Algeria’s ‘Years of Blood’: Not Quite What They Seem

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on March 21, 2014


Antar Zouabri, who became leader of the GIA in the summer of 1996

In December 1991, the Algerian government—the military regime in power since the French were expelled—gave in to public pressure, which had already turned sanguinary, and allowed an election. It was quite clear that the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), a fundamentalist party, would emerge victorious. To forestall the institution of a theocracy, in January 1992, the military launched a coup and shut down the final rounds of the election. A civil war erupted

in which the jihadists sought to overpower the secular, if dictatorial, government. By the late 1990s, the jihadists’ savagery had meant their campaign had run aground; the vital centre in Algeria swallowed its misgivings and sought shelter behind the State. By 2002, the civil war was declared over: the jihadist revolt had been beaten.

That is the official story.

Consider two statements on the greater complexity:

Fouad Ajami writing in The New Republic in 2010:

[T]here were  the ‘dirty tricks’ [in the Algerian civil war]—the killer squads of the army and the special forces and the Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité (DRS) donning the attire of the Islamists, false beards and all, and taken by helicopter to targeted towns and villages to perpetrate frightful massacres. … Indisputably, the GIA was a bastard child of the encounter between the Islamists and the security services of the regime. … [T]he military commanders got the opposition they wanted—a nihilist breed who would scare the people and push them into the arms of the security forces.”

And John Schindler in The National Interest, who sharpened the point:

Trained by the KGB and schooled in the hard fight for independence, Algerian spies have used tactics against homegrown extremists reminiscent of a sinister B-grade movie. Several high-ranking DRS officers have explained what they did to defeat the mujahidin, including violating human rights on an industrial scale … Simply put, GIA was the creation of the DRS; using proven Soviet methods of penetration and provocation, the agency assembled it to discredit the extremists. Much of GIA’s leadership consisted of DRS agents, who drove the group into the dead end of mass murder, a ruthless tactic that thoroughly discredited GIA Islamists among nearly all Algerians. Most of its major operations were the handiwork of the DRS, including the 1995 wave of bombings in France. Some of the most notorious massacres of civilians were perpetrated by military special units masquerading as mujahidin, or by GIA squads under DRS control. Having driven GIA into the ground by the late 1990s, DRS has continued to infiltrate and influence Islamist groups in the country. To what extent the local Al Qaeda affiliate is secretly controlled by the military—as GIA and GSPC were—is an open question, but its recent record suggests that DRS influence over any Algerian extremist group is considerable.”

There were true believers among the cadres of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA)-led insurgency, but they were not in control; the Algerian State was. Probably the most prominent defector is Mohamed Samraoui, a former member of the DRS, who wrote a book in 2003, Chronique des Années de Sang (Chronicles of the Years of Blood). On February 12, 1996, having been tasked by the head of DRS Smaine Lamari with assassinating two FIS leaders abroad, Abdelbaki Sahraoui and Rabah Kebir, Samraoui called it quits and sought asylum in Germany. He has since then fled from Spain back to Germany after Algiers tried to use the international “legal” system to get him back to Algeria via official extradition requests. Spain was considered too dangerous to stay. Samraoui had participated in the coup d’état of 1992 that deposed Chadli Bendjedid, believing he was saving Algeria from going to way of clerical Iran; instead he found he was “safeguard[ing] the interests of an oligarchy whose diktat is imposed by lies and destruction.” FIS had tried the democratic method when it came together in 1988-89, he said, but by 1991 the security forces had deliberately “pushed” the radicalisation of the group so “we could neutralise them“. The Algerian security apparatus infiltrated the group, set up local emirates, and began agitating for a violent confrontation, says Samraoui. Samraoui had not opposed in principle the assassination of the two FIS exiles, he just thought that to do it in Germany was dangerous and foolhardy; the DRS networks in France were much better—and France had been terrified, as she was meant to be, by the spectre of the jihadists. Paris would look the other way—not unlike the alleged deal France made with Hizballah to keep its homicide bombers away from French interests—and Algiers even hoped to bring France into this fight on the side of Le Pouvoir (The Power). That bit did not pan out, but France gave carte blanche for the Algerian security forces. After the emergence of the GIA in 1993, the most violent of the Islamist groups in revolt against the military government and the local al-Qaeda affiliate, there was no line Algiers could cross since the alternative was the takfiris. The GIA was given military vehicles, telecommunications equipment, military-grade bunkers, and perhaps above all DRS agents to fortify itself, Samraoui explains. Still, until late 1994, the GIA was “not completely controlled” by the security services.

