When Noureddin Ziani was introduced in November 2010 to Francesc Antich, then-regional premier of the Balearics, he was presented as the official "in charge of religious affairs in Catalonia." Ziani was part of a delegation headed by the Moroccan consul in Barcelona, Ghoulam Maichane, that was doing the rounds throughout the Balearic Islands. In August 2009, Ziani was introduced to Moroccan King Mohamed VI as the president of the Islamic Cultural Council in Catalonia, which at the time was the biggest organization representing Muslims in Spain.
But Ziani was neither responsible for religious affairs or president of the Islamic Cultural Council — he was only a spokesman on the board.
When he was asked for an explanation by the Moroccan community as to why he was introduced to the monarch in this way, Ziani said that it was "a protocol error that is being used against \[him\]." Today it is difficult to find anyone in the Muslim community in Catalonia who has anything good to say about Ziani.
Last Friday, the 45-year-old Moroccan was deported from Spain via Melilla after the National Intelligence Center (CNI) accused him of working on behalf of Morocco's secret service, the DGED.
The CNI accused Ziani of "putting the Spanish state's security at risk"
Ziani, who was born in Oujda, northern Morocco, traveled to Barcelona in 1999 from Belgium, where he was studying before also being expelled from that country, according to Interior Minister Jorge Fernández Díaz. Although he dabbled in real estate, he mostly spent his 14 years pushing a religious agenda — he served as an imam at one point — among Catalan parties. He is married to Atiqa Bouhouria Moulay Meliani, who is also from Oujda. The couple has no children.
According to the deportation order dated May 3 and given to the police commissioner's headquarters in Barcelona, CNI director Félix Sanz Roldán accused him of being "a very important collaborator with an intelligence service since 2000," who has "put the state's security at risk."
The DGED, which is headed by Yassine Mansouri, an old school chum of the Moroccan king, has an important presence abroad. In Spain, it has a two-fold mission: to control and monitor 800,000 Moroccan migrants by penetrating different groups to see if there are any extremists or anti-monarchy supporters, and to investigate the pro-Western Sahara Polisario Front and its connections to Algeria, its biggest backer.
"I don't work for the DGED," Ziani told a Moroccan newspaper, adding that he was "disgusted" at the CNI's allegations. He explained that his work only involved trying to integrate the Moroccan community within Spanish society.
Ziani was often seen at some of the region's more radical mosques
But Barcelona police investigators paint a different picture. In 2010, he tried to take over the Islamic Council with the purpose of organizing an Islamic congress with the help of Mohamed Ahmed Ali, an influential Ceutan who supports the decolonization of the exclave, and Mohamed Chaib, a deputy with the Catalan Socialist Party (PSC) who has strong ties to Rabat. At the time, Ziani made connections with the Socialists, who were governing the region.
But his attempt to lead a coup on the Islamic Council failed and he was kicked off the board. Resigned to failure, he founded the Union of Islamic Cultural Centers of Catalonia (UCCIC) in June 2010. Although it was still in its infancy, the organization became one of Rabat's preferred groups in Spain. The Ministry of Islamic Affairs sent its imams to the UCCIC during Ramadan. The organization also received the second-largest subsidy (158,700 euros since 2010) the Rabat government grants to Moroccan immigrant associations in Spain.
But Ziani had an ax to grind. He convinced the Catalan government to "freeze aid" allotted to the Islamic Cultural Center and instead grant it to his organization. Ziani was often seen at some of the more radical mosques, like the Al Hilal in Salt, Girona. "It was to see what was going on there and relay the information back to his bosses," according to two prominent members of the Muslim community, who asked not to be identified.
But the CNI in its complaint believes that he was trying to contribute to "the radicalization of Islam" in Spain. It would seem unlikely that a radical Islamist would be working for the Moroccan state, however. Ziani helped in the fight against Western Sahara independence movements. In 2010, he organized an excursion of supporters to Granada to hold a demonstration in favor of Morocco's sovereignty over the disputed territory during the European Union-Moroccan Summit.
The PSC lost the regional elections in 2010 and the tripartite government fell apart. And so Ziani began to look for new political friends. In March 2012, he hammered out an agreement with Àngel Colom, who is the leader of Fundació Nous Catalans, to bring Moroccan migrants over to the nationalist cause. Colom named him director of the Catalan-Moroccan office within his foundation.
The consul did not like his dealings with Catalan nationalist groups
The Catalan nationalist CiU bloc — which is now in government — has reiterated on many occasions that the mosques should be places of worship and not breeding grounds for political agitation. CiU officials have long feared that radical groups could capitalize on the pro-Catalan independence movement.
Nevertheless, Ziani and Colom made their rounds to the region's mosques during last November's electoral campaign, explaining how independence would help the region. "It would give greater welfare and benefits to migrants," Colom said, first in Catalan and then in Spanish. Ziani would translate the message into Arabic.
Rabat fears that any type of pro-independence movement in Catalonia will only encourage pro-Western Sahara groups. The Barcelona consulate did not look favorably on Ziani's dealings with Catalan independence groups. On December 19, it was clear that Ziani had had a falling out with his former bosses during a meeting presided by Abdellatif Mazouz, the deputy minister for migration. The "spy" and the consul confronted each other publicly. In the end, Rabat withdrew its support for Ziani. Proof of this can be seen in the official Moroccan press, which in the past has come out against the CNI's allegations. This time the news media was silent.