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Algerian Civil War
The Algerian Civil War was a conflict between the forces of the Algerian government and various rebel groups. The conflict was triggered in December 1991 by the government cancelling elections after the first round results had shown that the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) party would win. The conflict is estimated to have cost 100,000 lives, and was characterised by extreme acts of violence against civilians, particularly the massacres by the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) rebel group in 1996-8.
Liberalization: prelude to war
By the end of 1988, the single-party socialist dictatorship under which Algeria had done relatively well since Houari Boumedienne's rule in the 1960s no longer seemed to be a viable system. Already in the 1980s it had faced challenges from the Algerian Islamic Movement guerrillas of Mustafa Bouyali and the Kabyle activists of the Berber Spring . Economics would also prove an important catalyst: the government had relied heavily on high oil prices to finance the budget, and when, in 1986, oil prices went from $30 to $10 a barrel, the planned economy came under severe strain, with shortages and unemployment rife. In October 1988 ("Black October "), massive demonstrations against President Chadli Bendjedid took place throughout Algerian cities, with an Islamist element prominent among the demonstrators. The army fired on the demonstrators, leaving some dead and shocking many.
The president's response was to make moves towards reform. In 1989, he brought in a new constitution, approved in a referendum by 73% on February 23, 1989, which disestablished the official ruling party, the FLN, and made no mention of socialism, while promising "freedom of expression, association, and assembly". By the end of the year, a variety of political parties were being established and recognized by the government - among them, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS).
FIS incorporated a broad spectrum of Islamist opinion, exemplified by its two leaders. Its president Abbassi Madani, a professor and ex-independence fighter, represented a relatively moderate religious conservatism and symbolically connected the party to the Algerian War of Independence, the traditionally emphasized source of the ruling FLN's legitimacy. Its vice-president Ali Belhadj , a younger and less educated Algiers preacher, made aggressively radical speeches that rallied dissatisfied lower-class youth and alarmed non-Islamists with his rejection of democracy and views on women; he had already played a significant role in the October demonstrations. It was not the only Islamist party - Mahfoud Nahnah's Hamas and Abdallah Djaballah's Ennahda also attracted a following - but it rapidly became by far the biggest, with a huge following concentrated especially in large urban areas. Its activists spread its message in mosques - especially the unofficial mosques that stood half-built everywhere - and on June 12, 1990, they swept the local elections with 54% of votes cast, taking 46% of town assemblies and 55% of wilaya assemblies. The Gulf War further energized the party, as it outdid the government in gestures opposing Desert Storm, including massive demonstrations, blood donation drives, and even calls for volunteers to fight in Iraq.
In May 1991, the FIS called for a general strike to protest the government's redrawing of electoral districts, which it saw as gerrymandering directed against it. The strike itself was a failure, but the demonstrations FIS organized in Algiers were huge, and succeeded in pressuring the government; it was persuaded in June to call the strike off by the promise of fair parliamentary elections. However, disagreements on the strike provoked open dissension among the FIS leadership (the Madjliss ech-Choura), and the prolonged demonstrations alarmed the military. Shortly afterwards the government arrested Madani and Belhadj on June 30, 1991, having already arrested a number of lower-ranking members. The party, however, remained legal, and passed to the effective leadership of Abdelkader Hachani after four days of contested leadership by Mohamed Said (who was then arrested).
The rise of the party continued despite the arrests, though its activists were angered as its demands for the leaders' release went unheeded. After some deliberation, it agreed to participate in the next elections, after expelling dissenters such as Said Mekhloufi and Kamareddine Kherbane , who advocated direct action against the government. On November 27, armed Islamists connected to the extremist Takfir wal Hijra attacked a border post at Guemmar, killing some soldiers and foreshadowing the conflict to come; however, otherwise an uneasy calm prevailed. On December 26, 1991, the FIS handily won the first round of parliamentary elections; with 48% of the overall popular vote, they won 188 of the 232 seats decided in that round, putting them far ahead of rivals. A FIS government seemed inevitable.
