The Algerian Civil War: Washington’s Model for ‘The New Middle-East’
By Fouzi Slisli
’Washington has much to learn from Algeria on ways to fight terrorism.’
’This is a prescription for intra-Muslim civil war throughout the Middle East. Those involved would be seen as proxies tearing the Muslim world on behalf of Israel and the US.’
The American invasion of Iraq has clearly failed to produce the domino effect that would, as the architects of the war promised, bring all US enemies into line, and create a new Middle East where democracy would flourish. The invasion of Iraq, like Israel’s failed invasion of Lebanon in 2006, has made it clear in Washington, London and Tel-Aviv that conventional military power and hi-tech weaponry are impotent in the face of popular insurgencies. While this fact is widely accepted by experts on low-intensity warfare, hawks in the American, British and Israeli governments preferred to test its validity for the twenty first century. Now that they found out, at a great price one should add, a significant shift in US war strategy is in place. Analysts and government officials are calling this shift “The Redirection.”
According to media reports, the US is now convinced that the biggest threat to its interests in the Middle East is the increasing influence of Shia Iran and its allies Syria and Lebanese Hizb’Allah. With the help of the Saudi government, Washington is currently funding and arming various Sunni fundamentalist groups to confront Iran’s influence. Civil war scenarios are already unfolding in Lebanon, Palestine, and Iraq. It is obvious that the United States is setting Islamist groups against each other. What has been less obvious is the fact that the only time Islamists movements were fought by proxy through other Islamist movements is Algeria’s civil war of the 1990s. If that is the case, then Algeria’s civil war is Washington’s model for the “New Middle East.”
I. The “Redirection”?
Reports have confirmed that the US has intensified covert operations in Iran using the obscure Sunni group Jundallah. In Lebanon, the US has been funding and arming Sunni fundamentalists with links to al-Qaeda, like Fatah al-Islam, and actively promoting a confrontation between them and Hizb’Allah. In Palestine, the United States has been arming and training factions of Fatah loyal to Mohammed Dahlan in the hope of provoking a confrontation with Hamas. In Syria, the US has been funding Abdel Halim Khaddam and the Muslim Brotherhood in the hope of provoking a confrontation with the Syrian regime. US Marines have been supervising the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia, and US covert operations are now underway in the African desert, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.
Analysts and government officials are openly calling this shift in strategy the “redirection.” Encouraged by Saudi Arabia, the United States has apparently decided that the biggest threat to its control of the Middle East are Shia groups in alliance with Iran and Syria like the Lebanese Hizb’Allah and the Iraqi Mehdi Army. As a result, the “redirection” would consist of using Saudi Arabian money and its standing in the Sunni world to do a rerun of the anti-Soviet jihad of the 1980s, this time against Shia, “Safavid” Iran. The truth of the matter is that Saudi standing in the Sunni world is not what it was in the 1980s. The vanguards of Sunni resistance groups, whether it is al-Qaeda, Hamas, or Islamic Jihad, do not consider Iran a bigger threat than America and Israel. They are also unlikely to consider Saudi Arabia and America as “protectors” of Sunni Islam. Here is how Ayman Zawahiri reacted to this idea:
The quote is long but it shows how many obstacles the governments of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt have to overcome before they can claim to be defenders of anything besides American interest. Palestinian Hamas and Islamic Jihad, too, have always had better relations with the Syrian and Iranian governments than with those of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. If the US and Saudi Arabia want to organize a Sunni jihad against Shia ascendancy, as they once did against the Soviet Union, they will have to contend with the fact that the vanguard groups of Sunni jihad are categorically opposed to it. No wonder the US and the Saudis are working with obscure groups like Iranian Jundallah and Lebanese Fatah al-Islam.
An interesting aspect of this “redirection” effort is the fact that it is essentially run by deputy national-security adviser, Eliot Abrams, and the Saudi national-security advisor, Prince Bandar. Abrams and Bandar were both involved in the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s, and observers have noted that the “redirection” involves a rerun of the US war on communism in Latin America. Joseph Massad compared the way Palestinian Fatah has been collaborating with the US in toppling the elected Hamas government to Chile’s General Pinochet collaborating with the CIA in the early 1970s.7 While the comparison is to some degree accurate, it ignores the fact that when fighting communism, the US had the added advantage of dealing with a Western ideology. Islamic political ideology is indigenous to the global south and, as such, it is still incomprehensible in the West and still largely seen through Orientalist (even Medieval) stereotypes.
