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

Jesus Roman Garcia can be found on Twitter @jesusfroman. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature, nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

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.

Assessment Papers Below Established Threshold Activities (BETA) Jesus Roman Garcia Morocco Spain

Germany’s Options in the First Moroccan Crisis

This article is published as part of the Small Wars Journal and Divergent Options Writing Contest which ran from March 1, 2019 to May 31, 2019.  More information about the writing contest can be found here.

Rafael Loss is a California-based defense analyst. He can be found on Twitter @_RafaelLoss. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

National Security Situation:  The German Empire was a latecomer to the “Scramble for Africa.” Looking for “a place under the sun,” the first Moroccan crisis in 1905-06 presented an opportunity for Germany to further its colonial ambitions and improve its position among Europe’s great powers.

Date Originally Written:  May 31, 2019.

Date Originally Published:  September 19, 2019.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The article is written from the point of view of the German Empire under Kaiser Wilhelm II[1]. While representative of the competing views within the German government, the two options presented are somewhat stylized to draw a starker contrast.

Background:  Following the Franco-Prussian war and its unification in 1871, the German Empire was a latecomer to the “Scramble for Africa.” Only in 1890 did it adopt Weltpolitik, seeking possessions abroad and equal status among the European imperial powers. On a visit to Tangier in March 1905, Kaiser Wilhelm II provoked a diplomatic spat by challenging France’s dominance in Morocco. As the crisis escalated, Germany called up reserve units and France moved troops to the German border. In early 1906, a conference in the southern Spanish town of Algeciras sought to resolve the dispute[2].

Significance:  The Entente Cordiale of 1904, a series of agreements between Great Britain and France which saw a significant improvement in their relations, marked a major setback for German efforts, perfected during the Bismarckian period, to manipulate the European balance of power in Berlin’s favor[3]. The Entente not only threatened Germany’s colonial ambitions, but also its predominant position on the European continent—a vital national security interest. The Algeciras conference presented an opportunity to fracture the Franco-British rapprochement. In hindsight, it arguably also offered the best off-ramp for Europe’s diplomats to avert locking in the alignment patterns that contributed to the unraveling of the European order only eight years later.

Option #1:  Germany weakens the Entente by seeking closer relations with France (and Britain). This option required a constructive and conciliatory stance of Germany at Algeciras. (This option is associated with Hugo von Radolin, Germany’s Ambassador to France.)

Risk:  Rebuffing French bilateral overtures, Germany had insisted that a conference settle the Moroccan issue from the beginning of the crisis. Appearing too compromising at Algeciras risked undermining German credibility and status as a great power determined to pursue legitimate colonial interests. Alignment with France (and Britain) also jeopardized Germany’s relations with the Russian and Austro-Hungarian monarchies and could further increase domestic pressure for democratic reform.

Gain:  A successful pursuit of this option promised to alleviate Germany’s security dilemma, located between France to the west and Russia to the east, with the British navy threatening its sea lines of communication. This option would also reduce dependence on Austria-Hungary and Italy, who were seen by some as rather unreliable allies, and could eventually facilitate the emergence of a continental block—with France and Russia—against Britain’s maritime primacy. Moreover, this option could improve relations with the United States, a rising great power and increasingly important player in colonial affairs.

Option #2:  Germany weakens the Entente by pressuring France. This required a bellicose negotiating stance and raising the specter of war to deter Britain from coming to France’s aid. (This option is associated with Friedrich von Holstein, the Political Secretary of the German Foreign Office.)

Risk:  While consistent with Germany’s heretofore assertive opposition to France’s dominance in Morocco, leaning on France too hard at Algeciras risked escalating a peripheral diplomatic dispute to major war in Europe, for which public support was less than certain. It could also precipitate an arms race and alienate the other delegations, especially since Germany had already secured concessions from France, including the dismissal of a disliked foreign minister and the conference itself. Furthermore, it was uncertain whether even a total diplomatic victory for Germany at Algeciras could weaken the Franco-British rapprochement, as the status of the Entente itself was not part of the negotiations, or even strengthen their resolve in the face of German adversity.

Gain:  Successfully pressuring France promised not only greater influence in colonial affairs in North Africa but also exposure of the hollowness of the Entente Cordiale. Without British support for either France or Russia—Britain had sided with Japan during the Russo-Japanese war—Germany’s position on the European continent would improve considerably, particularly since Russia and Germany had discussed a defense treaty the prior year. Separately dealing with the challenges at land and at sea would also make it easier for Germany to contest Britain’s maritime primacy at a convenient time, perhaps even with French support as the end of the Entente might reignite Franco-British competition. Domestically, humiliating France yet again could be expected to increase popular support for the Kaiser and the conservative elites.

Other Comments:  Kaiser Wilhelm II and Chancellor Bernhard von Bülow ultimately instructed their representatives at the conference to pursue Option #2.

With Britain, Italy, Russia, Spain, and the United States siding with France, however, Germany was largely isolated and, at last, had to accept an unsatisfying settlement. Germany’s actions in 1905 and its combative posturing at the conference failed to fracture the Entente[4]. To the contrary, rival blocks began to consolidate which severely limited the room for diplomatic maneuver in subsequent crises. Worsening tensions between Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy (Triple Alliance) on the one side and Britain, France, and Russia (Triple Entente) on the other, ultimately led to the outbreak of general war in August 1914.

Recommendation:  None.


[1] Lepsius, J., Mendelssohn Bartholdy, A., & Thimme, F. (1927). Die grosse Politik der europäischen Kabinette, 1871-1914. Sammlung der diplomatischen Akten des Auswärtigen Amtes: Vols. 20.1 & 20.2. Entente cordiale und erste Marokkokrise, 1904-1905. Berlin, Germany: Deutsche Verlagsgesellschaft für Politik und Geschichte.

[2] Anderson, E. N. (1930). The first Moroccan crisis, 1904-1906. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

[3] Sontag, R. J. (1928). German foreign policy, 1904-1906. The American Historical Review, 33(2), 278-301.

[4] Jones, H. (2009). Algeciras revisited: European crisis and conference diplomacy, 16 January-7 April 1906 (EUI Working Paper MWP 2009/01). San Domenico di Fiesole, Italy: European University Institute.

2019 - Contest: Small Wars Journal Germany Morocco Option Papers Rafael Loss