Coup d'état: a guerrilla war begins
The army saw this outcome as unacceptable. On the one hand, FIS had made open threats against the ruling pouvoir, condemning them as unpatriotic and pro-French as well as financially corrupt; on the other hand, FIS leadership was at best divided on the desirability of democracy, and some expressed fears that a FIS government would be, as US Assistant Secretary of State Edward Djerejian put it, "one man, one vote, one time". On January 11, 1992, the army cancelled the electoral process, forcing President Chadli Bendjedid to resign and bringing in the exiled independence fighter Mohammed Boudiaf to serve as a new president. So many FIS members were arrested - 5,000 by the army's account, 30,000 according to FIS, including Abdelkader Hachani - that the jails were inadequate to hold them; camps were set up for them in the Sahara, and bearded men feared to leave their houses. A state of emergency was declared, suspending many ordinary constitutional rights, and the government officially dissolved FIS on March 4. Such protests as occurred were suppressed. Human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International, reported frequent government use of torture and holding of suspects without charge or trial.
Such FIS activists as remained free, along with some Islamists too radical for FIS, took this as a declaration of war (although FIS would not officially call for armed resistance until 1993, attempting to steer a nuanced course of expressing sympathy for the guerrillas without endorsing their actions.) Throughout much of the country, they took to the hills with whatever weapons were available and became guerrillas; their first attacks on the security forces (not counting the Guemmar incident) began barely a week after the coup, on January 19, and both soldiers and policemen rapidly became targets. As in previous wars, the guerrillas were almost exclusively based in the mountains of northern Algeria, whose forest and scrub cover were well suited to guerrilla warfare, and in certain areas of the cities; the very sparsely populated but oil-rich Sahara would remain peaceful for almost the entire duration of the conflict, with rare exceptions. This, crucially, meant that the government's principal source of money - oil exporting - was largely unaffected.
The tense situation was compounded by the economy, which collapsed even further that year as almost all of the longstanding subsidies on food were eliminated. Some had hopes for Boudiaf, a leader exiled for too long to be tainted by Algeria's internal postrevolutionary politics; however, such hopes were dashed when he fell to a bullet from one of his own security guards on June 29, having had little time to make an impact. This assassination was attributed to a guard with Islamist sympathies, but would become a major magnet for Algerian conspiracy theories. Soon afterwards, on July 12, Abbassi Madani and Ali Belhadj were sentenced to 12 years in prison.
On August 26, it became apparent that some guerrillas had begun to target civilians as well as government figures: the bombing of the Algiers airport claimed 9 lives and injured 128 people. FIS, along with other parties, condemned the bombing, but FIS' influence over the guerrillas turned out to be limited.
To begin with, the fighting seems to have been led by the small Takfir wal Hijra, headed by Kamel Essamer , and associated ex-Afghan fighters. However, the first major armed movement to emerge was the Islamic Armed Movement (MIA), a revival of Mustapha Bouyali's group which had reconstituted itself in January 1991. It was led by the ex-soldier Abdelkader Chebouti , a longstanding Islamist who had kept his distance from FIS during the electoral process, and contained a notable contingent of ex-Afghanistan fighters. About February 1992, ex-soldier, ex-Afghan fighter, and former FIS head of security Said Mekhloufi founded the Movement for an Islamic State (MEI). These large groups and the unorganized small ones arranged several meetings to attempt to unite their forces, accepting the overall leadership of Chebouti in theory, leading up to a major one at Tamesguida on September 1. At Tamesguida, Chebouti expressed his concern at the movement's indiscipline, in particular concerned that the Algiers airport attack, which he had not approved, could alienate supporters. Takfir wal Hijra and the Afghans (led by Noureddine Seddiki ) responded by agreeing to join the MIA. However, the meeting was broken up by an assault from the security forces, provoking suspicions and fears which prevented any further meetings.
FIS itself established an underground network, led by Mohamed Said and Abderrezak Redjam , setting up clandestine newspapers and even a radio station with close links to the MIA. From late 1992, they also began issuing official statements from abroad, led by Rabah Kebir and Anwar Haddam . However, at this stage the opinions of the guerrilla movements on FIS were mixed; while many supported FIS, a significant faction, led by the "Afghans", regarded party political activity as inherently un-Islamic, and thus rejected it.
