A contemporary history of the Muslim world: contents


Part 1: The post WW1 carve-up, Arab nationalism in Egypt and Syria

Part 2: Palestine-Israel, political Islam in Egypt and Syria

3. Iran: Revolution #1

4. Iran: Revolution #2

5: The Lebanese civil war #1

6: The Lebanese civil war #2

7: The Lebanese civil war #3

8: Afghanistan #1

9: Pakistan to 1979

10: Afghanistan (and Pakistan) #2

11: Afghanistan #3 : Enter the Taliban

12: Saudi Arabia and the ‘Arab Cold War’

13: Yemen #1

14: Yemen #2

15: The ‘Afghan Arabs’ : foreign fighters in Afghanistan

16: Algeria #1

17: Algeria #2

18: Algeria #3


A contemporary history of the Muslim world: contents

A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 18: Algeria #3


We ended the last post with the government’s cancellations of elections (which the Islamists were certain to win with an overwhelming majority) in January 1992. This put an end to the hopes of the FIS that they might attain power by peaceful means, and effectively turned a huge number of its supporters into armed insurgents against the state. Those shadowy elements in the military who had engineered these developments claimed that they were cancelling democracy temporarily in order to ‘protect’ it from those who would cancel it for good if they came to power. So who were these people, who I have been euphemistically referring to as ‘the state’ and le pouvoir up till now? The most important thing to note about this elite is they had no over-riding ideology besides keeping power, enriching themselves and clearing the path for their kids to do the same.

They were the kind of grafters who do well under any regime. When the rhetoric of socialism had suited their purposes, they had espoused socialism; now they espoused neoliberalism. I have always  suspected that many of the people who thrived under ‘communism’ in places like the Soviet Union and East Germany were probably the same people who did alright when these countries adopted capitalism. Algeria was (and is) run by such people. Bendjedid had been useful as a figurehead because those shady generals didn’t enjoy being in the spotlight. Because of this, it’s fun to shine such a spotlight on them, so before we get into the descent into chaos, lets identify some of the key figures in the military establishment who are going to do whatever (and I mean whatever) it takes to cling on to power.

Top left to right: Mohamed Lamari, Abdelmalek Guenaïzia, Liamine Zéroual, Khaled Nezzar. Bottom left to right: Mohamed Mediène, Larbi Belkheir and Benabbès Gheziel.

Space doesn’t permit a detailed biography of each of these characters. It should be noted, however, that these dudes who really ran the country, the overseers of the ‘deep state’ if you like, were mostly French-trained officers alluded to in the previous post, who had joined the Algerian independence struggle pretty late on when the war was already won. They had been around a long time and Mediène would be around a lot longer. Also known as ‘Toufik’, he was often regarded as the most powerful figure for his power to make or break political opponents at will, as head of the secret services, the DRS (Département du renseignement et de la sécurité), from 1990 to 2015, that is twenty-five years: a long time to wield such terrifying power. Mediène, Nezzar (the minister of defense) and Belkhier, the interior minister, were the leading hardliners, along with Lamari, and they suspected Bendjedid for allowing the Islamist threat to grow out of control on purpose, in order to increase his power at their expense.

If there was a less hardline member of this group it was Zéroual, who was rumoured to have favoured negotiations with the Islamists. Within the regime, the following years would see a factional struggle between these two camps. Although Zéroual would become president (1994-99) and seem to have the upper hand for some years, you could argue that in the end it was the hardliners who won out, as they kept their positions of power later on when Bouteflicka became president. Before all that, though, in the Spring of 1992, this military junta established a body called the High Council of State as a front for their rule. The chairman of this institution would be the new head of the state of the country. Of course, none of them wanted the job and they sought a useful figurehead to take the spotlight off them. Various names were bandied around, and of all the people to be chosen, it was Mohamed Boudiaf, one of the founders of the FLN who had been in Moroccan exile for almost three decades. Regarded as a neutral figure, untainted by the corruption staining all other major political figures in Algerian politics, and without a network of supporters in the country (he had not even been politically active in exile, running a brick-making business instead) the generals and securocrats believed Boudiaf would be a malleable pawn who might lend legitimacy to their coup d’état. He was welcomed back to Algeria as the returning saviour on 16 January and met at the airport by his new ‘friends’.


Within six months, he would be dead.

To everyone’s surprise, Boudiaf turned out to be way more energetic and proactive than they’d expected, and (from the point of view of those who appointed him) not in a good way. Although he was clearly against the establishment of a theocratic state (why would they have appointed him otherwise?) Boudiaf quickly went off-script on his return. Instead of painting the situation in the simplistic terms of fanatical Islamists vs civilised secularists that le pouvoir wished to portray it, the old man offered a much more nuanced and honest assessment of the country’s problems to the Algerian public, arguing that the Islamists had only been able to get this close to power because of widespread disaffection with the regime and its corruption. It was this root cause that he intended to tackle. Although largely forgotten by the public (having been airbrushed out of official histories of the war), he was widely commended for these sentiments, and energetically went about a campaign of confronting corruption at the highest level of society.

While this campaign won over the public and engendered a brief feeling that things might, after all, be alright, it also won him enemies in high places. The very elite that had placed Boudiaf in power realised that instead of a puppet with which to combat the Islamists, they had someone threatening to expose and punish their own venality. No-one, it appeared, was safe. There were rumours that he was preparing to remove Lamari and Mediène by presidential decree. What all of this context suggests is that there are real questions to be asked about the assassination of Boudiaf on 29 June 1992, at a cultural centre in the eastern city of Annaba. It has never been proved conclusively that the army was involved in the killing, but the official version—that it was carried out by a lone Islamist, Lambarek Boumaarafi, a lieutenant in the GIS (Algeria’s version of the SAS)—raises its own questions and sounds so implausible that one of the many conspiracy theories seem a more likely explanation. These problems with the official account are neatly summarised by Evans and Phillips:

Why, given the train of events in Algeria, was the protection afforded Boudiaf on that day so lax and uncoordinated? At least three security agents left their posts beside Boudiaf just before the attack happened, and differing branches of the security services were operating on the scene apparently oblivious of each other’s presence. Commander Hadjeres and Captain Sadek, charged with Boudiaf ’s close protection, subsequently claimed to be ignorant of the presence of a unit of the specialist Groupe d’Intervention Spéciale (GIS) standing just behind Boudiaf. But it was as a member of this GIS detachment, included at the very last minute, that Boumaarafi was given such close proximity to Boudiaf. Moreover, when the shooting began, Hadjeres and his two adjutants Captains Zaidi and Sadek were conveniently outside the hall, while none of the GIS agents reacted to the gunshots. In fact one of them, Driham Ali, went so far as to shoot and wound Hamadi Nacer, the only police officer who pursued Boumaarafi.

