While most spies operate in secret, it is common practice for every intelligence agency operating abroad to have at least one liaison officer whose identity is declared to the host country. And it was to that liaison officer of the South African State Security Agency (SSA) that Morocco’s top security and intelligence personnel addressed an unusual concern in December 2012.
According to a secret cable acquired by Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit, the South African liaison officer in Rabat was summoned, that month, to a meeting at the headquarters of Morocco’s foreign espionage service, known by the French acronym, DGED. Such liaison meetings are normal. But what was unusual was the presence of two of Morocco’s most feared spymasters; the chief of the Directorate of Territorial Surveillance (DST) and its Head of Internal Security.
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The DST director, Abdellatif Hammouchi, is an unassuming, bespectacled man in his late forties. His name also evokes whispers on the streets of Morocco of abductions and secret detention centers. In 2014, he was brought before a French prosecutor during a visit to Paris and accused or torturing a political opponent. Mr Hammouchi strongly denies the accusations
It is, however, generally assumed that the vast intelligence capabilities of the Moroccan security apparatus have made it highly effective at crushing any domestic threat.
So why was South Africa’s spy in Rabat called to the meeting?
It turned out that Hammouchi was investigating a carjacking in South Africa involving the DGED officer at the Moroccan Embassy. The Moroccan agent had been beaten up, kidnapped for five hours and dumped on the outskirts of the capital, Pretoria. Was there, inquired Hammouchi, a political motif behind this incident?
The SSA agent replied by expressing his sadness at what happened, but said that unfortunately, violent carjackings have become “very common in South Africa and the modus operandi of this incident is in accordance with this criminal activity”.
The agent was clearly surprised to find himself being interrogated by Morocco’s top spymasters, but he saw it as a sign that “Moroccans tend to be a bit paranoid, because of the Sahara issue.”
He was referring to Western Sahara, the resource-rich desert territory in north-west Africa occupied by Morocco since the end of Spanish colonial rule in 1975. Morocco has been confronted by decades-long armed struggle for independence by the Polisario Front, financed and supported by Morocco’s regional rival Algeria.
Confident of its control inside the territory, Morocco’s spies may now be concerned that Polisario could seek to take the conflict beyond the military theatre and attack Moroccan targets abroad.
The ever-suspicious Hammouchi may have smelt a rat. He was perhaps concerned that the longstanding support for Polisario by South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) had come into play.
Nonetheless, the Moroccan spy chief seemed reassured that the carjacking was no more than a criminal matter, and the meeting ended amicably.
South Africa has one of the world’s highest murder rates, and the country’s wave of criminal violence has struck a number of diplomats from various countries in recent years. A second Moroccan diplomat, consular officer Fatmi Noureddine, was murdered in Pretoria in October last year in what police said was a robbery at his home.
Another missive from South Africa’s man in Rabat concerns the impact of the Arab Spring on the rule of Morocco’s King Mohammed VI.
In late 2010, Wikileaks published U.S. diplomatic cables alleging high-level corruption involving the King. His personal fortune is estimated at several billion U.S. dollars and the small group surrounding him is believed to be worth tens of billions.
The democracy protests that had swept Tunisia and Egypt in 2011 prompted thousands of Moroccans to demand that the King relinquish some of his powers.
King Mohammed responded quickly, promising constitutional reform to widen democracy and improve the rule of law.
It was against this turbulent background that the SSA officer in Rabat met the man who was about to take up the post of Morocco’s Ambassador in South Africa, Thami El Glaoui. For their first meeting, the spy introduced himself to El Glaoui simply as a South African diplomat.
According to the spy’s account, El Glaoui was loquacious; he spoke about himself at length, including his family’s history and “how they became confidants of the Royal family”. The “new” government was also discussed, and El Glaoui appeared to confirm that the reforms implemented by the King in 2011 had been cosmetic, and that little had changed. “It became clear that the real power and important decisions are taken in the Royal Palace.”
The SSA officer seemingly viewed El Glaoui as a potential source. After a few meetings, in order ‘to establish trust’, he informed the ambassador-designate of his SSA identity. “He did not have any problem with it, although he was more guarded in his deliberations since,” the spy reported.
Despite knowing his true status, El Glaoui invited the South African for drinks two nights before departing to take up his post. During the evening, according to the report, El Glaoui indicated that after taking up his post “he wants to engage with a senior member of the SSA in Pretoria” – a person “known and trusted” by the spy in Rabat. The ambassador-designate said he wants to settle down first and will indicate “in three months time when he is ready”.
The cables obtained by Al Jazeera do not indicate whether, or how that relationship ever developed.