Early in 1992, Mansour Meliani , with many "Afghans", broke with his former friend Chebouti and left the MIA; founding the first Armed Islamic Group (GIA) around July 1992. This group dispersed after his arrest that month, but the idea was revived in January 1993 by Abdelhak Layada , who declared his group independent of Chebouti and not obedient to his orders. This group became particularly prominent around Algiers and its suburbs, in urban environments. It adopted the radical Omar El-Eulmi as a spiritual guide, affirming that "political pluralism is equivalent to sedition" (Layada, Jeune Afrique, 27/1/1994.) It was far less selective than the MIA, which insisted on ideological training; as a result, it was regularly infiltrated by the security forces, resulting in a rapid leadership turnover as successive heads were killed. It explicitly affirmed that it "did not represent the armed wing of the FIS" (AFP 20/11/1993), and issued death threats against several FIS and MIA members, including MIA's Chebouti and FIS's Kebir and Redjam.
Over 1993, the divisions within the guerrilla movement became clearer. The MIA and MEI, concentrated in the maquis, attempted to develop a military strategy against the state, typically targeting the security services and sabotaging or bombing state institutions. From its inception on, however, the GIA, concentrated in urban areas, called for and implemented the killing of anyone collaborating with or supporting the authorities, including government employees such as teachers and civil servants. It named and assassinated specific journalists and intellectuals (such as Tahar Djaout ), saying that "The journalists who fight against Islamism through the pen will perish by the sword." (Sid Ahmed Mourad, Jeune Afrique, 27/1/94.) It soon broadened its attacks to civilians who refused to live by their prohibitions, and in later 1993 began killing foreigners, declaring that "anyone who exceeds that period [a one month deadline] will be responsible for his own sudden death." After a few conspicuous killings, virtually all foreigners left the country; indeed, Algerian (often illegal) emigration too rose substantially, as people sought a way out. But much worse violence was to come.
Failed negotiations and guerrilla infighting
The violence continued through 1994, although the economy began to improve after Redha Malek negotiated debt relief following the implementation of an IMF reform plan. As it became obvious that the fighting would last a while, General Liamine Zeroual was named as new president of the High Council of State; he was considered to belong to the dialoguiste (pro-negotiation) rather than éradicateur (eradicator) faction of the army. Soon after taking office, he began negotiations with the imprisoned FIS leadership, releasing some prisoners (including such figures as Ali Djeddi and Abdelkader Boukhamkham ) by way of encouragement. These first negotiations collapsed in March, as each accused the other of reneging on agreements; but further, initially secret, negotiations would take place over the following months. The talks split the political spectrum; the largest political parties, especially the socialist FLN and Kabyle socialist FFS, continued to call for compromise as they had previously, while other forces - most notably the General Union of Algerian Workers (UGTA), but including smaller leftist and feminist groups such as the ultra-secularist RCD - sided with the "eradicators", led by General Mohammed Lamari and Prime Minister Redha Malek . A few shadowy pro-government paramilitaries, such as the Organisation of Young Free Algerians (OJAL), emerged and began attacking civilian Islamist supporters. On March 10, 1994, over 1000 mainly Islamist prisoners escaped Tazoult prison , in what appeared to be a major coup for the guerrillas; later conspiracy theorists would suggest that this had been staged to allow the security forces to infiltrate the GIA.
Meanwhile, under Cherif Gousmi (its leader since March), the GIA became the most high-profile guerrilla army in 1994. In May, FIS suffered an apparent blow as Abderrezak Redjam , Mohammed Said , the exiled Anwar Haddam , and the MEI's Said Makhloufi joined the GIA; since the GIA had been issuing death threats against them for several months (since November 1993), this came as a surprise to many observers, who interpreted it either as the result of intra-FIS competition or as an attempt to change the GIA's course from within. On August 26, it declared a "Caliphate", or Islamic government for Algeria, with Gousmi as Commander of the Faithful, Mohammed Said as head of government, the US-based Haddam as foreign minister, and Mekhloufi as provisional interior minister. However, the very next day Said Mekhloufi announced his withdrawal from the GIA, claiming that the GIA had deviated from Islam and that this "Caliphate" was an effort by Mohammed Said to take over the GIA, and Haddam soon afterwards denied ever having joined it, asserting that this Caliphate was an invention of the security services. The GIA continued attacking its usual targets, notably assassinating artists, such as Cheb Hasni (as did the smaller Islamic Front for Armed Jihad , killing Abdelkader Alloula for instance), and in late August added a new one to its list, threatening schools which allowed mixed classes, music, gym for girls, or not wearing hijab with arson.