There was, furthermore, no autopsy on Boudiaf’s body and the weapon used to kill him was conveniently lost. Perhaps most damning, several years later a dissident group of high-ranking officers based in Madrid affirmed that he had been the victim of a plot by the army and security services and explaining the subsequent killings of several figures who had tried to expose the crime. As of yet (2018) conclusive evidence is lacking, but all that can be said is that almost no-one believes Boudiaf was killed by an Islamist acting on his own. Perhaps most importantly of all, no-one believed it at the time either.



So hope drained away, and the momentum towards civil war seemed unstoppable. Neither the army nor the Islamists seemed particularly keen on avoiding one, but of course a significant proportion of the Algerian population supported neither side. Even among the combined 70% who voted for the FIS or FLN, there were no doubt large numbers who didn’t support a war, certainly not the kind of war that it was destined to become. The way the situation was deteriorating, it is hard, even now, to see  what could have been done to avoid it at this stage. Fatwas and hit lists were being circulated in the mosques; by the start of 1993, there were over 20,000 armed Islamists active, mostly, for the moment, in mountain hideouts. Belhadj smuggled a letter (he and Madani had been sentenced to twenty years’ in prison) lending his support to the armed groups, especially the Armed Islamic Movement (MIA) led by Abdelkader Chebouti, but in no sense were these groups under the control of the FIS. Many of the recruits for these armed groups came from disenchanted young men from the cities, and influential (although not hugely numerous) leadership was provided by veterans of the war in Afghanistan.

The killing started, on both sides, even before the cancellation of elections. The army and police were already killing unarmed protesters, and the MIS launched a major attack on a police station in November 1991 from which they obtained a large amount of weapons and ammunition. From the very beginning, however, the jihadists were weakened by internal divisions and rivalries, which sometimes descended into violent confrontation with one another. They were also infiltrated by the security services, which sowed further mistrust between the different groups and made co-operation all but impossible. The army had several successes throughout 1992, largely due to information obtained from spies within the Islamists movement. The government made no attempt at negotiations making clear they had committed themselves to all-out war. If this had merely involved seeking out and attacking the Islamists in their mountain strongholds, the consequences of the war might have been contained, but it didn’t. What was already a rather authoritarian state became even more repressive: suspected sympathisers with the Islamists were put under surveillance, phones were tapped, people disappeared and tortured. If all this seems reminiscent of the methods practices by the French in the final years of the war of independence thirty years earlier, the probably wasn’t lost on many older Algerians either.

As we have seen so many times before in this blog, however, the very effectiveness of the government’s repression, instead of cowing the Islamists into submission, alienated significant parts of the population into sympathising with the latter’s cause. As we saw in the efforts of the French to hold on to their Algerian colony, a tactical victory does not automatically translate into a strategic one. There was also a growing belief, which posterity has rendered more and more credible, that the state was allowing some of the more horrific acts of violence to occur, or even colluding in them, in order to terrify the population into supporting it and turning against the Islamists. A bomb at Algiers airport in August killed 10 people and wounded 128 others, which it subsequently emerged the security services had known about and made no attempt to evacuate the airport. Worse was to come in this respect, and it came most notoriously in the form of the GIA (Groupe Islamique Armé, the armed Islamic group), which was hardly a group at all, but a collective term for number of different groups that emerged throughout 1993, acting more or less independently, who were under the leadership of figures who viewed the MIA as insufficiently Islamic and insufficiently militant.

The evolution of this group was accompanied by a clandestine return to the cities by many militants. The rural guerilla campaign wasn’t working and it was clear that the army believed it could maintain the violence at an acceptable level if they could restrict it to the mountains. The jihadists focused on creating insecurity and making the country ungovernable by striking in the cities and towns. Although it would not ultimately win them the war, they succeeded in this way in escalating it far beyond the capacity their numbers and resources would suggest they were capable of. They seemed capable of striking at will and carried out numerous attacks on the army and police, killing over forty people at an army barracks in March 1993 in one particularly successful attack. As terrifying as the randomness of such attacks was the methods of killing. Decapitation, throat-slitting, torture, leaving bodies out in the street to rot as a warning to others-such things became commonplace.

Suddenly on the back-foot, the authorities imposed draconian curfews and restrictions on the civil rights of everyone, guilty and innocent, and parts of the country (even parts of Algiers) slipped entirely out of their control, with militants roaming freely and enforcing their strict Islamic moral code on the inhabitants. Desperation on the government’s side manifested itself in a widespread belief within the corridors of power that only a terrorism of equal savagery could win back the momentum, and suspicion towards anyone who didn’t adopt this mindset. A special counter-insurgency force was created that sped around in Landrovers, acting outside the law, men who were accountable to no-one and for whom human rights abuses were a routine part of their work. To conceal their identity, they usually work masks and hoods, for which reason they became known as ‘ninjas’.


As often happens in these situations, it became increasingly impossible to stay neutral. Non-commitment to one side was regarded as active assistance to the other. A grim joke from 1994 says it all:

A man is stopped by a roadblock. The hooded men ask him if he supports the government or the GIA. He replies ‘the government’ so they cut his right ear off. Shortly after, he is stopped by another roadblock of hooded men. They ask him the same question. When he replies ‘the GIA’ they cut his left ear off. The following day he goes to the doctor, who asks him which part of his face he wants sewn up first. ‘My mouth, so I cannot speak,’ he replies.

