RABAT, MOROCCO — In February 2020, Moroccan human rights activist Fouad Abdelmoumni received some bone-chilling news: He and his partner had been filmed having sex inside their own home, and videos of their intimate moments were circulating on WhatsApp.
Friends and family members told Abdelmoumni they’d received a sequence of seven videos from an unknown number, apparently filmed from air conditioning vents that provided a view inside the bedroom and living room. When Abdelmoumni went to check the vents himself, he found no cameras. “I felt violated,” he told The Intercept in an interview, “and sad for my country.”
The 63-year-old economist and frequent critic of the corruption and abuses of the makhzen, a broad term used to describe Morocco’s ruling elites and their allies, says he has no doubt that the videos were meant as retaliation for his outspokenness. Just months earlier, the activist, who is close to the Moroccan Association for Human Rights and a board member of the country’s affiliate of Transparency International, had publicly denounced a separate brush-up with surveillance.
In October 2019, Abdelmoumni had been informed by the Citizen Lab, a group based out of the University of Toronto that tracks digital surveillance worldwide, that he had appeared, alongside seven other Moroccan activists and journalists, on a list of potential targets of a then little-known software called Pegasus. Developed by the Israel-based NSO Group, the spyware could enable attackers to monitor communications and other data on Abdelmoumni’s cellphone. He responded by signing a letter, joined by the rest of the group, to Morocco’s data protection authorities denouncing the surveillance and demanding that the government open an investigation. (Full disclosure: One of this story’s co-authors, Abdellatif El Hamamouchi, was also informed at the time that he had appeared on the list and co-signed that letter.)
The video surveillance of Abdelmoumni’s home wasn’t the product of the Pegasus spyware. Instead, he believes, the intrusion into his private life was a form of extortion meant to discourage him from speaking out about corruption. He has publicly alleged that the surveillance was conducted at the behest of the king. “Mr Abdelmoumni says dozens of the king’s critics … have faced similar smear campaigns,” The Economist reported in January.
“I was filmed having sexual relations with my partner as a way to silence me,” Abdelmoumni told The Intercept. “I’m facing immense pressure, but I did not and I will not submit to the political police attempting to blackmail me.”
Abdelmoumni is just one of the many activists, journalists, and government critics caught up in Morocco’s sweeping surveillance apparatus. Though the Moroccan state is often regarded as less repressive than many of its neighbors in the Middle East and North Africa, critics at home feel that it is in the midst of a dangerous authoritarian drift. The recent Pegasus spyware revelations have helped shine a light on just one part of that far-reaching and sophisticated surveillance machine.
In July, an investigation led by the NGO Forbidden Stories, Amnesty International’s Security Lab, and a consortium of international reporters — known as the Pegasus Project — suggested that the Moroccan government is a major user of NSO Group’s surveillance software. The findings, which were based on a data leak, included a list of more than 50,000 phone numbers that Amnesty and Forbidden Stories believed to be potential Pegasus targets. Roughly one-fifth of those phone numbers were based in Morocco.
Media organizations participating in the Pegasus Project analyzed the list, and Amnesty’s Security Lab examined 67 smartphones, 23 of which had been successfully infected with spyware and 14 more of which showed signs of attempted infiltration. NSO Group has denied involvement, claiming that any surveillance of journalists, activists, or politicians is a misuse of its technology.
The list of possible surveillance targets extended well beyond Moroccan borders. According to records provided by Forbidden Stories and Amnesty, entries selected from Morocco included the phone numbers of French President Emmanuel Macron, prominent French journalist Edwy Plenel, and the U.S. diplomat and lead negotiator on the 2015 Iran nuclear deal Robert Malley. But within the country, high-profile independent journalists appeared often. In addition to the heads of state, activists, and politicians found among the 50,000 entries, 180 numbers belonged to journalists from 20 different countries. According to The Guardian, 38 were in Morocco, among them Taoufik Bouachrine, Soulaimane Raissouni, and Omar Radi — all of whom are now in prison.
