

The relative success of farmers like these encourages more cultivation. According to the UNODC, that puts Morocco's last remaining forests in danger. And it also creates criminal networks to get the product of all these small farmers to market in Europe. Each year, the U.N. says, cannabis production seems to become more organized.

One day, we drove for a couple of hours on a dirt track along a ridge line, jolting past the ruins of a French Foreign Legion outpost, to a spot where we could look out over a broad valley where fields of marijuana stretched for miles.

"We might be looking at the largest industrial marijuana field in the world," a U.N. escort said. "Here, they will not be happy to see us."

Cautiously, we descended to the edge of the field, close enough to see irrigation systems, tractors and plenty of migrant workers, all the staples of American-style agribusiness. Except for the type of crop, it looked a lot like California's Central Valley.

But what goes on in the remote Rif makes sense only when viewed against the rest of Morocco and its relation to Spain.

U.S. State Department personnel call Morocco a "progressive Arab regime" and a "strong ally in the war on terrorism." In big cities, like Casablanca, you can see the progressive -- that is, Westernized -- part. A sizable percentage of women don't wear headscarves. And at Morocco's Channel 2 television station, I saw the pre-taping of an episode of "Star Academy," Morocco's answer to "American Idol." One of the contestants sang "Hotel California." Another sang "New York, New York."

In the Sidi Moumen slum, where three of the suicide bombers in the May 2003 Casablanca attacks lived in three side-by-side houses, the young people insisted that they were against terrorism. "This neighborhood has produced a lot of teachers and doctors as well as those three terrorists," said one young man.

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