FIS-loyalist guerrillas, threatened with marginalization, responded by attempting to unite their forces: in July 1994, the MIA, together with the remainder of the MEI and a variety of smaller groups, united as the Islamic Salvation Army (a term that had previously sometimes been used as a general label for pro-FIS guerrillas), declaring their allegiance to FIS and thus strengthening FIS' hand for the negotiations. It was initially headed by MIA's Abdelkader Chebouti , who was superseded in November 1994 by MEI's Madani Mezrag . By the end of 1994, they controlled over half the guerrillas of the east and west, but barely 20% in the center, near the capital, where the GIA were mainly based. Their main leadership was based in the Beni Khettab mountains near Jijel. It issued communiqués condemning the GIA's indiscriminate targeting of women, journalists, and other civilians "not involved in the repression", and attacking its school arson campaign.
Meanwhile, following letters from Madani and Belhadj expressing a commitment to pluralistic democracy and proposing possible solutions to the crisis, the governnment released both from jail to house arrest on September 13. However, no let up was observed in the fighting, and the government was unwilling to allow them to consult with FIS figures that remained in prison; the negotiations soon foundered, and at the end of October the government announced the failure of the second round of negotiations, and published incriminating letters from Belhadj that were allegedly found on the body of GIA leader Cherif Gousmi, who had been killed on September 26. Concluding that the political issues were unlikely to be solved by negotiation, Zeroual announced a new plan - to organize presidential elections in 1995 - while promoting "eradicationists" such as Lamari within the army, and organizing "self-defense militias" in villages to fight the guerrillas. The end of 1994 saw a noticeable upsurge in violence.
A few FIS leaders, notably Rabah Kebir , had escaped into exile abroad. During 1994, they carried out negotiations in Italy with other political parties, notably the FLN and FFS, and came out with a mutual agreement on January 14, 1995: the Sant'Egidio platform . This set forth a set of principles: respect for human rights and multiparty democracy, rejection of army rule and dictatorship, recognition of Islam, Arabness, and Berberness as essential aspects of Algerianness, demand for the release of FIS leaders, and an end to extrajudicial killing and torture on all sides. To the surprise of many, even Ali Belhadj endorsed the agreement. However, a crucial signatory was missing: the government itself. As a result, the platform had little if any effect. The next few months saw the killing of some 100 Islamist prisoners in the Serkadji prison mutiny, and a major success for the security forces in battle at Ain Defla, resulting apparently in the deaths of hundreds of guerrillas.
Despite the government's extremely hostile reaction to the Rome Platform, though, a third attempt at negotiations took place, starting in April with a letter from Madani condemning acts of violence, and hopes were raised. However, the FIS did not offer enough concessions to satisfy the government, demanding, as usual, that FIS leaders should be released before FIS could call for a ceasefire. In July Zeroual announced that the talks had failed, for the last time.
Cherif Gousmi was eventually succeeded by Djamel Zitouni as GIA head. Zitouni took a violently anti-French line, and extended the GIA's attacks on civilians to French soil, beginning with the hijacking of Air France Flight 8969 at the end of December 1994 and continuing with several bombings and attempted bombings throughout 1995. In Algeria itself, it continued likewise, with car bombs, assassinations of musicians, sportsmen, and unveiled women as well as the usual suspects. Even at this stage (it would get far more violent) the seemingly counterproductive nature of many of its attacks led to speculation (encouraged by FIS members abroad) that the group had been infiltrated by Algerian secret services. During this period, judging from its London-based magazine Al-Ansar , it worked out ever broader ideological justifications for killing civilians, with the help of fatwas from such figures as Abu Qatada al-Falastini . The region south of Algiers, in particular, came to be virtually dominated by the GIA; they called it the "liberated zone". Later it would be known as the "triangle of death".