Besides army and police personnel, the GIA began to target intellectuals and public figures they considered hostile to their cause. To give just two high-profile examples (there were many others), the internationally-acclaimed novelist Tahar Djaout was killed in May 1993 for his criticism of the Islamists and advocacy of secularism. In September 1994 of the following year, the raï singer Cheb Hasni was killed outside his home for singing about drinking alcohol and premarital sex.

Tahar Djaout and Cheb Hasni

It became clear as 1994 wore on that the populace as a whole was becoming alienated by the GIA’s excesses. After all, even if you are not keen on being ruled by a brutal police-state, you are still not going to turn to a bunch of people who slit people’s throats and cut their tongues out for political solutions. Seeing this, the more ‘moderate’ elements of the Islamist movement who still hoped for a place at the political table (the GIA had no interest in negotiations; their avowed aim was to eliminate all ‘enemies’ of Islam) formed the AIS (Islamic Salvation Army) in July 1994 in response to the perceived rabid-dog image of the GIA. This group would take up arms against both the government and the GIA and was under the control of (what remained of) the FIS to some extent. Although they provided a serious challenge to the GIA in the east and west, the latter held strong control over the region south of Algiers, an area that would become known as the ‘triangle of death’ for reasons that will become clear.

AIS member writing a hitlist, somewhere in the mountains outside Algiers, 1994. Still from the BBC documentary ‘Algeria’s Hidden War’ from 1994.

The violence of both sides became increasingly nihilistic and it is simply too depressing to recount every single horror story in detail. Assassinating pop stars was one thing. The GIA next expanded the list of targets to all foreigners and non-Muslims in the country, then to members of rival Islamist groups, then to anyone who refused to conform to strict Islamic practice. With each new leader of the GIA, the net of enemies of Islam widened until it encompassed almost everyone in Algerian society except the GIA. Abdelhak Layada, a car mechanic from Algiers, oversaw the escalation of violence and the complete separation of the GIA from other Islamist groups, declaring any participation in the political process to be treason and that only victory by force of arms was legitimate. He was captured in Morocco in July 1993 and imprisoned, which probably saved his life; unlike most of the GIA’s leaders he is still alive, having been released in 2006.

Layada, Zitouni and Zouabri, three of the GIA’s leaders.

Layada’s successor, Mourad Si Ahmed (aka Djafar al-Afghani, because he had fought in Afghanistan) was killed the following year and replaced by Cherif Gousmi, who declared the GIA as ruling over a Caliphate with himself as ruler. He was killed in September 1994 and replaced by Djamel Zitouni, who escalated the conflict to targets outside the country (primarily France) which of course played into the government’s hands by re-enforcing a narrative of them fighting a barbaric enemy of ‘civilisation’ in general. Zitouni, a poultry farmer with little education, also stepped up the war against other Islamist groups such as the FIS and its armed affiliates. Indeed, it is around here that the actions of the GIA become truly strange and difficult to understand from a strategic or tactical point of view, nor are the official explanations satisfactory.

Much of what the GIA began to do now—its killing of Islamist rivals, its attacks abroad, the increasingly gruesome murders of innocent civilians—all of it seemed ideally designed to discredit the Islamist movement as a whole. It was common knowledge that the security services had been very successful in infiltrating the GIA, which was relatively easy as they recruited their soldiers from the disenfranchised, anonymous young men of the slums. It was this infiltration that made it easy for the authorities to kill a succession of its leaders. But rumours began to circulate that this involvement went further than mere intelligence gathering, that the security forces were actually directing the GIA’s activity in ever-more extreme directions in order to turn the people against them in revulsion and present the government (warts and all) as the only bastion against the unspeakable barbarity of the GIA and their fellow travelers. There were even suggestions that Zitouni and, when he was killed in July 1996, his successor Antar Zouabri, were somehow controlled by the ‘deep state’. Rarely has the fog of war been so impenetrable as in Algeria in the 1990s.

Before we go into this, a word must be said about ‘conspiracy theories’. Anyone who reads this blog will know that I try to avoid indulging in them. The term has invariably-negative connotations, implying the theory in question, by definition, lacks credibility. But sometimes, theories have to be formulated in the absence of conclusive evidence one way or another, which is often the case, and a distinction has to be made between good and bad conspiracy theories. In the case of Boudiaf’s assassination, for example, the ‘official’ version is sometimes simply so implausible that other explanations must be sought. This does not make them conspiracy theories in the inevitably-negative sense of the word, if a great deal of evidence points towards their veracity, even if it falls short of proving ‘beyond reasonable doubt’. Just as we should be wary of indulging in exciting theories about the moon landing being filmed on earth, or holographic planes simulating an attack on the Twin Towers, we should equally be wary of dismissing out of hand evidence-based explanations for events which are otherwise poorly explained. The term ‘conspiracy theory’ is–as often as it is rightly used–used to shut down legitimate discussion.

The activities of the GIA in Algeria in the 1990s are a case-study in this. There are less-conspiratorial explanations, that the GIA was simply a victim of its own twisted logic and came to define the enemies of Islam so broadly as to encompass practically everyone in Algerian society (even members of less-ardent Islamist groups) except themselves. There are also psychological explanations to the otherwise inexplicable brutality and sadism of the killing. Evans and Phillips argue convincingly that it had a cathartic element: the dispossessed and hitherto helpless showing the government that they would not be repressed any longer and that they could do what they liked now, exacting personal revenge on police officers and authority figures who for years had abused them. All of this may, at a stretch, be true. There are strong indications, however, and they become stronger as the years pass, that there was something more going on here.

