Where informers are patriots

Observations on the war against terrorism

The car arrived at my Rabat hotel around six o'clock on 13 June. I had asked for a comment from the Moroccan internal affairs ministry about the government's successful operation to dismantle an al-Qaeda cell that was planning attacks on British and American shipping in the straits of Gibraltar. Instead, they sent a chauffeur-driven Mercedes and told me the minister wanted to see me in person.

After a half-hour drive through Rabat's dusty suburbs, the chauffeur pulled in to a secure compound and I was ushered into the minister's palatial seaside residence. There, over sweetmeats, mint tea and champagne, I was introduced not only to the secretary of state for the interior, Fouad El Hemma, but also to Hamidou Laanigri, head of the DST, Morocco's internal intelligence service, and Hafid Benachem, the head of the national criminal investigation department.

This was a novel experience: I'd like to think my paper, the Observer, commands a degree of respect in Britain, but I have certainly never had access to the Home Secretary, the director of MI5 and the head of the National Crime Squad all at the same time. Although the conversation was off the record, the three men said they would discuss the accuracy of reports that were already in the public domain

They had good reason to be pleased. After a tip-off from the CIA late last year, a Moroccan surveillance operation on three Saudi businessmen revealed they had established an al-Qaeda sleeper cell in Morocco to act as the reconnaissance unit for a suicide squad. The infiltration of Morocco's Islamist community and the interception of mobile phone calls along with communications from internet cafes across Morocco allowed police to swoop as soon as the Saudis prepared to leave the country.

The Moroccans have been roundly congratulated by their colleagues in the international intelligence community for their work in "Operation Gibraltar". If the al-Qaeda plot had succeeded, it would have dealt a devastating blow to the war against terrorism. The CIA has a lot to thank Hamidou Laanigri and the DST for. But it will be interesting to see if they draw other, more sinister lessons from events in Morocco.

At one point, one of my three hosts bent closer to me and said: "Of course, you know it's much easier to operate as an al-Qaeda cell in Britain, don't you?" Britain's respect for the freedom of the individual, he suggested, allowed terrorists to operate with impunity. The success of the Moroccan operation poses a serious moral dilemma for western democracies - at what point does the war against Islamic extremism become so critical that we have to exchange civil liberties for security?

In Morocco, the secret police are a constant presence in everyday life; acting as an informant is seen as a patriotic duty. In the four days I was in Morocco, I was tailed the whole time. I know this because when I hired an Arabic translator to take me to Rabat's medina, he was called on his mobile phone and told to keep the DST informed of my movements. Meanwhile, the Moroccan photographer who accompanied me to an Islamist stronghold in a Casablanca shantytown told me he was unable to take pictures of the worst slum housing. If it appeared in the foreign press, he said, it would give a negative image of Morocco and he would be in big trouble with the DST.

Those contemplating an increase in the power of a secret state in the fight against terrorism would do well to look at Morocco and ask if they would feel it their patriotic duty to report a foreign journalist to MI5 if he started asking questions about Bradford.

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