Reports of battles between the AIS and GIA increased (resulting in an estimated 60 deaths in March 1995 alone), and the GIA reiterated its death threats against FIS and AIS leaders, claiming to be the "sole prosecutor of jihad" and angered by their negotiation attempts. On July 11, they assassinated a co-founder of FIS, Abdelbaki Sahraoui , in Paris (although some question the authenticity of their statement claiming credit for this.
Massacres and reconciliation
Following the breakdown of negotiations with FIS, the government decided to hold presidential elections. On November 16, 1995, Liamine Zeroual was elected president with 60% of votes cast. The election, contested by candidates including the Islamists Mahfoud Nahnah (25%) and Noureddine Boukrouh (<4%) and the secularist Said Sadi (10%), but excluding FIS, enjoyed a high turnout (confirmed by most observers, officially 75%) despite FIS, FFS, and FLN's call for a boycott and the GIA's threats to kill anyone who voted (using the slogan "one vote, one bullet".) A high level of security was maintained, with massive mobilization during the period immediately leading up to election day. Foreign observers came from the Arab League, the U.N. and the Organization of African Unity; none voiced any major reservations. While some cried foul, the elections were generally perceived by foreigners as quite free, and the results were considered reasonably plausible, given the limited choices available.
The results reflected various popular opinions, ranging from support for secularism and opposition to Islamism to a desire for an end to the violence irrespective of politics. Hopes grew that Algerian politics might finally be normalized. Zeroual followed this up by pushing through a new constitution in 1996, substantially strengthening the power of the president and adding a second house partly elected and partly appointed by the president. In November 1996, the text was passed by a national referendum; while the official turnout rate was 80%, this vote was unmonitored, and the high turnout was widely considered totally implausible.
The government's political moves were combined with a substantial increase in the pro-government militias' profile. "Self-defense militias", or "Patriots" for short, consisting of trusted local citizens trained by the army and given government weaponry, were founded in towns near which guerrillas were active, and promoted on national TV. The program was received well in some parts of the country, and was less popular in others; it would be substantially increased over the next few years, particularly after the massacres of 1997.
The election results were a setback for the armed groups, who saw a significant increase in desertions immediately following the elections. FIS' Rabah Kebir responded to the apparent shift in popular mood by adopting a more conciliatory tone towards the government, but was condemned by some parts of the party and of the AIS. The GIA was shaken by internal dissension: shortly after the election, its leadership killed the FIS leaders who had joined the GIA - Mohammed Saïd , Abderrezak Redjam , and their supporters, accusing them of attempting a takeover. Other Islamists suggested that they had objected to the GIA's indiscriminate violence. This purge accelerated the disintegration of the GIA, leading to suspicion of Zitouni's leadership: Mustapha Kartali, Ali Benhadjar , and Hassan Hattab's factions all refused to recognize Zitouni's leadership starting around late 1995, although they would not formally break away until somewhat later. The GIA killed the AIS leader for central Algeria, Azzedine Baa , in December, and in January pledged to fight the AIS as an enemy; particularly in the west, full-scale battles between them became common.
In July 1996, GIA leader Djamel Zitouni was killed by one of the breakaway factions - Ali Benhadjar 's Medea brigade, later to become the AIS-aligned Islamic League for Preaching and Combat - and was succeeded by Antar Zouabri. Djamel Zitouni had earned notoriety for such acts as the killing of the seven monks of Tibhirine in March, but his successor would prove to be far bloodier.
Parliamentary elections were held on June 5, 1997. They were dominated by the National Democratic Rally (RND), a new party created in early 1997 for Zeroual's supporters, which received some 32% of the vote and got 156 out of 380 seats. They were followed by the MSP (as Hamas had been required to rename itself) with 69 seats, the FLN (62), and the Islamist Ennahda (34). The two Berberist parties, FFS and RCD, got 20 and 19 seats respectively. Views on this election were mixed; most major opposition parties filed complaints, and the success of the extremely new RND raised eyebrows. The RND, FLN, and MSP formed a coalition government, with the RND's Ahmed Ouyahia as prime minister. There were hints of a softening towards FIS: Abdelkader Hachani was released, and Abbassi Madani moved to house arrest.