On September 26, 1994, the head of GIA, Ahmed Abu Abdullah, was killed. He was succeeded by Djamel Zitouni (a.k.a. Abu Abd al-Rahman Amin), who had been a known DRS agent and who had ostensibly switched sides as the fighting got underway in 1992. Samraoui does not believe this. To this point, the GIA, extreme by any Western standards, nonetheless had limits; they understood that their military contest with the regime could not succeed without “hearts and minds” work. After Zitouni’s accession this discretion drained away: the GIA began massacring villages of Sunnis, saying they were unbelievers, and the GIA then started attacking the FIS too. In November 1995, a presidential “election” was held in Algeria. The GIA responded with the slogan: “One vote, one bullet“; it would slaughter anyone so profane as to take part in an election. Before that month was out it struck down Shaykh Muhammad Said and Abdelrazak Redjam, two senior FIS leaders who had broken away a section of FIS to join the GIA in May 1994 to try to unite the holy warriors and their insurgency. Zitouni’s GIA had—conveniently for Le Pouvoir—begun devouring even its own members and had put the FIS on notice.

From 1992-94 the Islamist networks had been penetrated by the security services but still had considerable control of the insurgency. After late 1994, the government had taken strategic control. A third phase of this war—the time of the terrible killings, the time when even sections of the Islamists looked for shelter behind the State—came after Zitouni was cut down in July 1996, ostensibly by a breakaway faction, Ali Benhadjar’s Medea Brigade, later to become the FIS-aligned Islamic League for Dawa and Jihad. He was succeeded by Antar Zouabri. As a media report from the time put it, “Zouabri came to the helm of the GIA … shortly before it started a campaign of slaughter“. Even Abu Musab as-Suri, one of global jihadism’s most important ideologues, denounced Zouabri as “another killer, who was a worse criminal.

Al-Qaeda itself would abandon the GIA. Zouabri issued a ferocious statement, officially dated August 9, 1997, though evidently written sometime before—jihadists had been rendering their opinions on it since mid-July—condemning the whole Algerian population as “kuffar, apostates and hypocrites” for not “supporting [the GIA] in their struggle against the government.” The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), an official Qaeda affiliate, had abandoned all “support and assistance” to the GIA in June 1996. They too detected a “noticeable change” in the GIA’s conduct after Zouabri’s ascension; those of “sincerity and faith” were now being targeted, even those “striving to avoid fitna” were not spared the GIA’s wrath. The LIFG concludes that it “appeared” the GIA’s real fight was with “the Muslims of Algeria“. Other Qaeda formations and scholars—notably Egyptian Islamic Jihad, Abu Qatada al-Filistini, and the aforementioned Abu Musab as-Suri—withdrew support for GIA. Though saying nothing in public, at some point in the autumn of 1997, Osama bin Laden’s men condemned Zouabri. The GIA had refused bin Laden’s request for training camps in Algeria; now it was butchering whole villages and using al-Qaeda’s name. Bin Laden incited another GIA leader, Hassan Hattab, to form a new group. In May 1998, Hattab and several hundred GIA members left the GIA and created the “Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat” (GSPC). Bin Laden beseeched this new formation to concentrate their attacks on Algerian security forces. Within one year, the GSPC was estimated to have 3,000 armed supporters.

By 1998 however the GIA/GSPC forces had been cut down to size. The height of the murder, 1993-97, was over, and though the insurgency never did completely end, it was at a much lower level. Zouabri was struck down in February 2002; he was succeeded by Rachid Abou Tourab, who was allegedly gunned-down by close aides in July 2004, and the final known leader was Boulenouar Oukil, rounded up in November 2004 (though his arrest was announced in January 2005). In September 2006, these forces were rechristened al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

Samraoui does not acquit the Islamists; there were completely autonomous brigades of genuine zealots who committed atrocities. But the famous massacres, especially during the year of total slaughter from mid-1996 to mid-1997: these are almost without exception the work of the security agencies.

