Algeria - Escalating terrorist violence against populations

Mar/Apr 1998

The Ramadan period was marked in Algeria by a new wave of terror which the GIA (Armed Islamist Group) - the faction of the Algerian islamist terrorist movement most radically opposed to the government - had widely heralded. A whole series of murderous raids, car bombings, ambushes and killings were carried out in different neighbourhoods and villages. On the nights of December 30 and 31, the population of three villages located in a mountainous area to the west of Algiers were the victims of a massacre in which 400 people found a particularly horrifying death. Other massacres took place in the same region and in various other regions, particularly near Algiers. The calls for violence made by the GIA and displayed in mosques indicated who was behind this latest butchery.

Rumours have been going round over recent months, emanating particularly from circles associated with the banned FIS (Islamist Salvation Front) but also from political tendencies opposing the government, such as the FFS (Socialist Forces Front), that these massacres may have been provocations staged by the government or by rival cliques close to it. According to these rumours, the purpose of the government is to discredit the FIS in this way, and thus make impossible any political negotiation with the leaders of this party, which is reduced to an illegal existence. But this hypothesis seems less and less plausible.

This is not to say that the government is not capable of conducting murderous operations. Over these six years of civil war, the Algerian army, which has engaged more than 60,000 men in the field, has liquidated maquis groups, bombed whole areas with napalm, created full-scale concentration camps and carried out bloody raids in neighbourhoods or villages suspected of helping the islamists. It has tortured and summarily executed thousands of people. The army chiefs in power have been as horrific as the sadistic brutes now spreading terror.

But the murderous raids going on at the moment do not serve the government. They demonstrate, on the contrary, that the current regime is powerless, incapable of solving the problem of islamist terrorism and incapable of protecting populations. They help to dig a little deeper the gulf of hatred and defiance which exists between the government and the poorer classes.

It is more than likely that it is the GIA which is seeking to make this demonstration. Or at any rate one of its armed groups, since the GIA seems to be a conglomerate of armed groups and it is difficult to know to what extent their actions are part of a single strategy and to what extent they reflect local or clan-based calculations - not to mention pure banditry.

This new wave of terrorism does not, however, necessarily reflect a reinforcement of the armed islamist groups or a widening of their influence.

The press has underlined the fact that the recent massacres took place in areas which, in the period from 1988 to 1991, supported the FIS and voted for it, then supported the armed groups of the FIS or the GIA, sometimes providing them with a base to retreat to. If the GIA is resorting to such methods to maintain its hold over sections of the population, despite the fact that they have long been hostile to the regime, this means that there has been a change in the balance of power between the government and the armed islamist movements over recent years, and the armed groups have become more and more isolated from the population.

When, six years ago, the leaders of the Algerian state cancelled the elections to avoid a certain victory for the FIS, the latter had a majority in the electorate and a strong influence among the poor layers of the population, from whom it recruited its activists and members. Once the FIS had been outlawed and decapitated, with its militants being hunted down, the advocates of armed struggle and terrorism had free rein to take over, capitalising on the human, political and material resources supplied to them by the credit acquired by the FIS over the previous period.

Soon the islamist movement split into two tendencies with often ill-defined boundaries - the AIS (Islamist Salvation Army), linked to the historic leaders of the FIS, and the GIA, who disagreement over the former FIS leaders' attempt at seeking a compromise with the government. Once engaged in armed struggle and terrorist actions the islamist movement showed it was capable of standing up to the army and the government. It was on the basis of a balance of power partly created by the action of these tendencies that the leaders of the Algerian state attempted to negotiate with the FIS in 1994. After months of prolonged negotiations, the government released the historic leaders Madani and Benhadj in September 1994. But in view of their refusal to call a halt to armed struggle and terrorism, the government quickly put them back behind bars and initiated a new, merciless military offensive against the armed groups, at the same time terrorising the populations which supported them.

The government's military effort has not "eradicated" the islamist groups, contrary to the claims of the Algerian leaders. But there is no doubt that in many regions of the country government troops, partly backed up by people's militias usually organised by the army or local authorities, has struck blows against the armed groups of both the AIS and the GIA.

The AIS now seems to be retreating both militarily and politically. It is more difficult to weigh up the political strength of the GIA. More active and more violent in its acts of terrorism, it seems to be the main force behind the terrorist attacks. But these attacks - massacring unarmed villages, stopping buses and murdering their passengers, planting bombs, etc.. - do not necessarily require large numbers of activists.

