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Morocco and the Pegasus scandal: Mohammed VI knew

What does the Pegasus affair teach us? Morocco's intelligence services could never have acted without the king's consent
According to author Ali Lmrabet, trying to break into the mobile phone of French President Emmanuel Macron would require a green light from the Moroccan royal palace (AFP)

It is often said that attack is the best form of defence. These past few days, the Moroccan administration has pleaded not guilty in the immense Pegasus scandal that is shaking its political police force, the General Directorate for National Security (DST), and its powerful director, Abdellatif Hammouchi. To deflect criticism, Morocco is showing its teeth and going on the offensive.

Accused of having spied on a slew of high-profile figures of all types and nationalities, thanks to the Pegasus spyware developed by Israel’s NSO Group, Rabat is simply denying everything.

Hammouchi himself does not have the political ambition that could have turned him into a rogue player

Indeed, Morocco is counter-attacking by suing for defamation Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International, the NGOs that broke the scandal, as well as Le Monde, Mediapart and Radio France, which are accused of having disseminated slanderous and false information.

But this strategy may be Morocco’s last stand. After the Zakaria Moumni affair, in which the former kickboxing champion publicly accused Hammouchi and the king’s personal secretary, Mounir Majidi, of torturing him, leading the state to launch a defamation suit, France’s Court of Cassation ruled that a foreign state cannot bring cases to a French court.

We will see what happens in the next few months, but several conclusions can already be drawn from this shadowy affair.

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Above the law

Firstly, contrary to an idea widely circulating in certain French circles close to the Moroccan regime, it is simply impossible that Hammouchi could have decided on his own to spy on the French government, Moroccan generals and members of the king’s family. He needed the green light of the royal palace.

Consent from the king is not required to spy on Moroccan or foreign journalists, human rights activists, or even high-ranking Moroccan officials. But to hack the mobile phones of French President Emmanuel Macron and 15 members of his government, especially allies of the North African kingdom, is not something that could have been decided solely by Hammouchi, unless that man has totally lost his mind.

Although he considers himself above all laws, foreign or domestic, Hammouchi - a man of humble origins, born in the rough Taza countryside between the Rif and the Middle Atlas mountains - would not have dared go so far beyond the boundaries of his post. 

A student in the 1990s, he moved from university straight to the DST, which means two things: either he was already collaborating with former interior minister Driss Basri’s police as a law student in Fez, or it was his childhood ambition to become a political cop.

Abdellatif Hammouchi heads Morocco's General Directorate for National Security (AFP)
Abdellatif Hammouchi heads Morocco's General Directorate for National Security (AFP)

Hammouchi owes all his (excessive) powers to his master, the Moroccan king Mohammed VI. The king, through his counsellor Fouad Ali El Himma, maintains absolute control over his secret services. And Hammouchi does not have the political ambition that could have turned him into a rogue player.

To exonerate the royal palace and the rest of the regime from the deeds of this vast spying network, some have argued that one of the phones belonging to the king himself had been targeted for possible hacking by the Moroccan secret services. But such a surprising contention can be explained in two ways.

For one, it is probable that Hammouchi, who several months ago initiated a violent media campaign against the three Azaitar brothers, one of whom is close to the king, was trying to follow closely the king’s whereabouts in order to protect him and preserve his image, gravely damaged by persistent and sordid allegations.

It is also possible that selecting the king’s phone for inclusion in the spying operation was a stratagem to give King Mohammed a convenient alibi, exonerating him from suspicion and implication should the Pegasus spyware operation be uncovered, which it was. In other words: “The king cannot have known about this, since he himself was being spied on.”

Information in Israeli hands

Secondly, and comprising the most sensitive part of this unfolding affair, all the secrets obtained by Hammouchi - including the most salacious - are surely now also in Israeli hands, as it is hard to imagine that Mossad would miss an opportunity to get that information from a well-known Israeli company.

Besides, Israel's former prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, was always something of a sales representative for the NSO Group, having the final say over the sale and export of Pegasus spyware to foreign states. 

Pegasus Project: Why I was targeted by Israeli spyware
Read More »

Hammouchi, then, is far from the only person to possess a massive amount of sensitive and potentially devastating information about many important figures, including the king himself, his close entourage, the royal family, top military officials and a multitude of political and other personalities of all kinds, both Moroccan and foreign. One shivers at the thought that such information may also be used by other ill-intentioned people for various purposes, including blackmail, intimidation and vengeance.

Thirdly, if confirmed, this spying operation, which included in its vast net thousands of mobile phones belonging to high-profile personalities in Algeria - Morocco’s difficult neighbour - will surely aggravate the diplomatic, political and even potential military crisis currently poisoning already-bad bilateral relations.

Since the recent diplomatic normalisation between the Moroccan kingdom and Israel, Algerians are claiming in anger that Morocco has become Israel’s rear base in North Africa - that “the Zionist enemy is at the gates”, and even that a “fourth-generation war” has been declared.

An emerging international crisis

Now that the extent of the operation, its ramifications and consequences are better known, it is clear how serious the Pegasus affair is.

It had been thought that Morocco heard about the urgent transfer to Spain, for medical reasons, of Brahim Ghali, president of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, thanks to it being leaked to a top agent of the General Directorate for Studies and Documentation, the counterintelligence agency headed by Yassine Mansouri. Today, in light of this affair, it is more than likely that the information actually came from an Algerian phone infected by Pegasus.

It is difficult for a body to cut off one of its arms, especially the arm in charge of the dirty work

What will happen next? If the French courts follow the Court of Cassation’s jurisprudence and thus reject Morocco’s lawsuits, what will become of the investigations targeting the operations of Morocco’s secret services in France, Spain and Algeria?

Hammouchi’s situation may also become untenable should a French, Spanish or Algerian judge issue an international warrant against him. The same is true for his superiors who ordered the operation.

Despite this highly volatile situation, will the king abandon him? Given that he is so closely connected to the royal palace, it is hard to tell. It is difficult for a body to cut off one of its arms, especially the arm in charge of the dirty work. Clearly, this is only the beginning of an international crisis.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

This article has been translated from the MEE French edition.

Ali Lmrabet est un journaliste marocain, ancien grand reporter au quotidien espagnol El Mundo, pour lequel il travaille toujours comme correspondant au Maghreb. Interdit d’exercer sa profession de journaliste par le pouvoir marocain, il collabore actuellement avec des médias espagnols. Ali Lmrabet is a Moroccan journalist and the Maghreb correspondent for the Spanish daily El Mundo.
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