II. The Relevance of Algeria
If the era of casualty-free wars through aerial bombing and hi-tech weaponry is over, as Hicham El Alaoui notes, then the new battles are for the control and the allegiance of populations. The recent electoral victory of Hamas in Palestine, and the extent to which Hizb’Allah, the Mahdi Army and the Sunni insurgency have all entrenched themselves in the electoral politics and the societies of their countries, have made it clear to US war planners that they can either accept defeat and withdraw (as Israel did last summer), or change strategy. The US chose the second option. It is here that the Algerian civil war experience comes in.
The challenge that Palestinian Hamas, Lebanese Hizb’Allah, the Sunni resistance in the Anbar province of Iraq, and the Mahdi Army in the south of Iraq represent for United States and Israeli ambitions is not of the kind of challenge that al-Qaeda and its affiliates have represented so far. The latter have exclusively been a fighting force of at most few thousands, and have showed no interest in electoral politics or even in governance. The challenge that Hamas, Hizb’Allah, the Mahdi Army, and the Sunni resistance of Iraq constitute for American and Israeli ambitions in the Middle East is of a different kind. These Islamist movements have a large popular base and a mass following that allows them considerable share in state power. This type of Islamist challenge manifested itself concretely for the first time in Algeria when the Islamist Salvation Front used legal means to get to power in 1991.
Before the end of the twentieth century, Algeria was the only Arab-Muslim country where an Islamist movement managed to mobilize a grassroots movement and win a landslide electoral victory. By the late 1980s, only Iran and Sudan saw the coming of an Islamist movement to power. But while Sudanese Islamists overthrew the existing regime, and while Iranian Islamists rode a popular uprising to power, Algeria’s Islamists were the first to win a parliamentarian majority through legal means. The Algerian military, back then, refused to recognize the popular mandate of the FIS. They took power by force, and fought fiercely for the control of the population. The US and Israel today, too, refuse to accept the popular mandate of these groups. They are trying to take power by military force, and are embarking on a clandestine adventure to control the populations. The objective of the US and Israel, and one should not forget the governments of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon, is the “eradication” of these Islamist movements in a military sense of the word. The one Muslim country that has pursued an existential civil war with a grassroots Islamic movement with the purpose of “eradicating” it is Algeria.8 While media reports have often noted the Bush administration recurrent interest in “learning” from the Algerian civil war, the nature and extent of that interest have generally been kept out of public view. As it was the case with the Algerian civil war, the real story will have to be reconstructed by comparing, as they say, yesterday’s leaks with today’s lies.
Since the invasion of Iraq, Analysts and government officials have often cited Algeria as a useful case and a relevant precedent to learn from. As soon as it became obvious that the Iraqi resistance was there to stay, Pentagon officials got interested in the Algerian war of national liberation. The Washington Post reported that the Pentagon was screening Gillo Pontecorvo’s classic film The Battle of Algiers.9 For the US military, the Algerian war of liberation provides the closest parallels and the most useful lessons on the strategies, the strengths and the weaknesses of a popular resistance movement facing a Western occupying power.
More recently, it was reported that George W. Bush was reading Alastair Horne’s classic A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-62. Henry Kissinger had apparently recommended it to the president. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, Algeria was also one of the first countries the United States turned to in order to learn how to fight Islamic militancy. Washington, as undersecretary of state William Burns put it in December 2002, “has much to learn from Algeria on ways to fight terrorism.” It did not matter that the Algerian government had acquired one of the worst human rights records on earth, or that its security forces have been heavily implicated in some of the worst massacres of civilians. Torture techniques that were notorious in the basement of the Chateauneuf police station and the garage of the Cavignac police station in central Algiers (sexual violence, chemical suffocation, blowtorching of faces and bloating with salted water) soon started showing up in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. There is reason to believe, today, that Washington is not only borrowing torture techniques from Algeria, but the whole sinister program of eradication that the Algerian junta has used for fifteen years to terrorize its populations, especially the poor. The Algerian generals who devised and run this program routinely referred to it as “counter jihad.”
