This Arab regime claims to be a one-party system but in reality a small Mafia-like cabal of military and intelligence officers have dispensed power for decades. Finally a democratic challenge erupts; people take to the streets demanding first reforms and, when the regime responds with pseudo-reforms and lethal violence, the fall of the government. Eventually the people fight back and an armed struggle breaks out. The regime builds its strategy around provocation, arresting and killing the liberals and democrats, infiltrating the insurgent groups and having the extremists attack the moderates, directing infiltrated groups to commit atrocities that discredit the whole insurgency, and using Iran’s international terrorist networks to lure Salafi-jihadists into the country who can help discredit the opposition’s cause in the eyes of the world. By presenting a binary picture—the regime or a terrorist takeover—the state tries to secure at least tacit support, if not direct intervention, from the West to defeat the insurgency.
No I’m not talking about Syria. This is Algeria.
Mohamed Samraoui was, between 1990 and 1996, a senior officer at Le Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité (DRS), the Department of Intelligence and Security, Algeria’s powerful spy agency, which is modelled on, and trained by, the KGB. The DRS deals with both internal and foreign intelligence, and counter-intelligence. DRS’ mission, in other words, is to keep the despotism in power against all enemies, foreign and domestic. (Another echo of Assad’s mukhabarat.)
After quitting the DRS in 1996, Samraoui wrote a book in 2003, Chronique des Années de Sang (Chronicles of the Years of Blood). In it he makes the argument laid out in the first paragraph, that the story everyone thinks they know about Algeria—that a secular if tyrannical regime beat back a jihadist revolt—is wrong, and nearly exactly wrong, too. There would not have been a jihadist revolt but for that “secular” regime.
I have written before about what happened in Algeria in the 1990s, and some of that is drawn from Samraoui’s work—interviews, op-eds, and translations of sections of the book. I have now had a chance to fully read the key chapter, number six, which has the arresting title, “The Creation of the GIA by the [Intelligence] Services.” The GIA refers to the Armed Islamic Group (Groupe Islamique Armé), a Salafi-jihadist group that emerged from nowhere in Algeria in 1993 and within eighteen months or so took over the insurgency. Initially supported by al-Qaeda, the GIA’s turn to takfirism, murdering not just other anti-regime insurgents but whole villages of civilians it declared heretics, saw it renounced by al-Qaeda and its affiliates like the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), and key ideologues like Mustafa Nasar (Abu Musab as-Suri) and Umar Othman (Abu Qatada al-Filistini).
Pressure for a more representative government had been building in Algeria since at least 1988. By December 1990, the regime had already decided on a “strategy of tension” to push the opposition into violence and extremism so as to convince people that the status quo was the better bet. By February 1992, a month after the military pulled off a coup that cancelled the elections the Islamic Salvation Front (Front Islamique du Salut, FIS) would have won, the DRS had evolved its plan to defeat the insurgency by having it discredit and destroy itself.
Samraoui names three men as primarily responsible for the provocation strategy. First, Smain Lamari, one of the leaders of the 1992 coup that ignited the war. Lamari became head of the Department of Counter-Espionage and Internal Security (DSI) during the war. At a meeting in May 1992, Gen. Lamari said: “I am ready to eliminate three million Algerians if necessary to maintain the order the Islamists threaten.” Second, General Mohamed Mediene (a.k.a. Tawfik), who was made head of the DRS in 1990 and remains in that position to this day. Since Algeria is a military-intelligence establishment that has a State rather than vice versa, this makes Mediene the most powerful man in the country. And third, Kamel Abderrahmane, the head of the Central Directorate for Army Security (DCSA).
Samraoui also mentions two other men, Khaled Nezzar and Larbi Belkheir, who were both instrumental in the coup d’état, and went on to have important roles in Algeria’s political life—Nezzar as part of the junta (“High Council of State”) and Belkheir in ostensibly-civilian politics. These men are all associated historically with the so-called “exterminationist” faction of the le pouvoir (the power); those determined to fight to the finish with the “terrorists,” as Algiers called all of its enemies, rather than reach any kind of accommodation with them to end the violence.
