Keeping IS threat at bay

The horrific images on our TV screens were shocking and stomach-churning, yet there was a certain familiarity about them.

Innocent tourists, the majority of them British, were gunned down on a Tunisian beach in a brazen premeditated attack last week.

Once again, the Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility for this atrocity, the latest in a series of unprovoked terrorist assaults that the group and its satellite organisations have inflicted on the Middle East and North Africa.

Thirty-eight people lost their lives when a lone gunman opened fire on tourists staying in the popular resort of Port El Kantaoui, just north of Sousse in Tunisia.

The gunman, identified as Tunisian student Seifeddine Rezgui, arrived on the beach about noon on June 26.

Rezgui began making his way along the beach, pulling a Kalashnikov from a parasol and opening fire indiscriminately at tourists outside the five-star Hotel Rui Imperial Marhaba.

The bloodbath has sent shockwaves around the world. In the UK, police have already conducted two mock terror exercises in central London even as the bodies of their nationals are being brought back home from Tunisia.

Having already established a foothold in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, IS appears to be a major threat for the North African countries of Algeria, Egypt, Libya and now Tunisia.

Only Morocco, the one other North African country on the Mediterranean coast, appears unaffected by IS or any other terrorist organisation.

Coincidentally, I visited this "oasis of calm" about two weeks before the Tunisian incident, travelling extensively, visiting the capital Rabat as well as Casablanca, Marrakech and Essaouira.

Even though my week-long travels certainly do not qualify me as an expert on North African geopolitics, I did speak to a number of businessmen and government officials who shared their opinions about Morocco and its neighbours.

Morocco, a constitutional monarchy with an elected parliament like Malaysia, practises a moderate form of Islam.

The King, Mohammed VI, claims direct descent from the Prophet Muhammad and is head of the Ulama Council in the country.

Moroccans think of Malaysia as a model Muslim democracy and many whom I spoke to hope that their country can replicate Malaysia's economic progress.

Their average GDP per capita is US$5,000 (S$6,700) whereas ours is more than US$10,500.

Yet, in many ways, Morocco with a 99 per cent Muslim population appears to be a country we should emulate.

It's a breathtaking country. Very few places on earth offer you the chance to ski - on the slopes of the Atlas Mountains - and then trek through desert - the Western Sahara desert - in the same country on the same day!

The kingdom has spectacular scenery, amazing food, and most importantly, welcoming locals.

Tourism, currently the second largest foreign exchange earner after the phosphate industry, is fast becoming the No.1 revenue earner.

Siham Fettouhi, marketing manager of the national tourist office, told me that government-sponsored marketing campaigns to attract tourists advertised Morocco as cheap and exotic but a safe place for tourists.

"Most of the visitors to Morocco are European, with French nationals making up almost 20 per cent of all visitors. We are only a short flight away from mainland Europe," she said.

This conversation took place of course before the terrorist incident on June 26. I am pretty sure tourist arrivals in Morocco will drop in the next few weeks as a knock-on effect from the thousands of cancellations that Tunisia is experiencing.

This is unfortunate because, as businessman Hamid Addou told me, the country has worked hard to project itself as a moderate Islamic nation in the eyes of the world.

Addou feels that Morocco should not be compared with the other Muslim-majority countries in North Africa.

"Our vision of the religion is based on tolerance, intercultural dialogue and respect of other faiths," he said.

Despite having a relatively stable government compared to its neighbours, Morocco was also not spared the so-called "Arab Spring" revolution.

In 2011, thousands of people took to the streets of Rabat and Casablanca to demand for King Mohammed VI to give up some of his wide-ranging powers.

The king agreed to a constitutional reform but despite losing some powers, he controls the military and police and remains head of the Council of Ministers, the Supreme Security Council and the Ulama Council.

So, the question is, can Morocco keep IS at bay? Can they prevent this terrorist organisation from expanding its tentacles into their borders?

These are questions that have been bothering me since the Tunisian terror attack last week.

The kingdom has totally captivated me and I would love to return and spend more time there.

A phone call to a new friend I made on my recent trip, Farid Bennis, put my mind at ease.

Farid, the owner of a number of sports retail outlets in Marrakech and Casablanca, believes the majority of the populace will not allow an extreme form of Islam to develop.

"We will never allow the zealots or a misguided version of Islam to take root in our country," he said, adding that the government views the growing influence of IS in the other North African countries with alarm and has taken steps to ensure the organisation does not get a foothold in Morocco.

He said the king was building a multi-million education centre in the capital city, Rabat, for Muslim scholars and imams from all over the world.

"We support the king's initiative because we believe education is the key to preventing young people from being corrupted by the perverted ideology of IS.

"By providing training to foreign imams, we hope to export our version of moderate Islam," he told me.