In the killing of the author Djaout noted above, for example, those alleged to have killed the writer were conveniently killed by the police before a proper trial could be conducted. Then, when a truth commission was formed by concerned public figures, its two leading members, a journalist and a psychiatrist, both prominent campaigners for human rights and critics of the government, were both murdered with no apparent motive in broad daylight. This led some to suspect that, if not actively complicit in such killings, the security services were allowing them to happen in order to rid the regime of prominent critics. But it gets worse, far worse, under Zouabri’s leadership. An obscure figure, Zouabri rose up through the ranks under Zitouni, but few seem to remember him before his involvement with the GIA. He issued fatwas basically condemning to a gruesome death everyone who didn’t join the GIA and presided over the nadir of the conflict, a series of massacres in late 1997 and early 1998 in the ‘triangle of death’, the most notorious (although there were too many to list) of which were at Rais (200-800 casualties), Beni-Messous (87+) and Bentalha (200-400).


These massacres were committed, in most cases, against civilians who had been supportive of the Islamist cause. They were without the slightest shadow of tactical purpose and carried out with the most sadistic brutality, killing for its own sake. At Bentalha, several hundreds had their throats slit, at Rais, numerous babies were decapitated, pregnant women were sliced open.

Oum Saad, whose eight children were all killed in the massacre at Bentalha on the night of September 22–23, 1997. Credit: Hocine of Agence France

The above picture, of Oum Saad whose eight children were all killed at Bentalha, is one of the most famous images of what really cannot be dignified by the name of war. But it says everything about the fog of uncertainty now enveloping events in Algeria that the picture and its context were almost-immediately contested. The government argued it was a distortion and that the woman was mourning her brother’s death, and Oum Saad apparently tried to sue the Agence France-Presse on the grounds that it misrepresented her story. It then emerged, however, that she had come under pressure to do so. What was true? Hard to say. What has become increasingly clear as the years have passed is that serious questions remain unanswered.

At Bentalha, for example, there were thousands of soldiers stationed in the area, some only hundreds of meters from the village. The GIA were able to attack with no interference from these, seal it off any carry out their murders for several hours uninterrupted. Witnesses recalled soldiers looking on and refusing to intervene. Some claim that the attackers themselves wore false beards and spoke of being in cahoots with the military. The most famous testimony was that of a survivor, Nesroullah Yous, who escaped to France and published a book Qui a tué à Bentalha? (Who Killed at Bentalha?) which provided a great deal of circumstantial evidence of government collusion with the killers. This theory was backed up by much of the foreign media present in the country, when it was allowed to operate (under close surveillance), and Amnesty International.

The journalist John Sweeney interviewed members of the security services who, on condition of anonymity, revealed the government’s role in the massacres. If all of this was a ploy to discredit the Islamists and win support from the international community, it has to be said that it worked. Horrified by the GIA’s actions, some Islamists split off and founded new groups, the most powerful of which was the ‘Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat’ (GSPC : Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat) under the leadership of Hassan Hattab, which will later eclipse the GIA as the main insurgent faction and morph into al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. But this is getting complicated enough as it is, so we won’t mention them again for now.

But there was more than one strategy on the government’s side. As noted above, a faction within the leadership led by Liamine Zéroual favoured some kind of dialogue with the more moderate Islamists. They vied with a group known as the Les éradicateurs, led by Lamari and Nezzar, who sought the complete defeat and eradication (hence the name) of the latter: no negotiations, no compromise, simply wipe them out. Zéroual, an army officer who had been in early retirement when the events of 1988 sullied the reputation of many army figures, was the closest le pouvoir had to a popular figure, and in 1994-5 he seemed to have the upper hand against his éradicateur rivals. He was therefore put forward as their candidate when they sought to have some kind of legitimacy bestowed on their regime by holding elections in November 1995.

Such legitimacy became more urgent because a series of negotiations to find a way out of the conflict were held in 1994-5 through the mediation of the Sant’Egidio community in Rome. These had drawn the participation of several significant factions in Algerian politics, including Ben Bella and Aït Ahmed and the FIS, but rejected by the government, who viewed it as outside interference, and of course by the GIA. The parties involved agreed on a common platform for progress, by which human rights would be respected and the FIS would accept political pluralism, but the Algerian regime’s hostility, as well as a lack of enthusiasm on the part of western government’s to support the initiative, meant that it was a dead letter, and the killing went on.

Ben Bella at Rome in January 1995

The elections of November 1995 were nevertheless seen as a step in the right direction, even if there was no serious opposition to Zéroual and little doubt about the result from the start. The GIA threatened to kill anyone who voted, promising ‘one vote, one bullet’. Under the circumstances, the official turnout of 74.9% (or more realistic unofficial estimates of around 50% for that matter) is quite impressive. Although there was a general feeling of goodwill and cautious optimism about the whole process, once again this proved to be something of a false dawn. The government’s attitude towards the Rome agreement said more about their capacity for compromise than all the fine rhetoric of a return to normality signaled by the election and, as we have already seen, the worst of the war was yet to come in 1997-8.


It was only after this horrific bloodletting that the war gradually began to wind down. Even if the government was ‘winning’ the war, such was the hardship it had involved for most ordinary people, this ‘victory’ was for many a profoundly pyrrhic one. Zéroual was visibly drained by his failures and the gradual clawing of his hardline rivals back into the ascendency and he announced his resignation in 1998, two years before his term was due to end.

A new president had to be found, and at this stage, pretty much everyone hated anyone who had been anywhere near power. This provided an opportunity for Abdelaziz Bouteflika to return centre stage. When we last saw him, he was failing to be appointed Boumédienne’s successor when the latter died in 1978. Under Bendjedid, he became a marginalised figure and fled the country to avoid corruption charges, only returning in 1989. As was so often the case in Algeria, absence was the best guarantee of popularity; he had also added his signature to a petition condemning the army’s violence in 1988, which didn’t hurt his image among the people. Gradually, as presidential elections approached in 1999, backdoor negotiations and machinations led to the once-sidelined Bouteflicka being adopted by the generals (despite some initial reservations) as their preferred candidate. Given that these were the same people that had started a civil war when the people didn’t vote the way they wanted, it was made abundantly clear to the Algerian electorate that this was more a matter of rubber stamping their appointment than a real election. Bouteflicka was given preferential treatment in the state-run media, and with early signs of fraud being organised, the other candidates withdrew in protest only 24 hours before the vote.