Furthermore, while actions against the army, or against personalities, businessmen, journalists and even artists, may increase the credit and influence of the GIA among the fraction of the population which is most hostile to the government, the same is probably not true of the threats and murders aimed at making examples of people in order to maintain their hold over the poor classes. In the areas which the islamist groups referred to as "liberated" because they were under their control, the islamists showed that they brought only poverty, pressure and violence to the populations there.

Faced with increasing poverty and the pressures of the government and the army, the GIA has nothing else to offer but joining the maquis or the scattered underground commando groups, enlisting in an endless war. This can work for some young people who are desperate and hate the regime. But it is not enough to retain the support of the population, even in regions which were initially sympathetic, for of course, the GIA is totally incapable of doing anything about their poverty. But there is also, so to speak, the weight of a double dictatorship, that of the armed groups being added to that of the official government. For the populations of the regions most directly linked to the islamists are problably those who have been used as canon fodders in the overbidding between the rival groups. The systematic destruction of telephone exchanges, town halls, post offices and company buildings have probably been more of a problem for the populations than for the government. The same is true of racketeering. When the GIA gave the order in 1994 to boycott schools on pain of death, the strongest pressure was exerted in those places where the GIA groups were in a position to intervene. And hundreds of teachers and school students were murdered without anyone mentioning it.

Even the section of the population which supported at first the FIS and then, willingly or not, the armed groups, particularly those of the GIA, seems to be distancing itself from them. The scale of the present terrorist actions could therefore be the GIA's response to this situation and aimed at terrorising these populations and showing that, whatever the real balance of power, the GIA is still strong enough to strike where it wishes and exert an influence on political life.

The barbarity and sadism of the thugs enlisted by the GIA leaders compensate for the weakness of their forces. These murderous raids are clearly carried out with relatively few men, using very basic armament. The panic their methods induce is also a weapon in itself. These methods could of course be double-edged, and induce a reaction on the part of the populations attacked, but for the moment they are inducing mainly fear and demoralisation. This is what the GIA has been counting on for more than a year. And this terrorist group does not seem to be heading for a change of course.

Of course, one may think that the GIA leaders are taking the risk of isolating themselves even more from the population, thereby causing their influence and recruitment to dry up. But the logic of their action is a mirror image of that behind the terrorism of the army: both take th population hostage, using violence to force it into submission. Whether it be submitting to the GIA and being forcibly enrolled into its commandos, or submitting to the army and being possibly integrated into the militias it controls - neither camp leaves the population much choice or much to choose from.

At any rate the GIA has succeeded in creating a situation where no one in Algeria can now grant any credence to the government's boasts to have reduced terrorism to a residual phenomenon. It has succeeded in ensuring that, despite the liquidation of members of the GIA leadership who were close to the FIS, the leaders of the FIS refuse to break with the GIA in order to negotiate with the government. They have succeeded in ensuring that the so-called democratic reforms and the elections intended to confirm the "normalisation" of political life in Algeria are seen as a sinister masquerade by Algerian and world opinion. And it is because resorting to terror corresponds to a policy that the GIA will probably not give it up, unless it is totally liquidated or physically caught off guard by a popular movement.

Even the risk that the murderous madness of these commando groups might make recruitment more difficult, by distancing them even more from the population, is limited for the moment. The poverty in which the poorest layers of the population have been living for years means that there are now hundreds of thousands of young people living off various forms of trafficking, including drug dealing, forming a breeding ground for an unscrupulous underworld ready to offer its services to war lords.

History has demonstrated on several occasions that in difficult periods when the social order is threatened, reactionary political movements can use such people to keep populations in check. Algeria today has little in common with European countries between the wars, but the example of the development of fascism in Italy and Germany has shown how reactionary but "moderate" politicians, democrats, law-abiding army officers, businessmen and intellectuals long opposed to fascism could one day decide to step aside and leave it to the gangsters organised in fascist bands, the SA, the SS or the phalange to bring the poor classes of the population to heel.

So even if support for the GIA or the former FIS is stagnating or declining, they are positioning themselves for a possible future context in which the state is weakened and there is no one else to take over, and in which they might have the opportunity to seize power. The barbarity of their methods gives an indication of the way in which they would use this power.

But in this struggle against political islamist fundamentalism and the associated terrorism, the population should not count on the current government: not even when, as today, the government asks the populations threatened by these bloodthirsty madmen to defend themselves.

Nearly 150 000 people are apparently now organised in militias in different areas of the country. These militias, which began to be set up in 1994, are armed, funded and controlled by the army and local authorities. They are in a sense back-up forces for the government which, by the same token, serves a policy which cannot be favourable to the interests of the poorer classes.

There is quite obviously a problem of self-defence in Algeria today, particularly in the areas where the GIA is at work.