Samraoui argues that while the initial decision to use provocation to defeat the insurgency was broadly agreed in early 1992, by April and May the cabal of officers at the helm went well beyond what he had envisioned. Samraoui says he believed the idea was to create “controlled and manageable violence,” allowing the jihadists—who he and his fellow officers genuinely feared would turn Algeria into another Iran or Afghanistan—to do just enough terrorism to discredit their cause, so that in the end it actually caused less casualties. Lamari had a different plan; such delicacy and precision were, to him, too risky. The casualties might not have got as high as three million, but Lamari was more than willing to drown the country in blood to ensure that he carried his point that the corrupt dictatorship he presided over was the best Algerians could expect.
The tactics used included:
- Infiltrating truly autonomous armed groups either by returning to them captured fighters who had been turned by torture or blackmail in prison, or by infiltrating directly with DRS agents who had “deserted”;
- Using groups that are already formed, especially those containing “Afghan Arabs,” to “attract new recruits”;
- Encouraging the proliferation of armed groups to prevent a united opposition;
- “Creating, from scratch, armed groups led by ’emirs’ who were actually officers of the DRS.”
“All these techniques were used, sometimes together,” says Samraoui, who gives the example of the Movement for an Islamic State (MEI), led by Said Mekhloufi, an ex-soldier and a veteran of the anti-Soviet jihad, as a group that was “under control” from the beginning.
An interesting aside is the mention of Abdelkrim Gherzouli (a.k.a. Kari Saïd), Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law, who encouraged the Algerian “Afghan Arabs” in Peshawar in 1990 to do jihad against le pouvoir. Samraoui says that Gharzouli was an “active element in the establishment of Islamist groups in Algiers”:
He took part in numerous clandestine meetings, which we were informed of well in advance. But we never received the order to intervene … [this] necessarily meant that among the members present at these meetings included an important mole.
It was more useful (to the regime) to let this play out, with the Islamists’ every move being tracked, than it was to arrest or kill these men. The massive human cost these jihadists would inflict on the Algerians was not irrelevant to this tactic; it was the whole point.
The story of what really happened in Algeria is especially important now, as the war in Syria rages on, and the Assad regime and its KGB-trained military-intelligence apparatus—with help from Iran and Russia—have borrowed this playbook. While the Assad tyranny has not, so far as the current evidence suggests, relied so heavily on infiltration as the Algerian regime did to drive the insurgency into jihadism, the Assad regime has set the conditions for the emergence of a group like the Islamic State by deliberately sparking a sectarian war and waging all-out war on the nationalists and moderates while it leaves the takfiris virtually alone. Assad has also, through oil transactions and other means, made copious funds available to build-up the jihadists determined to war on the rebels.
Algiers tried to get France involved—at least diplomatically—on its side; it succeeded. Paris kept the eyes of the world diverted from the horrors perpetrated by the regime for fear that if the regime fell, worse would follow. Damascus—controlled by Iran—wants to secure American support for putting down the insurgency; it too has more or less succeeded. The U.S. has ruled out—and told Iran it has ruled out—attacks on Assad, and the USAF not only isn’t saving the rebels the U.S. purportedly supports from al-Qaeda because Syria has been given to Iran as a sphere of influence, but the U.S. is actually now widening the scope of the anti-Assad insurgents it is bombing beyond globalist Salafi-jihadists.
The argument that the Assad dictatorship is the better option in Syria, even in cold national interest and counter-terrorism terms, looked bad enough to start with. The Assad regime’s use of sectarian mass-murder is the greatest spur to Salafi-jihadism in the world and the regime is propped up by thousands of Shi’ite jihadists integrated into Iran’s global terrorist network. But the argument falls apart once it is accepted that Assad bet his survival on making the Salafi-jihadist terrorism problem worse so as to make himself look better. Creating problems and extracting concessions to solve them is an old tactic of the House of Assad; let’s not fall for it again.