Screenshot from 2018-11-02 20:55:23.png
Bouteflicka, election broadcast, 1999

The coronation (sorry, election) went ahead with a turnout of around 20%, which is ironic when you think that this is lower than when people were threatened with death for voting a few years earlier. It was an inauspicious beginning for what was supposed to be a new era, but Bouteflicka was an experienced and canny operator. In the years ahead, he walked a tightrope between currying favour with the public by partly owning up for the state’s wrongdoings in the war, while never going far enough to really annoy his supporters in the military. The war did not end overnight of course. Just in case anyone was beginning to think Algeria’s troubles were behind them, the former FIS Leader Hachani was killed in broad daylight in 1999. Once again, claims that the GIA killed him were believed by some, and regarded with scepticism by others, who saw it as a convenient death for the security services, given Hachani’s status as a moderate Islamist with whom they might be forced to do business with.

This is a crucial feature to remember about the Algerian civil war: that the deep state was always far more comfortable fighting the most extreme fringes of radical Islam than sitting down and talking to its more moderate elements. By the time Zouabri was killed in 2002, the threat from the GIA had been suppressed to the extent that it could be described as a fringe group. As noted above, however, the GSPC grew in capabilities to the point that it would rebrand itself as part of the ‘al-Qaeda’ network after 9-11. Speaking of 9-11, the radicalisation of American foreign policy that took place after the attack on the Twin Towers was a key part of Algeria’s rehabilitation on the international stage. Once regarded as an embarrassing ally to be kept at arm’s length, in late 2001, the Algerian hardliners were suddenly able to portray themselves as having been right all along about militant Islam, and suddenly became a valued ally in the ‘war on terror’ and the simplified worldview it represented. After the mess of the last decade, it says everything that the US Deputy Secretary of State for North African Affairs, William Burns, saw Algeria as a success story, remarking in late 2002: ‘Washington has much to learn from Algeria on ways to fight terrorism’. Rising oil prices between 2002 and 2015 no doubt also assisted the state’s efforts to return to normality.

But the war was never wrapped up neatly, and it might still be asked what ‘normality’ really means in Algeria.

I suggested above that that the éradicateurs won over their dialoguiste rivals in that more of them kept their jobs into the Bouteflika era, but another way of looking at it is that the latter faction got their way in that many of the Islamists were not eradicated, and were instead reintegrated back into Algerian society. The reason for this is that Bouteflicka’s strategy for ending the war, with the AIS at least, involved passing a ‘Civil Concord Law’ which granted amnesty for atrocities committed during the war to all Islamist fighters who signed up to it. Seeing no way out of the morass of war at the time, most people approved the law in a referendum, although it has been suggested that critics of the settlement were cowed into accepting it without debate because the public debate was framed in terms of being ‘for’ or ‘against peace’. Either way, in the years since, the Civil Concord law has been more and more criticised by those who feel the need for peace was used to excuse all sorts of barbarities for which no-one was held accountable. But an appetite for dissent has understandably been lacking in a country exhausted by years of brutal conflict, and protests are rare and generally low key. Even when the rest of the Arab world was asserting itself during its ‘spring’ of 2011-12, things never really kicked off in Algeria, the police and military containing what protests did take place. There are, in this picture, almost as many riot police as protesters:


Ultimately, the legacy of the war is ambiguous and deeply unsatisfying, especially for people who lost loved ones and have had to endure seeing those responsible walk away scot-free. It’s a complicated issue, and one which I feel completely inadequate to express an opinion on, so I won’t.

The long-term plan for this blog is that we will eventually reach the more-or-less present in all these individual national stories, and no doubt we will return to Algeria to look at the present situation then. Spoiler alert though: Bouteflicka is (as of 2018) still president after almost twenty years, despite the fact that a president is supposed to be limited to two terms. He had the constitution changed in 2008 to allow him to run for a third, and the limit was extended again in 2014 to hand him a fourth. There is talk of him running again next year. All of this is as dodgy as it sounds, with Bouteflicka routinely winning elections with around 80% of the vote, despite evident widespread unpopularity and the fact that he is, at this stage, clearly in failing health and scarcely able to speak on the rare occasions he is wheeled out for public appearances.

Screenshot from 2018-10-06 20:56:24.png


Charles Robert Ageron, Modern Algeria: A History from 1830 to the Present (London, 1991; first published in French 1964)

Martin Evans and John Phillips, Algeria : Anger of the Dispossessed (Yale University Press, 2007)

James McDougall, A history of Algeria (Cambridge University Press, 2017)

Featured image above: eyes of Antar Zouabri, GIA leader from 1996 to 2002.

A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 18: Algeria #3

A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 17: Algeria #2


Ultimately, the idea here is to set the stage for the civil war of the 1990s and explain the long-term conditions which led to its eruption. The period between Algeria’s attainment of independence and the growing crisis of the late 1980s must be examined in order to explain why Algeria became such a powderkeg. When Algeria won independence in 1962, the world stopped paying attention. That other dirty secret of French colonialism, Vietnam, had by now taken over the headlines in any case, as the Americans went from cautious advocates of Third World liberation, to energetic opponents of it. But the end of French rule was far from the end of Algeria’s woes, although it may have seemed so at the time. The 1960s and 1970s were in many ways an optimistic period, in which the country took the lead as a standard-bearer of the rights of Third World nations to assert themselves, and give substance to their newly-won independence in the face of attempts by the old colonial powers to extend a kind of neocolonial economic domination over them. Countries like Algeria, therefore, drifted towards socialism and the Soviet sphere of influence while also playing a leading role in the Non-Aligned Movement of ‘Third World’ nations who sought to remain aloof from the Cold War rivalry of the two superpowers.

