PARIS — A Moroccan secret service agent, identified as Mohamed Belahrech, has emerged as one of the key operators in the Qatar corruption scandal that has shaken the foundations of the European Parliament. His codename is M118, and he’s been running circles around European spy agencies for years.
Belahrech seems at the center of an intricate web that extends from Qatar and Morocco to Italy, Poland and Belgium. He is suspected of having been engaged in intense lobbying efforts and alleged corruption targeting European MEPs in recent years. And it turns out he’s been known to European intelligence services for some time.
Rabat is increasingly in the spotlight, as focus widens beyond the role of Qatar in the corruption allegations of European MEPs, which saw Belgian police seizing equipment and more than €1.5 million in cash in raids across at least 20 homes and offices.
Belgian Justice Minister Vincent Van Quickenborne last week provided a scarcely veiled indication that Morocco was involved in the probe. Speaking to Belgian lawmakers, he referred to “a country that in recent years has already been mentioned … when it comes to interference.” This is understood to refer to Morocco, since Rabat’s security service has been accused of espionage in Belgium, where there is a large diaspora of Moroccans.
According to Italian daily La Repubblica and the Belgian Le Soir, Belahrech is one of the links connecting former MEP Pier Antonio Panzeri to the Moroccan secret service, the DGED. The Italian politician Panzeri is now in jail, facing preliminary charges of corruption in the investigation as to whether Morocco and Qatar bought influence in the European Parliament.
In a cache of Moroccan diplomatic cables leaked by a hacker in 2014 and 2015 (and seen by POLITICO), Panzeri is described as “a close friend” of Morocco, “an influential ally” who is “capable of fighting the growing activism of our enemies at the European Parliament.”
Investigators are now looking at just how close a friend Panzeri was to Morocco. The Belgian extradition request for Panzeri’s wife and daughter, who are also allegedly involved in the corruption scandal, mentions “gifts” from Abderrahim Atmoun, Morocco’s ambassador to Warsaw.
For several years, Panzeri shared the presidency of the joint EU-Morocco parliamentary committee with Atmoun, a seasoned diplomat keen on promoting Morocco’s interests in the Brussels bubble.
But it’s now suspected that Atmoun was taking orders from Belahrech, who is “a dangerous man,” an official with knowledge of the investigation said to Le Soir. It’s under Belahrech’s watch that Panzeri reportedly sealed his association with Morocco’s DGED after failing to get reelected to the Parliament in 2019.
Belharech may also be the key to unraveling one of the lingering mysteries of the Qatar scandal: the money trail. A Belgian extradition request seen by POLITICO refers to an enigmatic character linked to a credit card given to Panzeri’s relatives — who is known as “the giant.” Speculation is swirling as to whether Belahrech could be this giant.
The many lives of a Moroccan spy
Belahrech is no newbie in European spy circles — media reports trace his presence back to several espionage cases over the past decade.
The man from Rabat first caught the authorities’ attention in connection to alleged infiltration of Spanish mosques, which in 2013 resulted in the deportation of the Moroccan director of an Islamic organization in Catalonia, according to Spanish daily El Confidencial.
Belahrech was allegedly in charge of running agents in the mosques at the behest of the DGED, while his wife was suspected of money laundering via a Spain-based travel agency. The network was dismantled in 2015, according to El Mundo.
Not long after, Belahrech reemerged in France, where he played a leading role in a corruption case at Orly airport in Paris.
A Moroccan agent, identified at the time as Mohamed B., allegedly obtained up to 200 confidential files on terrorism suspects in France from a French border officer, according to an investigation published in Libération.
The officer, who was detained and put under formal investigation in 2017, allegedly provided confidential material regarding individuals on terrorist watchlists — and possible people of interest transiting through the airport — to the Moroccan agent in exchange for four-star holidays in Morocco.
French authorities reportedly did not press charges against Belahrech, who disappeared when his network was busted. According to a French official with knowledge of the investigation, Belahrech was cooperating with France at the time by providing intelligence on counterterrorism matters, and was let off for this reason.
Moroccan secret service agents may act as intelligence providers for European agencies while simultaneously coordinating influence operations in those same countries, two people familiar with intelligence services coordination told POLITICO. For that reason, European countries sometimes turn a blind eye to practices that could be qualified as interference, they added, so long as this remains unobtrusive.
Contacted, the intelligence services of France, Spain and Morocco did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
As to Belahrech: Five years after his foray in France, the mysterious M118 is back in the spotlight — raising questions over his ongoing relationship with European intelligence networks.