The Moroccan government, a constitutional monarchy with a prime minister appointed directly by the powerful King Mohammed VI, strongly disputes the accuracy of these findings. In July, the state’s public prosecutor announced that it was opening an investigation into “the false allegations and accusations contained in news articles issued by foreign newspapers,” while the country’s embassy in Paris has filed a lawsuit in French court, accusing Forbidden Stories and Amnesty of defamation.
But despite the uproar, Pegasus is just a part of the picture — one of the many instruments in an expanding surveillance toolbox available to the Moroccan state to clamp down on journalists, activists, and government critics. Sometimes, advocates say, intelligence can be deployed in a bid to shame or blackmail targets — as in the case of Abdelmoumni. Other times, it can be mobilized by pro-government media to attack critical voices. It can even be used to bring full-fledged criminal charges against dissidents, as a handful of independent journalists have learned firsthand.
According to Maati Monjib, a prominent historian and activist who spent three months in prison this year on charges of “fraud” and “threatening state security” before being granted provisional release, Morocco’s state surveillance plays an integral role in sustaining the regime’s power. The head of Freedom Now, a group that defends freedom of speech and freedom of the press, and a history professor at Rabat’s Mohammed V University, Monjib says the goals go beyond discouraging the most outspoken critics. When Amnesty examined his phone, forensic analysts found evidence of suspicious processes that led to Pegasus installation domains. His device became “instrumental” for the analysts’ models, Security Lab researchers wrote.
“The general aim seems to be for everyone to feel like they’re surveilled, including politicians who work for the regime,” Monjib told The Intercept weeks before a court hearing tied to his case. “This general feeling paralyzes a good part of Moroccan society and encourages self-censorship at home. Before, even pro-regime politicians were at times critical of the regime when they were amongst themselves or outside of Morocco. This is no longer possible.”
Reached on his personal number over WhatsApp when he was in office, Morocco’s former Minister of Human Rights Mustapha Ramid did not respond to The Intercept’s requests for comment for this story. Former Prime Minister Saad-Eddine El Othmani did not respond to multiple requests for comment sent through his office. As of October 7, following September’s parliamentary elections and the king’s approval, Morocco has a new government. The new prime minister, Aziz Akhannouch, also did not respond to a request for comment.
Pegasus: One Tool in the Surveillance Toolbox
In August 2019, when Moroccan police stopped journalist Hajar Raissouni, she thought she was being robbed. She was leaving her gynecologist’s office in Rabat with her then-fiancé, now her husband, when a group confronted her with intimate details and accusations.
“I was told very personal information that no one could have known unless they had been listening to my calls all along,” Hajar told The Intercept. “They told me that at a certain hour I would go to my fiancé Rifaat’s house when he was traveling to take out the dogs, and they mentioned the specific hours and days to me.” That month, she was arrested and charged with abortion and sexual relations outside of marriage, both of which are illegal and often viewed negatively in Morocco.
Among the many issues Moroccan journalists have to navigate are the infamous “red lines” explicitly mentioned in the country’s penal code: the place of Islam, the legitimacy of the monarchy, and the country’s territorial integrity. (The latter is especially relevant to Morocco’s contested claim over the territory of Western Sahara, which the Trump administration recognized last December, breaking with years of international consensus and smoothing Morocco’s establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel.)
“I was told very personal information that no one could have known unless they had been listening to my calls all along.”
Hajar remembers interrogators bombarding her with questions about her political beliefs and her coverage of the 2016 Hirak El-Rif protest movement, which demanded socioeconomic improvements in Morocco’s northern Berber-speaking region for several months — until scores of activists were arrested and protests faded. In May 2019, Hajar had published a series of interviews with the father of the movement’s leader, Nasser Zefzafi, reflecting on the 20-year prison sentence his son had recently received. She says interrogators also asked her about influential members of her family, including a journalist and a scholar who are both known to be critical of the authorities.
So Hajar wasn’t surprised when, about two years later, Forbidden Stories informed her that her number was on the leaked list they had tied to Pegasus. She believes that government surveillance played a key role in her charges, for which she ultimately spent a month and a half in jail and then left her home country in exile.
According to Forbidden Stories, Hajar was selected as a target by Pegasus in May 2019.
