This paper is a case study presented in the MCDC Countering Hybrid Warfare 2 (CHW2), 2017-2018. The Final Report of the CHW2 is available in this link. A Spanish version of this paper was published in the Revista General de Marina, official Journal of the Spanish Navy. The views expressed in this paper are author’s alone.
1. Presentation of the case study and background of the hybrid attack
On July 11, 2002 a dozen members of the Royal Gendarmerie of Morocco disembarked and placed two flags on a small islet of disputed sovereignty. The islet, called Perejil in Spain, Leila and Tura in Morocco, is located a short distance from the Moroccan coast and ten kilometers from the Spanish city of Ceuta, in the Strait of Gibraltar. A few hours later, members of the Spanish Civil Guard approached the islet and demanded the withdrawal of the gendarmes, who had installed tents with the intention of staying there indefinitely. They refused and asked the Civil Guards to leave the place.
The physical and strategic importance of the islet was negligible. What was relevant, however, was the fait accompli on the Moroccan side. Both Spain and Morocco disputed the sovereignty of the islet, so there was a tacit agreement to keep it uninhabited. The occupation by the Moroccan gendarmerie, which was relieved a few days later by a small detachment of marines, altered the status quo in the delimitation of the Moroccan and Spanish borders of North Africa.
In order to understand the importance of the event, it is worth becoming aware of the deterioration of relations between Morocco and Spain at that moment, which were marked by the following circumstances:
- Morocco’s claim of the Spanish territories in North Africa. Since its independence in 1956, Morocco has repeatedly claimed the Spanish territories in North Africa (cities of Ceuta and Melilla, islands of Peñón de Vélez de la Gomera, Peñón Alhucemas, and Chafarinas). Morocco and Spain signed a Friendship, Good Neighborliness and Cooperation Agreement in 1992 that excludes the use of force and advocates for the political settlement of their differences. The agreement reinforces the rejection of a military solution to this territorial dispute though it has not put an end to Morocco’s demands. There is no political dialog between Spain and Morocco on the Spanish territories in North Africa, given the fact that these territories have belonged to the Spanish Monarchy since the sixteenth century—except for the Chafarinas Islands. Those differ from the territories of the Spanish Protectorate occupied during the first half of the 20th century. Spain considers that such territories are not colonies and, hence, need not be subjected to a process of decolonization. This posture was supported by United Nations by not including the territories in the list of Non-Self-Governing Territories. The territorial dispute between Morocco and Spain was not the main reason for the Moroccan fait accompli, but it was an underlying factor during the July crisis of 2002.
- Withdrawal of the Moroccan Ambassador in Spain on October 27, 2001. The withdrawal of the Moroccan Ambassador, which was not accompanied by a formal explanation and caused great perplexity in Spain’s government, was the culmination of several disagreements between the governments of Morocco and Spain: 1) problems in negotiating the renewal of the Fisheries Agreement between the European Union and Morocco so that European fishing vessels (mostly Spanish) could fish in Moroccan waters; 2) management of migratory flows and fight against drug trafficking from Morocco into Europe through Spain; 3) support of the Spanish media and civil society actors to the Sahrawi independence in Western Sahara; 4) and opposition of Spain to the Baker I Plan, which was particularly serious for Morocco.
- Spanish position on the approval of the framework agreement (Baker I Plan) on the conflict in Western Sahara. During the process of decolonization of Western Sahara by Spain, Morocco occupied such territory militarily, and unilaterally, as it deemed it an integral part of the country. Between 1976 and 1991, Morocco fought a harsh war against the Polisario Front, which conducted its operations from its camps in Algeria. In 1991 Morocco and the Polisario Front signed a ceasefire deal. On April 29, 1991, the United Nations Security Council established the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) by resolution 690. The objective of MINURSO, in addition to supervising the ceasefire, was to prepare a referendum call on the future sovereignty of the territory. The referendum had not yet been held in 2001 due to lack of political agreement between Morocco and the Polisario Front. The then special envoy of the United States for the Western Sahara conflict proposed in 2001 a framework agreement, called Baker Plan, which provided for the political autonomy of the Sahara under the sovereignty of Morocco. The Baker I Plan was generally accepted by the Moroccan government though it was rejected by the Polisario Front. France, a traditional ally of Morocco, proposed to the EU Foreign Affairs Council to deliver a statement of support to Baker I Plan. However, the proposal did not prosper as Spain objected to a framework agreement that had not been accepted by the Polisario Front. Since the withdrawal from Western Sahara in 1976, Spain has maintained a neutral position toward the conflict and has advocated a negotiated solution between the parties. Morocco was most concerned with the fact that Spain was going to be a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council between 2003 and 2004, which could make it even more difficult for the UN to approve the Baker I Plan.
