Accusations of espionage strain Morocco’s ties with France

Updates of Morocco

Even before accusations that Morocco might have tried to steal phones belonging to French President Emmanuel Macron, the North African kingdom had had a tense time with European powers.

Rabat had allowed migrants into Spain because he was annoyed with Madrid. He had quarreled with Germany over his position on the disputed territory of Western Sahara.

Now, the espionage allegations made public last week for use by governments of the Pegasus malware, created by the Israeli NSO group, have added to the tension further. The claims emerged as part of an investigation by the non-profit journalism organization Forbidden Stories and 17 media partners.

The French newspaper Le Monde said Morocco may have intended mobile phones belonging to Macron and 15 French ministers as part of a cyber espionage operation that could have also included targeting 6,000 phones belonging to Algerian officials, politicians and others. Algeria is the neighbor and archivist of Morocco.

France, a former colonial power, counts Rabat as a close ally in the fight against jihadism and is Morocco’s largest trading partner.

Riccardo Fabiani, North Africa’s director at the International Crisis Group, said the timing of the revelations is “particularly harmful for Morocco which is working on two major diplomatic crises with Spain and Germany. opens a third front with France. ”

Morocco’s relations with Spain took place earlier this year when Madrid hosted, for medical treatment, Brahim Ghali, leader of the Polisario Front, an Algeria-based organization demanding independence for the disputed territory of Western Sahara. May, a influx of thousands of migrants from Morocco to Ceuta, a Spanish enclave in North Africa, was attributed to Rabat by loosening border controls in disgrace at Ghali’s visit.

The kingdom, which controls most of Western Sahara, has also fallen to Germany. In May, he recalled his ambassador after Germany said it would not change its position on Western Sahara even though the US, under Donald Trump, had recognized Moroccan sovereignty as part of a bargain in which Rabat has normalized ties with Israel. A UN plan for a referendum to determine the status of Western Sahara has been blocked for decades.

“Of course, Morocco’s situation in Europe has never been lower,” said the US-based North Africa Risk Consulting. The potential spying “adapts to a model of increasingly aggressive aggression… Moroccan foreign policy,” he adds.

Fabiani of Crisis Group claimed that Washington’s change of position had “made Morocco more inflexible” over Western Sahara and had encouraged it to try to gain greater recognition of its control over the territory.

France has launched an investigation into allegations of espionage. After Macron met with senior security officials on Thursday, the Elysée said: “The president takes the matter very seriously and follows the investigation process very closely.” But he emphasized that “no certainty had emerged at this stage” that the allegations were true.

For its part, Morocco has vehemently denied that it has taken such actions or that it has acquired software to infiltrate mobile phones.

Chakib Benmoussa, Morocco’s ambassador to Paris, told Le Journal du Dimanche that those who had made such convicting accusations against his country must now provide evidence. “In this story, Morocco is a victim,” he said. “This is an attempt to destabilize.”

Olivier Baratelli, a French lawyer representing Morocco, was quoted by French media as saying the kingdom would try both Prohibited Stories and Amnesty International for defamation in Paris. The human rights group has provided technical research to the media investigation. Earlier he had said he had evidence that Morocco was using Pegasus to infiltrate the phones of local journalists and human rights activists.

Rabat said Amnesty had not shown any evidence linking Morocco to spying on journalists.

France is Morocco’s first trading and investment partner and a firm supporter of its interests in Western Sahara at the UN Security Council.

“Morocco has always wanted to know what we really think of Saharan politics, not just what we tell it,” said a former French diplomat. “They also care about what a lot of French players think about the Sahara issue.”

While France stood firm in its support for the Moroccan position on Western Sahara, Fabiani said, Paris “has not agreed at times with its tough positions on the issue.” It will not be a surprise, he said, if “Moroccans might want to keep an eye on the French.”

The fact that France was also a close ally of Algeria, Polisario’s main sponsor, contributed to the mistrust, he added.

Although espionage claims embarrass Morocco and shake France, the two countries will want to contain the repercussions for the purpose of security cooperation, observers say.

Moroccan intelligence is “very alert and very effective,” according to the former French diplomat. “They have helped a lot in France to investigate the terrorist attacks leading up to the 2005 Madrid attack, and to stay on top of the Islamist threat in Europe,” he said.

“I think if the news cycle progresses, then both countries will be happy enough to let it die,” he said.

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