At the time, the charges against Hajar generated international outrage, earning condemnation from groups like Human Rights Watch, Front Line Defenders, and Amnesty. The wave of criticism helped Hajar avoid further jail time. Although a Rabat court sentenced her to one year in prison in September 2019, she was released the following month after receiving a royal pardon directly from King Mohammed VI.
But even after being freed, Hajar says she continued to be followed by unidentified people in the streets of the Moroccan capital. “I couldn’t go anywhere anymore,” she told The Intercept. “Police agents in civilian clothes were constantly around me.”
Ultimately “fed up with all the harassment and targeting,” Hajar opted to leave the country in early 2020, settling in Sudan with her husband.
Information War and Defamation
Like Turkey, Egypt, and other authoritarian-leaning states across the Middle East and North Africa, Morocco’s government likes to keep a tight control on the flow of information. While no state-run media giant dominates the field, the country’s media landscape is marked by a bevy of nominally privately run outlets that regularly defend the actions of King Mohammed VI and attack those who take on the official state line — often by citing anonymous sources without corroboration and digging into the personal lives of subjects. In some cases, these outlets publish extremely specific information that many believe can only be culled from state intelligence.
These publishers, which activists commonly refer to as the “defamation press,” include the websites Cawalisse al-Youm and Barlamane. The latter, for instance, released an infamous video of Zefzafi, the leader of the Hirak El-Rif protest movement, in prison in 2017. In the images, the Rif movement leader undresses and exposes various parts of his body — a scene presumably meant to show that he hadn’t been tortured but also widely interpreted as an attempt to embarrass the activist. Similar outlets include Le360, Aldar, Telexpresse, and Anfas Press, but an indisputable leader in the genre is Chouf TV.
Soulaimane Raissouni, the former editor of Akhbar al-Yaoum, a now-defunct print daily launched in 2009 and known for its independent editorial line, has been in jail since May 2020. Five days before he was detained, Chouf TV published a story written by “Abu Wael” — a pseudonym often used to indicate proximity to intelligence officials — suggesting that he would soon be facing problems.
“The gates of hell had opened” on Soulaimane, the outlet claimed, adding that “[his] scorched earth policy would burn him” on the eve of the Eid al-Fitr holiday. Soulaimane, Hajar’s uncle, was arrested in front of his home that night, surrounded by a gaggle of journalists from Chouf TV. The outlet streamed the proceedings on its YouTube channel of over 6 million subscribers.
“About 20 days before Soulaimane was arrested, a secret security car would not leave the door of the house. They would follow us wherever we went,” Soulaimane’s wife, Kholoud Mokhtari, told The Intercept. “Some of Soulaimane’s calls were published word by word in newspapers close to the security services — conversations relating to the status of Akhbar al-Youm as well as some family and very private matters.”
Detained just two months after Soulaimane, Omar Radi was also a frequent subject of attacks in pro-government media — and Chouf TV in particular.
According to legal filings obtained by The Intercept, the prosecutor’s office appeared to rely on Chouf TV to build its case against Radi, a journalist known for his coverage of social movements. On June 23, 2020, the office sent a letter to the head of the National Judicial Police Division asking it to “carry out preliminary research to find out the truth of what was mentioned in two articles published” by Chouf TV. The first alleged that Radi was working with Western intelligence; the second detailed the “scandals” of Omar Radi” and accused the writer of selling information about Moroccans abroad.
As Radi’s case dragged on, a key witness named Imad Stitou declined to cooperate with the state. In September 2020, the prosecution converted Stitou into an alleged co-conspirator. He was convicted of “failing to report a crime” and sentenced to a year in prison.
“I was not the character they wanted in their novel, and it was necessary to make an example out of me,” Stitou, now released pending appeal, told The Intercept. “This plan largely succeeded in intimidating other sympathizers. I often heard in my circles, ‘Do you want to be the Imad Stitou?’”
Soulaimaine and Radi help illustrate another disturbing pattern that has emerged in Morocco in recent years: They’re part of a trio of high-profile journalists known for criticizing state authorities, each of whom have been sent to prison over allegations of sexual assault. Their respective legal proceedings have all been criticized by leading human rights NGOs over irregularities. Reporters Without Borders, which ranks Morocco 136th out of 180 countries on its Press Freedom Index, has denounced what it calls “the use of trumped-up sex charges against journalists.”