The socialist direction was evident from the first year of Algeria’s independence, as a struggle for leadership within the FLN resulted in the predominance of the more left-leaning revolutionary faction. This leftward direction emerged from meetings held in the Libyan capital, Tripoli in May, at which the FLN leadership criticised the Evian accords as making too many concessions to the colonial interest while not being sufficiently revolutionary in, for example, not securing the seizure of the settlers’ land, which the FLN regarded as stolen from the Algerian people. Agreement about these issues was far from uniform, however. While the movement for independence had maintained its unity while it had to concentrate on fighting the French, once this goal was achieved and the question of who would run the new state came up, cohesion quickly broke down and factions developed, vying for power and over competing visions of what kind of country Algeria would be. This was especially true after the release of the leaders arrested in 1956. This took place in July, at the same time independence became a reality, and everything was up for grabs in the turmoil of that summer.

In the previous post, we have already looked at the chaos surrounding the flight of the Pieds-Noirs and the massacre of some of them, any many Algerians who had collaborated with the French. Simultaneously with this was the struggle between Algerian factions in Algiers in July and August, to seize power. At Tripoli, while there was agreement on the broad strokes of a plan for Algeria’s future, the practicalities were another matter. One of the main points of contention was how and who the idealistic aspirations were to be put into execution by. The choice of the country’s first president was a particular bone of contention. The most popular figure among the people for this position was Ahmed Ben Bella (below), among those kidnapped in 1956 and just released by the French. Ben Bella was a bit like Algeria’s version of John F. Kennedy: charming, glamorous and popular, but less fabulous when you look beyond the surface gloss. Unlike many others in this story, he lived for ages, only dying in 2012 at the age of 95. He will reemerge in Algerian politics in the 1990s but he was not destined to remain around long after the winning of independence.

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Ahmed Ben Bella

Perhaps even more important than charisma at this stage, Ben Bella had the support of the head of the ‘frontier army’, Houari Boumediène, who remained outside the country until September. These troops, organised more like a regular professional army than the forces that had been fighting a guerrilla war inside Algeria, were to become a vital factor in the showdown for power in 1962. Boumediène (below) was the king-maker, and had chosen to back Ben Bella, having sent his henchman, Abdelaziz Bouteflika (of whom we will hear more later), to sound out the jailed leaders earlier in the year. The choice of Ben Bella as leader was opposed, however, by the head of the Provisional Government, Benyoucef Benkhedda (who had replaced Ferhat Abbas), theoretically in charge of the country when the French left. He walked out of the Tripoli meetings, and returned to Algiers. I say he was theoretically in charge because really, it was unclear who actually wielded power in the new capital. Different armed groups affiliated with different commanders fought it out in the streets while the politicians bickered. Some of these armed factions supported the part of the army led by Boumediène, others were jealous and fearful of the power they would wield when they entered the country.

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Houari Boumediène

Ben Bella and his allies claimed legitimacy for their ‘political bureau’ in Tlemcen in late July. Benkhedda declared this illegitimate and his GPRA the legal authority. Two of the formerly-jailed leaders, Mohamed Boudiaf and Hocine Aït Ahmed (below left and right), were also opposed to Ben Bella’s installation as leader, but did not have sufficient muscle to stop him. As internecine fighting threatened to devour the country, most people simply wanted an end to war and for someone to come and impose order. Boumediène’s frontier army, along with its allies already inside the country, obliged marching into Algiers and establishing order in September. Constituent elections were held for the first National Assembly that month, but all candidates came from a single list of FLN members, purged of many of Ben Bella and Boumediène’s enemies. Ben Bella was duly elected Prime Minister and, when the new constitution was adopted the following year, President. Opposition figures (to the extent that opposition was allowed) like Boudiaf and Aït Ahmed attempted to use the National Assembly as a forum for their opposition, but it quickly became clear it was just a toothless talking shop. Real decisions were made within the higher echelons of the FLN and even the constitution was not thrashed out in the assembly, but written elsewhere and presented to them for the rubber stamp.

Mohamed Boudiaf and Hocine Aït Ahmed

Boudiaf formed an underground party to resist the regime but was arrested, and then escaped to Morocco after being released. He would spend the next twenty-nine years abroad, in obscure exile, taking no part in Algerian politics even from afar, but he will dramatically re-enter the story again in the early 1990s. The Berber Aït Ahmed likewise formed his own party, the Socialist Forces Front (FFS), and led a brief revolt in the Kabylie region in October. It was put down with brutal violence by the national army, and Ahmed would be arrested, receiving a commuted death sentence in 1965. He escaped the following year, however, and spent the next twenty-four years of his life in Switzerland. He too would return to Algeria during the crisis of the late 1980s, but ultimately thought better of it and returned to Switzerland, where he died in 2015, aged eighty-nine.

What these, and other figures (really the situation was more complex than I am presenting it here, and Boudiaf and Aït Ahmed are just representative examples) objected to was, among other things, the lack of pluralism in this new Algeria that Ben Bella and Boumediène were cooking up. Having said that, many of them would likely have done likewise, and it should not be imagined that the establishment of a one-party state was simply the result of a fiendish plot by the triumphant faction to keep its hands on power. There was a deep-rooted mistrust of multi-party politics within the FLN and the nationalist movement in general. Under the French system, when some limited participation had been allowed for a brief period in the 1940s and 1950s, separatists had found themselves frustrated and demoralised by their efforts to get anywhere within the rigged electoral system, which seemed to dissipate their energies and encourage factional infighting. The FLN had swept all this away when they emerged in 1956, demanding that all other separatist groups disband and join their struggle, or risk being branded traitors to the cause. While to us this seems extreme and intolerant, at the time it was widely viewed as providing a refreshing focus and single-mindedness to the campaign.

As James McDougall has written in his History of Algeria:

By 1956, many would see ‘politics’ itself in this vein — electoralist, legal, parliamentary, plural — as thoroughly discredited, ineffective at best, the deliberately time-wasting and obstructionist business of ‘traitors’ at worst. The FLN, in an important respect, would in this sense be an anti-political movement of militarised direct action. In the longer term, the consequences of this would be dramatic.