III. Counter Jihad: The Counterinsurgency of “Eradication”
The rise of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in Algerian politics in the late 1980s was swift and unexpected. By the time France, the United States and Britain realized what was going on, the FIS had already won the local elections by a landslide and was set to win the legislative elections. Before those elections took place, though, the Algerian army took power by force, cancelled the elections, and banned the FIS. French and American reactions were diverse and inconsistent. At first, France could not condone the coup d’état or publicly support it, but it clearly saw it with a willing eye. As President Mitterand said, “fundamentalism does not appear to be the surest way to reach democracy.” Up until 1993, the French administration was not sure, though, that the generals of Algiers could halt the tide of Islamism sweeping Algeria. While Mitterand and his foreign affairs minister, Roland Dumas, quietly supported the generals, they were also bracing themselves for the possibility that Islamists might win the civil war. Similarly, when the Clinton administration allowed Anwar Haddam to represent the FIS freely in Washington, it was obvious that the US did not want to be left out in the event of an Islamist victory in Algeria.
Until 1994, the Algerian junta was still finding it hard to control the Islamist insurgency. The country was paralyzed by its massive foreign debt, and international donors were requesting the introduction of constitutional structures before approving new loans. To get the funds it needed to “eradicate” the Islamists, the junta decided to show that Algerian Islamism was primarily a threat to the West. To that end, the Algerian secret services created their own Islamist groups. Instead of a counterinsurgency campaign, Algerian generals appropriately called it a counter jihad. The fact has been clearly established that some of the notorious Islamic Armed Groups (GIAs) were creations of the Algerian secret services (DRS). On the domestic front, their purpose was to commit atrocities in the name of Islam that would discredit the FIS. On the international front, the aim was to convince the West that Islamism needed to be “eradicated.” These are the groups who came out with a takfiri ideology (excommunication), and declared civilian populations, intellectuals, musicians and artists to be legitimate targets. These are the groups who smashed babies against walls, hacked defenseless civilians, and put toddlers in ovens. These are the groups who raped, pillaged, and massacred entire villages undisturbed, while the screams could be heard from large military barracks nearby. Not once, as is well known, did the army intervene to rescue those people who sometimes were only few hundred feet away. It was not an accident that the terrorized communities always happened to be the ones that massively voted for the FIS in the 1992 elections.
After fifteen years, the Algerian junta has left a trail of evidence and countless contradictions that have allowed analysts to piece together their eradication strategies. A wave of defectors in the ranks of the Algerian military and security services, many of them wrote accounts of their involvement, allowed a very precise corroboration of the evidence. Many atrocities that were committed between 1993 and 1998, allegedly by Islamists, turned up to be covert operations of Algerian secret services (DRS). A few high profile cases would be enough to establish the point. In 1996 seven French monks were kidnapped in the Medea region south of Algiers. Betraying their contempt for Algerian sovereignty, the French secret services (DST) attempted to contact the Islamist kidnappers directly. What they discovered was the shocking evidence that the Algerian government was engineering the civil war. Jamal Zitouni, the notorious leader of one of the main Armed Islamic Groups (GIAs) – the one that kidnapped the monks and was responsible for other gruesome atrocities – it turned up, was an agent of the Algerian government. The suspicion is strong still, today, that when Zitouni decided to murder the monks, the Algerian junta was actually punishing France for going over their head to contact the kidnappers.
Another high-profile case was the slaughter in 1994 of seven Italian seamen. They were found with their throats cut on board their ship (the Luciana) at the port of Jenjen, east of Algiers. The massacre happened, conveniently for the junta, on the eve of the G7 summit in Naples, and was predictably blamed on “Islamic extremists.” Numerous defectors from the Algerian security forces told Le Monde and The Observer, though, that the crime was planned and instigated by Generals Mohammed Mediane, aka “Tewfik,” and Smain Lamari. Again, defectors’ accounts have corroborated each other and the details matched. Primary investigations also showed the port to be under heavy control of the Algerian army. It would have been impossible for an Islamist group to kill the seamen, steal tons of merchandise, and escape unnoticed.16 The terrorist bombings in Paris in 1995 – one at the Saint Michel metro station and one at the Maison Blanche – were also the work, it turned up, of the Algerian shadowy Directorate of Infiltration and Manipulation and the Directorate of Information and Security.