One of these infamous atrocities came against the Trappist monks, nine of whom were kidnapped in Tibhirine on March 26-27, 1996. On May 23, GIA announced that they had killed seven of the monks on May 21. The Algerian regime announced that they had found the heads on May 31. The reality seems to be that, possibly accidentally, an Algerian military helicopter killed the monks, and the security forces then beheaded the corpses to blame the GIA. In July 2008, an anonymous Western official told an Italian paper that the DRS-infiltrated GIA had taken the monks but the military helicopter had killed them. Most astonishing was the testimony of Francois Buchwalter, a retired French General who was Paris’ military attaché in Algiers at the time, who told a judge on July 8, 2009, that the monks had been accidentally killed by an Algerian military helicopter and then decapitated to shift the blame, and France had colluded in the cover-up. The Algerian regime sent out Abdelhak Layada, a founder of the GIA who was in prison during this episode and who was later released under a national amnesty, to say that the GIA was really responsible. It was the “prevarication” of the French that led to this tragedy, Layada said. “French secret services double-crossed the Algerian authorities and negotiated directly with the kidnappers. For this business in Tibehirine, high treason was committed by the French State.”

Samraoui explains:

During the massacres, the inhabitants of the first houses were deliberately spared to enable survivors say they recognised the Islamists. All this may seem implausible. Except that, since independence, the real power was seized by a handful of officers often trained by the KGB that will make the disinformation and manipulation of essential weapons to manage conflicts and control the company.”

These tactics—penetration, provocation, false-flags, terrorism, and disinformation—are all in a day’s work for the KGB, and there is no regime more faithfully modelled on the old Soviet Union than the Algerian one. The security forces often worked through genuine fanatics, even if they had their own agents at the head of these brigades, but the command and control was firmly held by the regime. Members of the military who doubted the wisdom of this course—or those who, for example, opposed the use of napalm in the hard-to-reach mountains—were mysteriously killed in “accidents”.

This continues to the present day. Many African governments, especially North African ones, believe AQIM is part of Algeria’s push for regional hegemony. Colonel Lamana Ould Bou of Mali’s State security service, who was responsible for intelligence in northern Mali, said in June 2009 to the press: “At the heart of AQIM is the DRS.” On June 10, 2009, he was struck down in Timbuktu by unknown assailants. Many in the Maghreb refer to “AQIM/DRS“.

Another very suggestive episode was the high-profile clash between Major-General Khaled Nezzar—a key conspirator with Major-General Larbi Belkheir in the 1992 coup (and both believably accused of orchestrating the mayhem afterwards)—who in 2002 sued Habib Souaidia, an Algerian officer who fled to France in April 2000, for libel when Souaidia accused him of murdering “thousands” of people, using the GIA as a smokescreen for their massacres. Notably, once nine Algerians piled on and filed suit against Nezzar in Paris for torture and inhumane treatment, Nezzar left Paris—ostensibly to avoid a diplomatic incident—and the court found Souaidia innocent.

The most serious charge is that the DRS was really behind the wave of bombings in the summer of 1995 in Paris—part of the aforementioned strategy to draw the French government in on the Algerian regime’s side, at least diplomatically. It worked. The French took note of Islamic terrorism long before other Western powers did, and committed to its combat—indulging the Algerian regime as (what they thought of as) a byproduct. In fact, that had been the point of the operation. Omar Nasiri, a Moroccan who infiltrated al-Qaeda, went to Taliban Afghanistan, was within the Algerian jihadist networks in France, and then the jihadist networks in London—all while passing information to the French and even the British. Nasiri explains meeting Ali Touchent, the mastermind of the 1995 Metro bombing. The French had conducted a wave of arrests in March 1995—in part because of the intelligence clues that were the signals of the bombing campaign to begin that summer. Touchent avoided arrest and continued to do so, despite an intensive man-hunt that tracked him abroad into Brussels and the Netherlands. By Nasiri’s account, Touchent was in London in November 1996. The French tracked him back to Algeria. Intelligence emerged indicating that he was the son of a police commissioner. When the French extended a formal demand for extradition in February 1998, they were told that Touchent had been killed in a gun battle in May 1997, and it was a careless oversight for Algiers not to have relayed this to Paris sooner. A French intelligence officer quoted by Nasiri says: “We don’t know if [Touchent is] dead or alive, an agent [of the Algerian regime] or not.” The French evidently were not convinced: when the GIA people they did capture were put on trial, Touchent was convicted in absentia, and more than one of the GIA convicts testified that Touchent was a regime agent who had manipulated them.

Grant it to the Algerian regime: they orchestrated this brilliantly. When the wave of rebellions broke on the Arab world in 2010, they hardly touched Algeria. The population was frightened of the Islamists and frightened of a return to violence. The Islamists were broken, discredited politically and splintered into too many factions to be any kind of force. The security services had done their work: whatever the level of discontent with their colourless rule, the population is now convinced that the only alternative is takfirism—and for the urban, the secular (a large number in Algeria), and the women and national minorities like the Berbers this is enough to hold together a strategic majority for the regime.

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