All over the Muslim world, Ramadan is a time of peace, reflection and piety. In Algeria, however, it has become known as an annual peak in the brutal and apparently mindless killings of innocent people that the government blames on Islamic activists, but most ordinary people attribute to forces linked to Algeria’s security agencies.
This year has been no exception. Twenty-two villagers in Ouled Mahieddine, near the coastal town of Tenes, 200km west of Algiers, were killed in an attack on the village in the evening of December 18. Eye-witnesses said that the village was stormed by a large number of men armed with automatic weapons. The attack took the number of deaths in just 3 days to more than 80, and the total during the month of Ramadan to over 200.
The previous day, 15 people had been killed in Tenes when a group of armed men riddled their minibus with machine gun fire. Three more people died in hospital of their wounds. Later the same day, five people, including three women, were killed at Khemis Miliana, 120km west of Algiers.
Perhaps the most brutal attack, however, was on December 16, when armed men attacked a boarding school in Medea, 80km south of Algiers. Fifteen boys aged between 15 and 17 were killed, along with their supervisor, when the men burst into their dormitory and shot them as they were sleeping or reading in their beds.
As usual, the government has blamed the attacks on the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), which it describes as being the main Islamic group active in Algeria. However, they come at a time when Algerian military forces have been under attack from guerrilla groups, and engaged in operations against them. Many Algerians believe that the attacks may be carried out by the armed forces or groups allied to them, in order to discredit the genuine Islamic activists engaged in fighting against the regime.
The Medea area, near the boarding school where the boys were murdered, had been the scene of military clashes in the days before the massacre. Algerian press reports said that 12 Algerian soldiers had been killed in an ambush at Ksar El-Boukhari on December 13.
Heavy fighting between troops and militants was also reported in the Jijel region, east of Algiers, between December 14-17. This fighting reportedly began with an attack on troops in which 9 soldiers were killed. The official media reported that 18 Islamic activists had been killed by air-to-ground missiles in a helicopter attack two days later. El-Youm newspaper said that those killed belonged to a group known as the Salafi Group for Preaching and Jihad (GSPG).
The relationship between the military clashes and the attacks on civilian targets is not clear. The government version is that the militants are fanatics and extremists for whom killing is an end in itself, and this version is largely accepted in the West, always willing to believe anything bad about Muslims. However, Algerian human-rights activists and observers believe that a more plausible explanation is that Algerian security forces commit the atrocities in order to discredit the activists, try to turn ordinary people against them, and create a atmosphere in which their political repression and failings in other areas of government policy can be disguised.
Algeria’s decade of bloodshed began with the western-supported military coup in January 1992, which was launched to prevent the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) from coming to power in the country’s first free elections since independence from France in 1962. FIS had won 188 seats in the first round of elections the previous month, after winning 55 percent of the popular vote in local elections earlier in the year. The elections were suspended, a state of emergency declared, FIS leaders arrested, and the party ordered to disband.
This blatant rejection of the popular mandate in favour of Algeria’s Islamic movement led to a brief intifada in 1992, and people took to the streets to protest against the military intervention, which was broadly supported by secular politicians. This uprising was brutally suppressed, the military sections of FIS largely defeated, and the conflict taken up by marginal groups such as the GIA, whose origins are shrouded in mystery. The following years have been dominated by attacks on civilians and other targets in which more than 100,000 people have been killed.
Perhaps the best discussion of the GIA is the paper by B. Izel and others in An Enquiry into the Algerian Massacres (ed: Youcef Bedjaoui et al, Hoggar Press, Geneva, 1999), called ‘What is the GIA?’ This paper points out that the original leadership and membership of the GIA was largely wiped out in the early months of the uprising, and replaced by others whose identities are shadowy. From that time onwards, the GIA spent most of its time attacking other Muslim groups or in terrorist operations whose effect was largely to benefit the regime. Izel et al argue that an analysis of the GIA’s operations show its modus operandi to be typical of government counter-insurgency operations rather than a guerrilla movement. It is widely believed that the GIA is part of the government’s forces, rather than those of the Islamic movement.
The continual fighting in Algeria reflects the failure of the political process begun in 1998, by which the regime tried to legitimise its power. President Zeroual resigned that year, and was succeeded in 1999 by Bouteflika, the present president. Later in the year, a rigged referendum approved Bouteflika’s ‘civil concord’, which pardoned thousand of Islamic militants provided they surrendered their weapons and renounced violence. However, FIS leaders were not permitted to re-enter the political processes, which remained firmly under the control of the military and of secular politicians approved by them. The process was regarded with cynicism by many people and rejected by most Islamic activists.
While there are certainly Islamic groups that continue to be engaged in military operations against the regime, few people doubt that the continuing atrocities are the work of the regime and its agents, rather than the Islamic movements. However, as long at the military-dominated regime remains determined to exclude Islamic elements from political processes, and to fight the political influence of Islam as firmly as its counterpart in Turkey, Algeria’s anguish is unlikely to be resolved in the near future.