The Transaction: Eyewitness to an aviation nightmare

WASHINGTON — Just after 3 a.m., on Feb. 14, eight people boarded a small shuttle bus at Les Jardins de l’Agdal Hotel in Marrakesh, Morocco, for a routine trip to Marrakech Menara Airport. They were returning to their home countries.

For two Americans, what was routine quickly turned into bizarre.

“We both had the same flight out back to Washington, D.C., via Casablanca and then Paris,” said Dr. David Pollock, a Kaufman Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The problems started almost immediately for the two Americans at Menara Airport. Even though they were booked on the same flight to the same final destination, they were inexplicably separated and screened in separate parts of the airport.

Pollock’s check-in process was relatively smooth. But the other American, who happened to be this reporter, was escorted away and put through a drawn-out, redundant screening and immigration process and was seen running through the airport at 4:45 a.m. — barely arriving in time to catch the flight.

Up to that point, it just seemed weird. But after a short 30-minute flight to Casablanca, “weird” was replaced by “disturbing” after what they saw in a security screening line.

“I saw a group of probably four or five people who were cutting into the line — just moving up to the front of the line. And there were policemen standing around just watching them do this,” said Pollock.

The underlying reason behind the inaction by airport police was revealed in an airport men’s restroom a short time later.

“As it happened,” said Pollock, “several of the people that cut into the screening line were also in the men’s room at the same time we were,” he said, referring to himself and this reporter.

An airport policeman was also in that restroom — facing the sink, combing his hair.

In a brazen move, one of the line-jumpers, with several pieces of luggage in tow, walked up behind the policeman. Without a word, he pulled out what appeared to be a roll of Moroccan money, Dirham, and placed it on the sink in front of the policeman.

Without speaking a word or making eye contact, the policeman picked up the money, stuffed it into his pocket and casually exited the restroom.

Pollock and I followed them out of the restroom and watched as the traveler and the policeman went in different directions without ever engaging each other.

The entire transaction took only a few seconds. Because of the angle of the money handoff, Pollock, in the crowded restroom, did not see the money exchange. But this reporter, along with more than a half-dozen other men in the vicinity of the sink, saw it plainly.

Pollock said, “You (this reporter) told me what happened right there on the spot and I believe it happened, and I found it very disturbing.”

As Pollock and this reporter hustled to catch a connecting flight to Paris, they were quiet, contemplating the magnitude of what had just happened.

“I can’t think of any other explanation except that it was a prearranged bribe and it was a bribe to the cops in order to be able to cut in line and get through the screening process faster and maybe without much scrutiny: ‘Just hurry up and get me through’,” Pollock said later.

He and I wrestled with the question: Who tries to bribe airport police?

“I don’t really know what was going on there, whether they were just trying to get there faster, or whether they were smugglers or drug dealers or … worse,” said Pollock.

The transaction between the traveler and the policeman was carried out, very casually and very publicly. Aside from us Americans, no one seemed to give it a second thought, suggesting what many overseas travelers already know: Bribes are commonplace.

But on that day in Casablanca — just 12 days after a terrorist was blown out of a Daallo Airlines flight over Somalia after airport personnel in Mogadishu helped him to smuggle a bomb aboard the flight — the sense of urgency between Pollock and this reporter was palpable.

“This is something that really can’t be tolerated. Because if it is, this is the weakest link in the chain of airport security,” Pollock said.

He acknowledged that Morocco “in general has a very good record when it comes to fighting terrorism and overall internal security. At the same time, it is common knowledge that there’s a certain amount of corruption in Morocco as there is in a lot of other countries.”

Information about the “transaction” was shared with Moroccan and U.S. officials. It’s not clear what happened from there.

Regardless, Pollock suggested “that senior Moroccan security officials do some investigating about the possibility that some of the police officers at Casablanca airport, maybe other airports, are on the take.”

The urgency regarding the situation was validated less than a week after the transaction took place.

On Feb. 18, Moroccan security authorities uprooted a terror cell linked to the Islamic State group. Ten people were arrested, including some who were operating not far from the airport. Police found chemicals for making bombs and biological agents, along with automatic weapons and grenades.

Morocco’s Central Bureau of Judicial Investigations determined the cell was plotting an attack on Morocco.

A follow-up investigation determined the group, known for its proficiency in the use of bribes, was keenly interested in smuggling people and weapons into Europe through Morocco’s air and seaports in order to attack the West.

J.J. Green

JJ Green is WTOP's National Security Correspondent. He reports daily on security, intelligence, foreign policy, terrorism and cyber developments, and provides regular on-air and online analysis. He is also the host of two podcasts: Target USA and Colors: A Dialogue on Race in America.

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