June 1, 2021 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 280

Ceuta Countdown: Morocco's Hybrid Struggle With Spain

June 1, 2021 | By Alberto M. Fernandez*
North Africa | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 280

On May 17 and 18, 2021 – within a 24-hour period – up to 10,000 infiltrators crossed over from Moroccan territory into the Spanish North African enclave of Ceuta. Ceuta and Melilla are two Spanish cities located on African soil, surrounded by Morocco, and have been held by the Iberians since the 15th century (Ceuta was taken by Portugal in 1415 and Portugal ceded it to Spain in 1668). The migrants were mostly Moroccans, young men and teenage boys, with some from Sub-Saharan countries like Senegal. They didn't cross over in spite of the Moroccan guards on the other side, but because of them. There is video of Moroccan border guards actually watching and facilitating the entry of these migrants.[1]

Spanish neo-medieval fortress at Aranguren in Ceuta, built in 1865.

The event caused a domestic political furor in Spain, where the country is ineptly ruled by a shaky left-wing/far-left coalition, supported by separatist Catalan and Basque parties with their own agenda. The trigger for the Moroccan action was the secret hosting, since April 2021, for medical treatment by Spain of Brahim Ghali, the veteran head of the POLISARIO, the anti-Moroccan rebel group fighting for the independence of Western Sahara (which belonged to Spain until 1975).[2] Ghali entered Spain with fake documents provided by Algeria. The Moroccans consider the separatist group little better than a terrorist organization. In a symbolic protest at Spain's actions, Morocco announced that it would give political asylum to Carles Puigdemont, the fugitive Catalan separatist leader wanted on rebellion and corruption charges in Spain.

But Morocco's actions should not be seen in isolation or merely as a reaction. They are actually part of a wider strategy, led by the "makhzan" (the Moroccan deep state), in effectively projecting power and advancing national security goals. What the leadership under Moroccan King Muhammad VI is seeking to do is aggressively dispute the status quo with its neighbor Spain (and, of course, its bitter rival Algeria) in an unconventional "gray area" or hybrid struggle falling short of actual armed conflict but harnessing all elements of national power towards clear political goals.[3]

Morocco has been improving its military for years now, narrowing the technical gap with Madrid, and has a better relationship with the U.S. than NATO member Spain has with Washington. The U.S. recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara by the Trump Administration in December 2020 – in exchange for Morocco formally recognizing Israel – was a triumph of Moroccan diplomacy. And despite anti-Trump criticism by Democrats about the decision, the Biden administration has decided not to reverse the Trump policy change over Western Sahara.[4] Morocco is buying Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones to defend this territory.[5]

Morocco has also perfected other ways of exerting influence towards the north. It has become a key partner of the European Union and of Spain on counterterrorism and migration issues. But even as it is an EU partner, Rabat has shown a willingness to turn on and off the migration spigot as a way of pressuring Spain on disputes over territorial waters, fishing rights and other issues. Morocco regards Ceuta and Melilla as occupied Moroccan territory, but takes the long view that sooner or later, and probably without military force, they will "revert" to Moroccan rule.[6] Using uncontrolled migration as a tool for exerting pressure is not only directed against the two Spanish African cities but also by allowing thousands of migrants in pateras (small boats) to flood into the Spanish Canary Islands and the Spanish Peninsula itself. Morocco showed a willingness to allow this human trafficking even in the midst of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic.

The two worst terrorist attacks in Spain, in 2004 and 2017, were carried out by jihadis of Moroccan origin, either migrants or their Spanish-born children, so counterterrorism cooperation with Morocco's well-trained security forces is essential. And Morocco, which has been relatively effective in counter radicalization inside its own borders, can play an important role in providing religious guidance to the overwhelmingly Moroccan origin Spanish Muslim community. Better the influence of moderate clerics trained by Rabat than hardcore Salafists or Islamists coming from the Middle East.

While Morocco has been both aggressive and effective in recent years in projecting power on a variety of levels, Spain has flailed in protecting its national interests, if indeed the leadership in power understands what its interests are. Socialist-ruled Spain has better ties with Maduro's catastrophic Venezuela than with Morocco. And Madrid has not been able to leverage relations with Algeria, Morocco's opponent, as any kind of equalizer. Spain's relations with Algiers are also not optimal and, indeed, pateras are also sailing daily from Algeria as they are from Morocco to Spain.[7]

The key partner of Spain's ruling Socialists (PSOE), the Communist Podemos party, are supporters of the POLISARIO, as are the Basque and Catalan separatists.[8] While Morocco seeks and does project power cleverly on the regional and international stage, the current Spanish government has turned inward, seeking to implement a far-left domestic agenda. To read the Spanish press today is to think that transgender and squatter rights, the Spanish Civil War of 1936, and suppressing machismo are of greater urgency than borders, security and sovereignty.

While the Madrid government of Prime Minister Sanchez was able to send back – because the Moroccans allowed them to – most of the Ceuta infiltrators, they also chose that same moment to announce a grant of 30 million Euro to Rabat for cooperation on migration issues. Supposedly this money had already been allocated by the EU for Morocco, but for many Moroccans and Spaniards, it looked like protection money, or a bribe.[9] A recent report by the conservative Fundacion Disenso, a bitter critic of the current Spanish government, gave Morocco the backhanded compliment, that it had "launched a series of actions perfectly structured against Spain as a type of hybrid conflict."[10] Morocco took Spanish Sahara without firing a shot during the so-called Green March of November 1975 in a moment of great Spanish weakness as dictator Francisco Franco was on his deathbed. Today Morocco – correctly – senses Spanish disarray.

Later this summer will see the centenary of the battle of Annual, a massive defeat on July 22, 1921 of a Spanish army by irregular Moroccan forces – Riffian Berbers under the dynamic Abd Al-Krim Al-Khattabi, a grim reminder of historic conflict and of asymmetrical warfare. No one expects actual war between Spain and Morocco; that is inconceivable. But what is clear is that Morocco's leadership has innovated or adapted various non-kinetic strategies to exert power and influence on a regional scale, while Spain has not.

*Alberto M. Fernandez is Vice President of MEMRI.


[1], May 18, 2021.

[2], April 28, 2021.

[3], May 26, 2021.

[4], April 30, 2021.

[5],109657829-art, April 16, 2021.

[6], July 23, 2020.

[7],9804.html, April 1, 2021.

[8], November 19, 2021.


[10], May 27, 2021.

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