With the spectacularly gruesome massacres of civilian communities that had massively voted for the FIS, especially in the towns of Bentalha and Rais, the West was ready to give the junta enough billions and weapons to “eradicate” the Islamists. Counter jihad, as a form of counterinsurgency, had borne its fruits for the Algerian Junta. The Algerian population was debilitated by the intensity and gruesomeness of the violence, international public opinion was outraged against the Islamists, and Western powers were ready to send the IMF and World Bank. What’s more, most of the violence that the Islamists were being blamed for was actually targeting what was left of the legitimate Islamist resistance, and the population at large who supported it. Many birds were hit with one same stone.
From 1994, the French government threw in its lot on the side of the Algerian junta once and for all. The hard-line idea of eradicating Islamism triumphed. Roland Dumas, the French foreign minister at the time, declared France’s “political backing of the leaders of today’s Algeria.” He pledged France’s economic support “as well as the backing of Algeria on the international scene.” “Friendship,” he said, “must be expressed otherwise than just with words.” Socialist leader Claude Cheysson spoke for most French liberals when he said that democracy in Algeria, as a result of the army coup, “was safe for the time being.” Western intellectuals (and westernized Algerians) who embraced, condoned and defended the unsavory military junta were legion in the nineties. Little did they know that they were providing precious cover for a massive military onslaught on a largely poor and unarmed population of Algeria. Little did they know that they were victims of a murderous, depraved and reactionary maneuver that some generals devised in order to stay in power.
By Western standards, the coup and the civil war in Algeria were a success. Algeria was “saved” from falling into the hands of Islamic “extremists.” The idea of Jihad was turned against itself, and Islamist groups were pitted against each other. The Islamic party that won the elections (FIS) was the primary target of this violence. The other main target was the population that massively voted for them. Islamism was demonized in the eyes of both the Algerian population and of the populations of the West. Western governments were forced to support the illegal coup and the junta behind it. In exchange, Algeria’s large reserves of gas and oil kept flowing freely and cheaply to the West. The civil war also disposed of what French public opinion routinely refers to as “Algeria’s demographic excess.” Equally important, it paved the way for IMF’s Structural Adjustment Programs. In short, Algeria remained a safe French (and now American) backyard.
IV. The Algerian Model in Washington’s “War on Terror”
It is clear that the unintended consequences of the invasion of Iraq include the spread of Iranian influence in Iraq and the Middle East. The unintended consequences of the failed Israeli invasion of Lebanon in July-August 2006 include the emergence of Hizb’Allah as an undisputed champion of Islamic causes and a formidable and highly disciplined guerrilla group. The hawks in Washington and Tel Aviv are convinced now that the United States should shift its war strategy in the Middle East. The central component of the new strategy, as Seymour Hersh and others reported, is the large-scale use of clandestine operations throughout the Muslim world. These operations aim at bolstering various shadowy Sunni fundamentalist groups and the Palestinian group Fatah to provoke various civil wars scenarios in Iraq, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine. To work around congressional oversight, the architects of this strategy are using Saudi funds and the billions that have been unaccounted for in the budgetary chaos of Iraq.
Inside the Bush administration, the key players in this adventure are Dick Cheney, the deputy national security adviser Elliot Abrams, and the departing Ambassador to Iraq (and nominee for United Nations Ambassador) Zalmay Khalilzad. Dick Cheney’s office is coordinating these operations behind the back of Congress and the CIA. Outside the United States, the shadowy Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi national security adviser, is the main coordinator. Abrams and Bandar were both involved in the Iran-Contra scandal in the 1980s. Back then they helped the Reagan administration illegally fund the Nicaraguan Contras from secret arms sales to Iran and from Saudi money. Prince Bandar brings considerable Saudi funds to the table. He also brings useful Saudi connections to the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi groups. He was also involved, it should be remembered, in coordinating the effort of Arab fighters who joined the Mujahedeen during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Saudis have apparently assured the White House that they will keep a very close eye on the fundamentalists this time. The White House, as an intelligence official put it to Seymour Hersh, are not against the “Salafis throwing bombs”; they just want to make sure they throw them at the right people: Hizb’Allah, the Mahdi Army, Iran, and Syria.