The string of cases began with Taoufik Bouachrine, the founder and director of Akhbar al-Yaoum. In February 2018, Bouachrine was arrested at his newspaper’s headquarters in Casablanca. Charged with rape, human trafficking, and “abuse of power for sexual purposes,” the journalist was ultimately sentenced to 15 years in prison in October 2019. Both the conditions of Bouachrine’s detention and the trial itself earned condemnation from Amnesty and Human Rights Watch, while a report from the United Nations Human Rights Council’s working group on arbitrary detention documented how multiple alleged victims sought to distance themselves from the case.
That group includes Afaf Bernani, a former reporter at Akhbar al-Yaoum who maintains that the police forged her statements. First interrogated as a witness to an alleged sexual assault by Bouachrine, she was ultimately classified as a victim of her former boss. After contesting this narrative in court, Bernani was charged with a crime herself — “false communication and slander” — and sentenced to six months in prison.
“The purpose of my sentence was to intimidate the rest of the women who were involved in the lawsuit,” Bernani told The Intercept.
Shortly after the state leveled charges against her, Bernani said, authorities ramped up the pressure by spying her. “I was subjected to close security surveillance in the street, where the secret police were stationed in front of my house and followed me wherever I went,” she said. “I was even followed during my visits to the doctor.”
“The purpose of my sentence was to intimidate the rest of the women who were involved in the lawsuit.”
Ultimately, she opted to leave the country rather than serve prison time, moving in July 2019 to Tunisia, where she remains today.
In the meantime, Soulaimane, the man who replaced Bouachrine at the helm of Akhbar al-Yaoum, was himself detained and charged with sexual assault last May. Despite outcry from NGOs and a hunger strike that lasted nearly 120 days, Soulaimane was sentenced to five years in prison this July.
Radi, for his part, was detained last year and charged with rape and espionage before finally being sentenced to six years in prison in July.
Khadija Ryadi, former president of the Moroccan Association of Human Rights, says the cases are far from victories for women’s rights or the feminist cause in the country.
“The Moroccan regime fabricates criminal cases against independent journalists related to noble causes like fighting violence against women with the aim of discrediting the targets and limiting their influence in society,” she told The Intercept. “Fortunately, the majority of people now know that they are fabricated cases aimed at silencing and alienating journalists who are annoying to the authorities.”
Samir Bouaziz, head of the advocacy department for the North Africa desk of Reporters Without Borders, agrees. He said the Moroccan regime is adjusting its tactics in the hopes of better masking its repression. “The authorities have invested in #MeToo as a means of confusing national and international public opinion,” he said.
Bouaziz sees a pattern when it comes to what he views as the state’s repression of Bouachrine, Soulaimane, and Radi — each of whom were also on the list Forbidden Stories revealed of possible Pegasus targets.
“Preparations for the arrest of the targeted journalists are carried out in coordination with the defamation press close to the security services, which launch campaigns against targets before the arrests,” Bouaziz said. “This is the best and most efficient prelude to fabricating charges.”
In any case, the long list of court cases hangs over those willing to speak out about the makhzen — and those considering it — fueling a sense that surveillance is omnipresent and that legal troubles are never far away.
Despite the wave of repression, Maati Monjib, of Freedom Now, tries to remain hopeful. A public supporter of Radi, Soulaimane, and other imprisoned journalists, Monjib notes that “defamation based on surveillance seems to be more discouraging for the bulk of activists than physical repression.”
Monjib himself has experienced countless attacks in the Moroccan press. Last year, he was accused of money laundering by pro-government media, and Chouf TV published a photo of him at a Paris airport, suggesting that he was fleeing the country.
Facing charges of “threatening state security” since 2015, Monjib has been entangled in a seemingly never-ending case that has seen him serve a stint in prison and launch two hunger strikes. The 59-year-old returned to court last month, but he told The Intercept he draws inspiration from the fact that other writers and dissidents continue to plow along.
“Courageous intellectuals and journalists are defying defamation and imprisonment,” Monjib said. “They’re continuing their work for democracy and liberty by exposing the corruption of the state elite and their violations of human rights.”