2. Characteristics of the hybrid attack
The main vulnerability attacked was the status quo on the delimitation, legality, and legitimacy of territorial borders in North Africa between Spain and Morocco, and specifically in the Strait of Gibraltar.
The instruments of power used were the following:
- Military. Occupation of the uninhabited islet by forces of the gendarmerie and, later, by the Marines of the Kingdom of Morocco. Simultaneously, Morocco deployed a patrol vessel near the islet to provide support and deter Spanish forces from forcing their withdrawal.
- Political. By presenting a fait accompli on the delimitation of territorial borders between Spain and Morocco. By gathering the support of the Arab League and the Organization of African Unity for Morocco’s fait accompli. By persuading France not to support Spain within the European Union.
- Information. By conveying their territorial claims to the international public opinion following the fait accompli. Examples of this media campaign include the press conference of the Moroccan Foreign Minister in Paris (though without the overt support of the French government). The location was allegedly chosen with the intent of reaching a broader audience. By inviting foreign journalists to visit the islet of Perejil to reaffirm Morocco’s territorial claim on the scene (the visit did not take place since the Spanish military intervention was conducted prior to such a visit).
- Social. The fait accompli coincided with the celebration of the Moroccan monarch’s wedding, so he was able to reinforce his figure and nurture nationalism in Moroccan public opinion.
The escalation took place mainly on the horizontal axis while it was poor on the vertical one. The vertical escalation consisted of relieving the gendarmes that had occupied the uninhabited islet and deploying marines that were stationed during the days that elapsed before the Spanish military operation.
The horizontal escalation comprised reinforcing the fait accompli by carrying out political, social, and informational actions mentioned above.
Finally, regarding the hybrid characteristics of the attack, the Moroccan government resorted to:
- Creativity. The occupation of the islet Perejil completely surprised the Spanish government. It was not preceded by any official or unofficial Moroccan claim in this regard. The very existence of the islet and its legal status was unknown to most political decision-makers and Spanish society.
- Ambiguity. Morocco took advantage of the disputed legal status of the islet. At the same time, the reasons subsequently advanced for the occupation (fight against drug trafficking, illegal immigration, and terrorism) were not credible though they could not either be rejected completely (particularly the fight against drug trafficking and illegal immigration).
- Non-linearity. It was not easy for the Spanish government to determine which was the cause or the true intentions of the Moroccan fait accompli: was it a coercive measure to prevent Spain from opposing the Baker I Plan? Was it a challenge to determine Spain’s deterrence will against other Moroccan actions on other Spanish islands or even in the cities of Ceuta and Melilla?, etc.
- Synergy. The fait accompli, the media campaign, and the gathering of international political support, as well as the social celebration of the Monarch’s wedding took place simultaneously.
3. Description of the response
The Moroccan fait accompli was public (occupation of the uninhabited islet and placement of two Moroccan flags) and was quickly detected by the Spanish Civil Guard of Ceuta, who disembarked on the islet and demanded Moroccan gendarmes to leave though the latter ones refused to do so. At that moment, the Spanish response process was initiated.
The Spanish response to the hybrid attack had the following characteristics according to the Counter-Hybrid Response Framework (CHRF).
- Engage. It was decided to counter the hybrid attack. Although the islet was irrelevant in material or strategic terms, the Moroccan action was a fait accompli on a vital interest of Spain (defense of borders and territorial integrity) that required a response from the government. The possibility of ignoring the act was not envisaged since it might foster new fait accompli.
