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Title: Assessing Morocco’s Below War Threshold Activities in Spanish Enclaves in North of Africa and the Canary Islands

Date Originally Written:  August 10, 2020.

Date Originally Published:  November 16, 2020.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The author believes that given the current economic and public health weakness and the climate of social instability in Spain, Morocco could try, once again, to execute activities below the threshold of war to achieve its strategic, political, and territorial objectives in the Spanish territories of North Africa.

Summary:  Spain is currently in a situation of economic and public health weakness and emerging social instability. Morocco, as a master of activities below the threshold of war, could take advantage of Spain’s situation to obtain political and territorial benefits in North of Africa and the Canary Islands. This risks escalation between the two countries and could decrease security for all near the Strait of Gibraltar.

Text:  The Strait of Gibraltar has always been an important strategic zone, and although it has been stable in the recent decades, it has not always been that way. The most recent relevant landmark between Moroccan-Spanish was the beginning of the Rif War in 1911. This war lasted until 1927 with the dissolution of the Rif Republic. Since then, what is known as the “Places of sovereignty” (Perejil Islet, Peñón de Vélez de la Gomera, Peñón de Alhucemas and the Chafarinas Islands) plus Ceuta, Melilla and the Alboran Islands, together with the former territory of Western Sahara and the Canary Islands, and the territorial waters of all the aforementioned territories have been the subject of disputes between Spain and Morocco. Morocco claims the territories or parts thereof as sovereign territory and does not recognize them as integral parts of Spain. This is the source of constant tension and conflict between the two countries.

There is little debate about the potential threat of a direct attack by Morocco on the enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla but, given that Spain has plans for a difficult defense of such territories, this option seems very unlikely[1]. Beyond direct attack though, Morocco has a long tradition of activities below the threshold of war. One of Morocco’s most successful movements below the threshold of war involved invading the territory of Western Sahara during the Green March in 1975 with the help of a peaceful march of some 350,000 civilians demonstrators accompanied by some 20,000 Moroccan troops. This below threshold activity expelled the Spanish administration and army from Western Sahara without the need to use a single bullet[2].

Jumping well ahead in time, the Perejil Islet was the scene of crisis between Morocco and Spain in July 2002. During this crisis, Morocco militarily occupied the uninhabited territory with 12 Marines under the pretext of fighting drug trafficking in the area and refusing to vacate the island afterwards. In this case, a bloodless action by the Spanish Army would solve the conflict and the situation would return to its previous status quo. In this case, the threshold of war was very close to being reached and the conflict de-escalated shortly afterwards[3].

Although Morocco also gets political advantage classified as peaceful competition in fields like immigration control, fishing agreements with Spanish fishers, or anti-terrorist cooperation, the Moroccan government also has tried to influence the Spanish territories by carrying out what some authors have described as hybrid actions which seek destabilization. Examples of these actions include:

-2007 Moroccan public condemnation of the visit of the Kings of Spain to Ceuta and Melilla.

-2010 issuing Moroccan passports of people originally born in Ceuta or Melilla which attributed the possession of both cities to Morocco.

-Since 2000 — selective regulation of the migratory flow of irregular immigrants who cross to Ceuta and Melilla and also to the peninsula by land or sea as a way of political pressure.

-2018-2020 unilateral closure of the commercial border between Ceuta and Melilla.

-2019 the Moroccan Government prohibits its officials with diplomatic or private passports from entering to Ceuta or Melilla.

-2020 veto at the entry of fresh fish into the city of Ceuta[4].

On other occasions, Morocco has frontally challenged Spanish sovereignty, as in the case of the new delimitation of its territorial waters[5]. In December 2014, Spain formally requested to the United Nations an extension of its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of the Canary Archipelago to 350 miles in accordance with the current legislation on Admiralty Law (International Maritime Law). In February 2020, Morocco approved a law on its parliament for the expansion of the EEZ of the militarily occupied territory of Western Sahara (which Morocco understands as its own), also of 350 miles, similar to the Spanish one, but with null international validity and colliding with the previous Spanish request. The object in dispute is the underwater mountain of Mount Tropic, where it is believed that there may be important deposits of Tellurium and cobalt, fundamental for the manufacture of electrical or solar panels. In this case, the main intention is not to directly dispute these waters, but to establish a lead position for future negotiation. In nearby waters there is also the low possibility of undersea oil fields[6].

Beyond the history of disputes between the Moroccan and Spanish governments in the area is growing destabilization due to different factors that could lead Morocco to a new attempt to try to obtain political or territorial revenue at the expense of Spain. These factors include: the demographic change in the cities of Ceuta and Melilla in favor of the population of Moroccan background, the COVID-19 crisis in both countries and the creation of social tension as a result of the mismanagement of the crisis, and the return of jihadists from the Middle East originally from the cities of Ceuta and Melilla. Further contributing factors include the fact that both cities are not protected by the North Atlantic Treaty Organizations’ Article 5, the rearmament of Algeria and the subsequent rearmament of Morocco, the migration crisis due to the civil war in Libya. Finally, the search for a common foreign enemy by the Moroccan authorities as a way to quell the growing internal discontent due to the lack of democratic freedoms combined with the departure from Spain of King Juan Carlos I with whom the Moroccan Royal Family maintained very good relations adds to the tensions.

One of the main keys is to understand that Morocco, due to its demographic, economic, and political weight, is currently in a situation of inferiority in relation to Spain. Based upon this inferiority, the most cost-effective scenario and maybe the only possible one in which Morocco can profit, is by continuing to pursue activities below the threshold of war. As described above, Morocco has mastered these below threshold activities and they have sometimes proved very successful. The current situation sets ideal conditions for Morocco to try once again to obtain some political (and territorial) benefit from the crisis that Spain is currently suffering. Therefore, it will depend on Spain’s preparation for these eventual activities that may probably occur when the country is the weakest. Avoiding falling into the trap of escalating the conflict, but directly and unambiguously addressing the challenges that may arise as result of such provocations, may be the only options for Spain to keep the current status quo in the area.


[1] Gutiérrez, Roberto (2019, December 31) Ceuta y Melilla: ¿una defensa imposible? Retrieved August 10, 2020

[2] Villanueva, Christian D. (2018, September 27) La zona Gris. Retrieved August 10, 2020

[3] Jordán, Javier (2018, June) Una reinterpretación de la crisis del Islote Perejil desde la perspective de la amenaza híbrida.

[4] Jordán, Javier (2020, March 24) Ceuta y Melilla: ¿emplea Marruecos estrategias híbridas contra España? Retrieved August 10, 2020

[5] (2020, February 04) Marruecos da un paso más en la delimitación de sus aguas territoriales.

[6] García, Rafael (2019, January 23) Canarias y la previsible ampliación de su plataforma continental: el difícil equilibrio entre España, Marruecos y Sáhara Occidental.