Indeed they would.

The habit of solving problems by direct action, often violent, would also leave a lasting legacy. As the post-independence summer was marred by the deaths of thousands in internecine fighting within the FLN itself, Ferhat Abbas wrote despairingly:

If armed militants today turn their guns on other militants, we may as well say that tomorrow they will turn them on the people and on their freedom. And in that case, what nation and what homeland shall we have, if those with arms can impose their will on the people?

Nor should we overestimate the yearning for democracy in the form of regular elections among the people as a whole. The FLN possessed huge popular legitimacy as a result of its leading role in winning the war, Ben Bella was himself tremendously popular, and most people were more concerned with putting bread on the table. If someone had to be made dictator for life to guarantee these basics, there doesn’t appear to have been a huge amount of opposition to it. This was particularly urgent because the country was in ruins at independence. While Ben Bella had great plans to emulate Tito’s Yugoslavia or Castro’s Cuba, there was a severe shortage of technical skills given that these had been heavily dominated by the French settlers, most of whom had now left. There were reportedly only two architects in the country and less than a hundred doctors. This state of ruin was the legacy of French rule, it should be noted, and those that blame the ruined state of the country on the war (and thus on the Algerians for rising up) miss the point spectacularly.

Ben Bella does appear to have sincerely tried to tackle these problems. Far from projecting a distant, authoritarian image, he was a hands-on leader, traveling the country and meeting the people to assess their needs and problems. Realising the scale of the effort facing him, he devised grand plans and brandished lofty rhetoric about Third World liberation and Algeria’s natural resources saving the country. A huge bureaucracy would be necessary to manage this project, and he intended to exert direct control over as many of its aspects as possible. Ben Bella began to concentrate more and more power in his own hands, and he made the mistake of getting cocky and forgetting who had put him in power in the first place. During 1963-65, he took over the ministries of information and finance, folding these departments into his own office, and even brought the important post of Secretary General of the FLN into his own hands. There was talk of him taking over foreign affairs, depriving Boumediène’s pal, Abdelaziz Bouteflika (below right, next to Boumediène at the United Nations), of the post to which he had been appointed in 1963. In the event, Bouteflika, would remain in the post until 1978. Why? Because they got rid of Ben Bella.

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In centralising power around him, Ben Bella made little effort to conciliate or try to bring back on board those rivals in the FLN he had pushed aside in his ascent to power. His biggest mistake was that he failed to keep the army under Boumediène sweet, and even gave them cause to fear he was planning to challenge their power when he declared the army’s subordination to the FLN in the Algiers Charter of 1964, then spoke of creating popular militias as a counterweight to their power. His popularity among the people may, have conversely, told against him in the corridors of power, and there were mutterings of him cultivating a ‘cult of personality’. Acting before it was too late, Boumediène had his soldiers arrest Ben Bella on the 19 June 1965, and put the country under the control of a Revolutionary Council, of which he was chairman. Ben Bella was put in jail for several months, but later allowed to live under house arrest. He would eventually be released and flee, like Aït Ahmed before him, to Switzerland. The parliament and constitution (which had not enjoyed the substance of power in any case) were suspended and, once again, there appears to have been little appetite for resistance among the people as a whole, despite Ben Bella’s popularity. There was an attempt by left-wing factions within the FLN to organise political opposition against the coup in the hope that the people would rally to their cause, but this didn’t amount to very much.

Boumediène’s style was very different to Ben Bella’s. He kept a low profile in the early years of his rule (he wasn’t officially president until 1976) and you get the impression from reading his biography that he fell into the position almost by accident, that he didn’t really see himself as destined for political power, and was by nature reluctant to step into the spotlight. In many pictures of him meeting other world leaders, he has a bemused ‘what the hell am I doing here?’ look on his face.


At the end of the 1960s, his regime consolidated its power by either eliminating the opposition or placating and assimilating it. He also faced opposition from some within the army jealous of his and his cliques’ power, but easily crushed a coup-attempt. Relations with the Soviet Union grew stronger and the economic programme more explicitly socialist. There was an optimism which Boumediène managed to keep going from the Ben Bella era, of a brighter future for formerly-colonised nations who were now taking control over their own destiny (and natural resources). Algeria was seen as a leader of this movement and Boumediène explicitly reorientated his country away from Europe and the colonialism of the past and towards Africa and (what they hoped was) the potential of the future. This hope was never more clearly manifested than in Algiers’ hosting of the Pan African Cultural Festival of 1969, a huge event in which thousands of artists from all over Africa descended on the city and filled it with music, dancing and colour for a week. There is some cool footage here:

All of this was helped in the 1970s by a huge rise in oil prices (Algeria nationalised their oil in 1971), which gave the appearance of success to the Algerian economy. Boumediène’s regime must be given credit for not hoarding all this for themselves in Swiss bank accounts (unlike many other newly-independent countries rich in resources) but instead invested heavily in education, healthcare and social projects….as well as the army and secret police. Basic foodstuffs and goods were subsidised and available at affordable prices. In the modern west, where economic success tends to be measured in how often people can buy a new iphone or how many millionaires live in a country, there is a tendency to scoff at such achievements. This is deeply stupid. These were tremendous achievements in a country where people had been allowed to literally starve to death under French rule a generation earlier.

There is also often a tendency to play down the efficacy of such conditions in shoring up the legitimacy of even an authoritarian regime. Boumediène did not try and make the Algerian people like him. He sought their co-operation through actions and results, and if he couldn’t get it that way, he resorted to violence. Although many people would look back fondly on the Boumediène years as relatively prosperous and peaceful compared to what followed, there were warning signs even then for those who were prepared to look for them. The state violence and crushing of dissent was one, of course, but even economically, the flaws were in retrospect obvious; the economy suffered from the same shortage of consumer goods that would stymie most Eastern-Bloc countries in their final decade, not to mention the fact that much of its success was due to inflated oil prices, a phenomenon which wasn’t going to last forever. The ‘oil glut’ of the 1980s saw the price of a barrel of oil fall between 1980 and 1986 from $35 to under $10, over half of this decline occurring in 1986 alone.