- Overt. The response was public from the first moment and throughout the course of the crisis: from the request for official explanations from the Moroccan Foreign Affairs Minister, to the subsequent explanation of the military operation (once executed) at the Parliament by the Spanish Minister of Defense.
- Outward and Inward. The Spanish government decided to face the fait accompli. At first, through diplomatic actions and—once this initiative was fruitless—by conducting a limited military intervention with very strict rules of engagement (ROEs) intended to remove the Moroccan soldiers from the island. At the same time, the Spanish government earned the support of the opposition at the Parliament in order to gain resilience against the Moroccan action. This was favored by the majority support provided by the Spanish media, both pro-government media and the generally critical ones. Overall, the media condemned the Moroccan government’s unilateral line of action in their editorials and opinion articles.
The means were mostly national. The Spanish government did not formally request support from NATO or the European Union to solve the crisis. The day after the Moroccan occupation, NATO considered the issue was purely a bilateral one, although some days later it described the Moroccan gesture as “unfriendly” and the European Commission expressed its “great concern”. Nonetheless, the Danish Presidency of the EU expressed its “full solidarity with Spain” and urged Morocco to “withdraw its forces”. Subsequently, France protested that it had not been previously consulted on the statement of the EU Presidency.
Once the Moroccan soldiers had been removed from the islet, the Spanish government requested the government of the United States to act a guarantor—and to some extent as mediator—for the agreement between Spain and Morocco to restore the status quo prior to the fait accompli.
The national instruments of power employed by the Spanish government were the following:
- Political. They were two. 1) Outward, demanding Morocco, through diplomatic channels, to leave the islet. 2) Inward, requesting and earning the support of the main Spanish parliamentary groups to the measures that the government considered appropriate for the resolution of the crisis.
- Information. By using the media to make public the official requests to Morocco urging it to leave the islet and restore the status quo prior to July 11.
- Military. There were three courses of action:
- Deployment of naval forces in the Strait of Gibraltar and reinforcement of the garrisons stationed on Spanish islands in North Africa. It was a show of force that, apart from supporting a likely operation to remove the Moroccan soldiers from the islet, was intended to exhibit the political will to defend the integrity of the Spanish territories in North Africa. Since Morocco’s intents were uncertain, the military deployment aimed to reinforce deterrence against that county.
- Heliborne assault on the islet in the early morning of July 17 performed by Spanish special operations forces. The ROEs only allowed for the use of lethal force if the Moroccan soldiers fired on Spanish forces. The Moroccan soldiers, surprised and clearly outnumbered, offered no resistance and handed over their weapons. They were removed from the islet and returned to Morocco through Ceuta border. During the assault the Moroccan patrol vessel illuminated the helicopters but it was diverted from its course by a Spanish military vessel that came in between. At the same time, the heliborne assault was protected by fighter aircraft and the vessel’s anti-aircraft systems in the case the Moroccan aviation initiated a response.
- Temporary occupation of the islet by Spanish military forces, from the clearance operation until the signing of an agreement with Morocco on July 20. The agreement was reached with the mediation of United States and Morocco officially accepted to restore the status quo prior to the start of the crisis. In December of that same year, Morocco reestablished diplomatic relations with Spain and sent its Ambassador back to Madrid.
Spanish response’s assessment
The target of the hybrid attack, a territory of disputed sovereignty in the North Africa’s coast, limited international support. The Spanish government opted for a return to the status quo through an essentially national strategy. Had the action taken place on Spanish soil in the Iberian Peninsula or on the Canary Islands, the Spanish government should have requested support to the Atlantic Alliance.
The main risk was the military escalation of the crisis if the Moroccan forces on the islet, or the patrol vessel, had attempted armed resistance against the Spanish heliborne assault. An in-force attempt to reoccupy the island after the Spanish forces had stationed would have entailed a higher risk.
The Spanish response resulted in the return to the status quo prior to the crisis and prevented military escalation. Upon signature of the agreement, the islet remained inhabited. On the other hand, the Spanish government was not compelled to support the Baker I Plan, as a measure of appeasement, at the UN Security Council. In fact, the Baker I Plan was eventually dismissed.
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