In Lebanon, the United States has already pledged two hundred million dollars in military aid and forty million dollars for internal security. The money is intended to bolster the government of Fouad Siniora against the Hizb’Allah led opposition. As it was the case in the early phase of the Algerian civil war, many obscure and radical Sunni groups are emerging in northern Lebanon, the Bekaa Valley, and around Palestinian refugee camps in the south. The US is now providing these groups with clandestine military and financial support in the hope of provoking a confrontation with Hizb’Allah. One notable Sunni extremist group that is now the recipient of US clandestine support is Fatah al-Islam. The group is based in the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp, and has recently been offered money and weapons “by people presenting themselves as representatives of the Lebanese government interests – presumably to take on Hizb’Allah.”
Saad Hariri, the Sunni majority leader of the Lebanese parliament and a US ally, has already spent thousands of dollars to bail members of Sunni fundamentalist groups from jail, many of whom are known to have trained in al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan. Hariri also used his influence to obtain amnesty to twenty-nine Sunni fundamentalists, some of them suspected of plotting bombs in the Italian and Ukrainian embassies in Beirut. “We have a liberal attitude that allows al-Qaeda types to have a presence here,” a senior official in Siniora’s government told Seymour Hersh. Hariri also arranged a pardon for the Maronite Christian militia leader, Samir Geagea, who has been convicted of many atrocities against civilians as well as four political murders, including the assassination of Prime Minister Rashid Karami in 1987. Geagea is already on the offensive. He held a press conference, last week, to say that Hizb’Allah has become a burden on the Lebanese state.
In Palestine, the US has been intensely promoting a coup against the democratically elected government of Hamas. With the “friendly” governments of Jordan and Egypt, the US has been providing military assistance to faction of Fatah loyal to security chief and CIA man Mohammed Dahlan. Israel has been helping by arresting members of Fatah who oppose confrontation with Hamas. Besides burning the building of the Palestinian Legislative council, shadowy Fatah operatives also burned the prime Minister’s office, shot at his car, and burned offices in different ministries and harassed Hamas ministers. In a move very reminiscent of Algeria’s dirty civil war, undercover thugs burned Palestinian Christian churches during the controversy surrounding the Pope’s racist comments on Islam. Those who sanctioned the arson were obviously hoping, as did the Algerian generals who sanctioned the killing of the French monks in 1996 and the Italian seamen in 1997, that the world would blame the Islamist. As I write, the AFP is reporting that a Christian library in Gaza has been bombed in a strange pre-dawn attack. Reuters is reporting that a completely unknown group by the name of Tawhid and Jihad has executed kidnapped BBC reporter, Alan Johnston. Hamas has duly condemned these attacks and has consistently provided protection to Palestinian churches and helped release kidnapped foreign journalists.
The United States is also providing clandestine support to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and Abdul Halim Khaddam, the former Syrian Vice-President who defected in 2005. Again, the goal here is to undermine the Syrian government of Bashar Asad. At the same time, the US is funding and arming the shadowy Sunni fundamentalist group, Jundallah, to mount a bombing campaign inside Iran.
Much like the Algerian junta, Washington is creating its own Islamist groups and developing its own “eradication” program. All the pieces seem to be in place for a large-scale campaign of sabotage, bombings, kidnappings and assassinations whose aim it would be to discredit the resistance movements in the Islamic world and demonize them in the eyes of the public. Unlike Algeria, though, the scope of American counter-jihad includes the entire Muslim world. The atrocities, slaughter and mayhem are likely to be far bigger than they were in Algeria. It remains to be seen whether civil societies, the intellectuals, the media, and the genuine Islamist resistance groups will fall into this insidious trap that latter-day colonialism seems to be putting the final touches on.
About the Author
Fouzi Slisli is Assistant Professor at St. Cloud State University. He received his MA and PhD from the University of Essex (UK). His writings on the Middle East and North Africa have appeared in Race and Class, Al Ahram Weekly, openDemocracy.com, Encyclopedia of the African Diaspora, and Mizna.
1. U.S. undersecretary of state William Burns, in Barry James, “Arms Sales Overcomes Rights Record Qualms: US Enlists Algeria in Terror Battle,” International Herald Tribune, (December 10, 2002).
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