At this point, however, a new and vital problem had emerged. From about April (the Thalit massacre) Algeria was wracked by massacres of distinctive brutality and unprecedented size. Typically targeting entire villages or neighborhoods irrespective of age or sex, GIA guerrillas killed tens and sometimes hundreds of civilians at a time. (Previous massacres had occurred in the conflict, but on a substantially smaller scale.) These massacres continued through the end of 1998, changing the whole dynamic of the political situation. The areas south and east of Algiers, which had voted strongly for FIS in 1991, were particularly hard hit; the Rais and Bentalha massacres, in particular, shocked worldwide opinion. Pregnant women were sliced open, children were hacked to pieces or dashed against walls, men's limbs were hacked off one by one, and as the attackers retreated, they would kidnap young women to serve as sex slaves. Even if Nesroullah Yous (a survivor of Bentalha)'s quote is inaccurate, it expresses the apparent mood of the attackers:
- "We have the whole night to rape your women and children, drink your blood. Even if you escape today, we'll come back tomorrow to finish you off! We're here to send you to your God!"
The GIA's responsibility is indisputable: it claimed credit for both Rais and Bentalha (in a press release calling the killings an "offering to God", and the victims "impious" supporters of tyrants), and its policy of massacring civilians was cited by the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat as one of the main reasons it split off the GIA. At this stage, it had apparently adopted a takfirist ideology, believing that practically all Algerians not actively fighting the government were corrupt to the point of being kafirs, and could be killed righteously with impunity; an unconfirmed communiqué by Zouabri had stated that "except for those who are with us, all others are apostates and deserving of death." (El Watan , Jan. 21) In some cases, it has been suggested that the GIA were motivated to commmit a massacre by a village's joining the Patriot program, which they saw as evidence of disloyalty; in others, that rivalry with other groups (eg Mustapha Kartali's breakaway faction) played a part.
However, in both Rais and Bentalha, survivors claimed that the army had arrived, but stayed outside and even prevented the villagers from fleeing their attackers, and in many cases (eg Rais, Bentalha, Si Zerrouk, and Beni-Messous) army barracks were stationed within a few hundred meters yet did nothing to stop the killing; these and other details have raised suspicions among some that the state had some connection with the killers, and in particular did much to revive the theory that the GIA had been infiltrated by the secret police, not only among conspiracy theorists but among Western academic analysts. In some cases, the Guelb el-Kebir massacre and Sidi Hamed massacre, Algerian newspapers blamed the AIS, despite its denials; the credibility of these reports is unclear.
The AIS, which at this point was engaged in an all-out war with the GIA as well as the government, found itself in an untenable position. The GIA seemed a more immediately pressing enemy, and the AIS expressed fears that the massacres - which it had condemned more than once - would be blamed on itself. On September 21, its head Madani Mezrag ordered a unilateral and unconditional ceasefire starting October 1, in order to "unveil the enemy that hides behind these abominable massacres". The AIS thus largely took itself out of the political equation - over the next three years, it would gradually negotiate an amnesty for its members - reducing the fighting to a struggle between the government, the GIA, and the various splinter groups that were increasingly breaking away from the GIA. Ali Benhadjar 's FIS-loyalist Islamic League for Da'wa and Jihad (LIDD), formed in February 1997, aligned itself with the AIS and observed the same ceasefire.
GIA destroyed, GSPC continues
A third force which formed on September 14, 1998, was the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), led by Hassan Hattab, who split from the GIA over their habit of attacking civilians. At the present time the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat is the most active rebel group (possibly the only one), the GIA having been effectively destroyed.
Main article: Timeline of the Algerian Civil War.
- Luis Martinez (translated by Jonathan Derrick.) The Algerian Civil War 1990-1998. London: Hurst & Co. 1998.
- Michael Willis. The Islamist Challenge in Algeria: A Political History. New York: NYU Press 1996.
- Between Ballots and Bullets: Algeria's Transition from Authoritarianism (1998), William B. Quandt
- Ahmad Zaoui report, George Joffé
- Islamism, Violence and Reform in Algeria: Turning the Page, ICG Middle East Report No. 29
- Chronologie d’une tragédie cachée, a timeline
- Le mouvement islamiste algerien, Salima Mellah
- War Nerd Column
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