Friday, January 18, 2013

Algeria and the hostage-takers

The PBS Newshour reports on this past week's hostage crisis, Accounting for Algeria Hostages as Mali Conflict Intensifies 01/18/2013:

The Algerian civil war of the 1990s against Islamist extremists was a major event in the world of Islamist politics in recent decades. The Islamist party Islamic Salvation Front (Front Islamique du Salut/FIS) had won a national election in 1991 and were set to win a majority in Parliament on the second round of balloting, but the Algerian army cancelled the election that was set to take place in 1992. Violent conflict raged throughout the 1990s, claiming up to 100,000 lives.

Robert Fisk tells the story of that civil war in a chapter in his highly informative The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East (2005). Hostage-taking by Islamist fighters and the use of death squads and brutal tactics by the Algerian army were commonplace. He reports there than in 1994, the Algerian government, founded in a guerrilla war against France in 1954-62:

Within a year, the government was sending a delegation of high-ranking Algerian army intelligence officers on a tour of Arab capitals, notably Cairo and Damascus, in the hope of learning how to combat "Islamist" guerrilla armies. In Egypt - where real Islamists had killed President Sadat - they learned how Egypt's paramilitary police stormed the hideouts of armed insurgents in the sugarcane fields around Assiout and Beni Suef before interrogating the survivors under torture or hanging them after sentences in military courts. In Damascus, they learned first-hand of how Syrian special forces with artillery and tanks killed thousands of Muslims in the rebellious city of Hama in 1982, pulverising its ancient streets and mosques. At the end of December 1994, the Algerian army staged an identical assault on the Muslim stronghold around Aïn Defla - about the same size as Hama -with artillery and tanks, and slaughtered up to 3,000 alleged GIA [armed Islamist group] men. Again, there were no prisoners. (p. 546)
Fisk recalled that history this week in It sounds like a replay of Algeria’s civil war. Don’t bet on a happy ending The Independent 01/16/2013:

Colonial frontiers, as we all know, mean more to the colonisers than the indigenous population. Tribes cross our old borders because they do not believe in them. If you are a Berber or a Touareg, you can be both a Malian or an Algerian or – more to the point – a Maghrebian. And the Maghreb stretches from Morocco across Mauretania and Algeria to Tunisia and Libya and, to many inhabitants, all points south.

The Algerian army know this very well. They spent nine years fighting their own Islamist insurgents, constantly claiming that "foreigners" were involved in the war. And Algeria’s military legions dealt with their enemies cruelly and without quarter. The French still suspect that Algerian troops killed French hostage priests during a failed attempt to liberate them – and then beheaded the corpses to suggest that Islamists murdered them.
And in Algeria: the slaughter of the good and bad at the In Amenas gas plant was utterly predictable 01/17/2013. This one gives some good context to the PBS report above:

Opaque as Algeria's military may appear to foreigners, its foundational myths – of utter brutality towards its enemies, whatever the cost – have appealed to the Pentagon and to the French, who both maintained their co-operation with the army's elite at Cherchell outside Algiers in the 1990s – when they knew full well that the country's soldiers and paramilitary forces were indulging in an orgy of torture against insurgents and civilians.

Three things were certain last night about the Algerian bloodbath; that the Algerians will put the entire blame for the killing of the hostages upon the al-Qa'ida-inspired kidnappers, that the Western governments whose citizens died will go along with this – and not utter a word of condemnation of the Algerian military – and that by midday today, the entire story will change out of all recognition. Prime ministers, foreign ministers and newsdesks beware.

David Cameron's total ignorance of the Algerian government's inherent cruelty led Downing Street to mutter some truly stupid remarks today. The Algerians, they said, “seemed determined to lead the way”.

You bet they did. Talking to hostage-takers is anathema to them, at best a means to wear down kidnappers before annihilating them. [my emphasis]
He also adds this bit of history about Algerian Islamists:

For the real marriage of both al-Qa'ida and the Algerian military started after the Russian occupation of Afghanistan.

It is a largely secret story which even today has never been fully revealed. Desperate to stem their losses, the Soviet government asked their socialist Algerian allies for intelligence help; and the Algerian intelligence services dispatched their own men to Afghanistan to pose as "mujahedin" alongside real Algerian Islamists fighting for Osama bin Laden.

Information from these Algerian military spies allowed Soviet forces to fight back.

But when the Russians left and the Algerians came home, the army ordered their own men to remain undercover with the Islamist groups. So when the terrible civil war began, individual officers to keep their cover participated in the massacre of civilians. And thus became contaminated by atrocities. This is not a tale which the Algerian government admits to. Nor will the West examine this grim history. [my emphasis]
And yet again in Algeria, Mali, and why this week has looked like an obscene remake of earlier Western interventions 01/18/2013:

From the Middle East, the whole thing looks like an obscene television remake of our preposterous interventions in other parts of the world. French troops will be in Mali for only "several weeks", Hollande and his cronies tell us. Isn't that what we said when British troops first appeared on the streets of Northern Ireland, and then spent decades fighting there? Isn't that what the Israelis said when they marched into Lebanon in 1982 and stayed for another 18 years? Isn't this what we thought when we invaded Afghanistan? That our chaps might not even hear a shot fired in anger?

... But why are "we", the West, in Mali? How many readers – hands up, oh virtuous and honest folk, could actually name the capital of Mali two weeks ago?
The capital of Mali is Bamako, by the way.

Fisk has a sense of history: "Do I sniff a bit of old-fashioned colonial insanity here? Carry on up the Niger? French troops battle rebels. 'Terrorists' in retreat. Daily headlines from 1954 until 1962. In a country called Algeria. And I promise you, the French didn't win that war."

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