But self-defence is not just a military problem. It is above all a political problem. The poor do not only have to defend themselves against the armed bands of the GIA. They also have to defend themselves against a corrupt government, the main people responsible for the emergence of the armed islamist bands. For the fight against islamist terrorism to be effective, the population grouped in militias must not content themselves with ensuring the victory of the army.

The army chiefs are now engaged in bloody competition with the armed islamist groups. But that does not make them an ally of the working classes, even from the point of view of the fight against the terrorism of the islamist far right. The Algerian military government was able in the past to make use of the islamists before they became influential and turned into rivals. The army chiefs could do the same again. Today's opponents could become allies again against the poor masses.

A policy of self-defence of the masses ought not only to stop the islamists but also to get the rank and file of the army to line up alongside the people, regardless of what their chiefs of staff see to be right or appropriate, regardless of orders which, as we can see today, are never issued by these chiefs of staff to protect populations.

And that is why the policy for opposing the islamists is inseparable from a policy which defends the interests of the poor, organising them not under the guidance of the army but on the basis of their own class interests.

Social and political reality in Algeria cannot by any means be reduced to the stand-off between the government and the islamists. The two factions fighting for power are both doing so to the detriment of the exploited classes, both in order to impose a brutal dictatorship on them.

We do not know how the balance of power may develop between these two factions. The poorer classes, however, can expect nothing from either of them. Thus any policy aimed at enlisting the exploited classes behind one or the other is a disastrous policy. This is obvious in the case of the islamist far right, whose arrival in power would mean a reactionary regression and additional chains for the masses, particularly for women.

But the "democratic" tendencies which have chosen to support the military regime, albeit half-heartedly, are not only showing their impotence. They are helping to lend credence to the idea that, in the face of islamist terrorism, there is no salvation for the exploited classes outside the army, in other words outside subordination to a dictatorial and corrupt regime.

The same can be said of those who argue in favour of a negotiation with the armed islamist movements. As if a "negotiation" between two armed gangs - that of the islamists and the military dictatorship - even involving some "genuine democrats", could pull Algeria out of the crisis which produced the FIS and the GIA! As if, by attempting to integrate the islamist movement into the fake parliamentary institutions of the Algerian regime - which would mean bargaining with the islamist leaders over which positions and cushy jobs they would be given - the islamist armed gangs would lose their ability to impose their dictatorship on the country! In the past, this kind of democratic fetishism has never succeeded in disarming far-right paramilitary forces. Yet, this is a trendy idea at the present time, not just among the section of the French intelligentsia which expresses an opinion about the situation in Algeria, but also among a section of the so-called democratic Algerian opposition and even among some who consider themselves as being on the far-left.

This way of tail-ending directly or indirectly, either the military power or the islamist current, in the name of "democracy", is described as "realism" or a "lesser evil policy". But it is precisely in the name of such realism that since the end of the colonial domination of Algeria by French imperialism - which was the main cause for its subsequent catastrophic economic and political evolution - those who describe themselves as the elite of Algerian society have disarmed the exploited masses and led them into a long series of deadly traps.

The strength of the army, like that of the islamist armed gangs, is due to the weapons they have. But the strength of the Algerian working class is due to its being a social force, its role in the economy and numbers. As to the weapons, they can be found.

Were the working class to be organised politically on the basis of its own interests and perspectives, it would have the strength to apply its own solution to the crisis of the Algerian society. In fact it is the only force which can offer such a perspective. The crisis which produced the islamist armes gangs is not only political, it is also and mainly economic and social. The fact that islamist terrorism is able to last is the monstrous expression of the stalemate in which the Algerian society is stuck, paralysed as it is by the deprivation of the majority and the blatant inequality between a voracious bourgeoisie tied to a greedy state bureaucracy and the impoverished masses, strangled by imperialism - parlicularly French imperialism - which is still plundering the country. Islamist terrorism cannot be radically eradicated without proposing radical solutions to the crisis of Algerian society, that is a revolutionary perspective.

In itself, the Algerian working class represents a considerable force. Armed with a radical programme of social and economic transformation, it could win over the support of the poor peasants and the urban lower middle-class. Of course, the working class would need not only to be able to defend such a perspective, but also to find in its ranks fighters prepared to return blow for blow and beyond in the confrontation with the islamists. But in any case, this would not cost the working class more in terms of suffering and lives than the present situation.

The real issue is the emergence of a militant political force fighting on the basis of the class interests and perspective of the working class. There is still as much to do in Algeria in order to build such a force - that is a proletarian revolutionary party - as there is everywhere else in the world. But in a situation of crisis, things sometimes move much faster. In any case this is the only real hope.