By this stage, Algeria was deep in crisis and Boumediène was long gone, having died of a rare blood disease in 1978, after being in a coma for over a month. Algeria’s problems were much deeper than a crisis of leadership, but the unpreparedness and farcical way in which he was eventually replaced didn’t help. The main candidates to succeed as president were Bouteflicka (generally seen as favourite and a pro-western liberal) and the left-wing candidate, Mohammad Salah Yahiaoui, whose support came from the trade unions and youth movements. Decisions were made, largely by the army and security services, behind closed doors and from their point of view, both men represented a threat in that they had their respective power bases beyond the army. What they ideally wanted was a fairly weak character they could manipulate, a front to facilitate the exploitation of the fruits of power which already existed but would go into overdrive in the following decade. They decided to appoint the virtually-unknown Chadli Bendjedid (below), an army colonel and commander of the Oran region, who would become a figurehead for all the venality and negligence of Algeria in the 1980s.

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Although certainly not an inspirational figure or very competent president, in some ways it is unfair to place too much emphasis on Bendjedid’s role in the mess that was unfolding. This is largely because it lets so many others off the hook: corrupt army officers and business associates, those paying bribes and those receiving them, denying the Algerian people the basic securities they had once been able to rely on, just as the price of oil was crashing and undermining the fragile foundations of the economy, just as the population-boom of twenty years earlier was throwing millions of young people onto a labour market that had no jobs for them, just as an impoverished rural population was flooding into the shantytowns surrounding the big cities that hadn’t the infrastructure to house them or even provide for their basic needs. Algeria was a society in freefall, and everyone knew it. A small elite attached to the army and the FLN were the only ones doing well and increasingly (it was the 1980s after all) flaunted their wealth and luxury, while growing more detached from the general population, living in gated communities and sending their kids to French-language schools and universities.

The cabal of army generals who were the real power behind the government were largely trained in the French army and in many cases had only joined the independence struggle in the final period, after it was already won. All of these facts confirmed a general impression held by the population that saw the the corrupt oligarchy that now ran Algeria, popularly known as le pouvoir (‘those in power’) as somehow affiliated with, or supporting the interests of, the old French colonial power. Another disparaging name for this elite has been the hizb fransa or ‘party of France’, and there was a growing feeling in the years before October 1988 that the FLN that now ran the country was not the same FLN that had won the war, but had been transformed into the very oppressive clique the Algerian people had sought to get rid of when they scared off the Pieds-Noirs. Bendjedid was a perfect figurehead for the pouvoir: widely perceived as a gangster who had used his position to enrich him and his family (his son was a particular object of scorn), an extra dimension was added to the public’s disdain by the widespread perception that he was also weak and somewhat unintelligent. Playing on a trope deep within Algerian society, of the weak henpecked husband who can’t even ‘rule’ his own house, never mind a country, he was portrayed as being the puppet of a domineering wife, Halima, who was believed to be the real brains behind the operation.

Whatever the truth of these allegations (Bendjedid does not appear to have been so hapless as often portrayed) the reality is that the country was really run by the army, and this would become more and more obvious in the years that lay ahead. Being army men, they knew no other response than force when faced with the eruption of street violence in October 1988, as thousands of rioters went on the rampage, protesting against the stagnancy and hopelessness of their plight. The sight of young men,  idle and resentful, hanging around the streets with nothing to do was by this stage a fixture of Algerian society. Essentially, a generation (and a particularly large one demographically) was left to rot by the ruling class. Disenfranchised, unemployed, their reality was rarely articulated or acknowledged in the sterile, state-sponsored media. It found a manifestation in football and Raï music, a synthesis of Algerian folk music, influenced by western forms and instrumentation. Disapproved of by the establishment, Raï addressed taboo social issues like sex, alcohol and infidelity, giving a voice to an otherwise voiceless and disregarded youth culture. Oddly, just as Algeria was imploding in on itself in a maelstrom of senseless violence, Raï would explode onto the world stage in this period, producing international stars like Cheb Khaled (below). It would also find itself in conflict with religious conservatives, whose vision of Algeria was very different from the liberal, cosmopolitan and outward-looking ethos behind Raï.

The riots of October 1988 (often known as ‘Black October’) were a watershed in the history of modern Algeria. The authorities almost lost control of the situation, and it marked the beginning of the slide to civil war. Crowds of young men went on the rampage, attacking the affluent commercial district of central Algiers: the shops they could never afford to buy anything in, the nightclubs they could never afford to party in. Within days, the army under General Khaled Nezzar declared a state of martial law and the army killed around 500 protesters in the following days, showing little or no regard for civil rights. Political leadership was curiously lacking in the first days, as Bendjedid took a week to appear on television and appeal for calm, making vague promises of reform. Where leadership did come it was from the Islamists who, heavily influenced by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, had been organising among the poorest sections of Algerian society for years and, for many, were the only credible political force in the country that were untainted by the corruption of  le pouvoir. Attempting to give the riots some kind of positive direction, a march of 20,000 was led on the 10 October by a young preacher named Ali Belhadj (below) and fired on indiscriminately by the army. It could be argued that, notwithstanding Bendjedid’s promises for reform, it was at this point that the battle lines began to be drawn between the Islamists and the army.

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Ali Belhadj

Among the reforms that followed the events of October 1988 were the holding of elections and the opening-up of the political system to parties other than the FLN. A new constitution was approved in February 1989. Opposition parties flourished, there was a liberalisation of the press. Political debate was suddenly permitted in the public sphere. The collapse of the ‘communist’ bloc in eastern Europe later that year should also be recalled, and there was a great deal of optimism that Algeria was following a liberalising trend at the time. Ben Bella and Aït Ahmed returned from exile, although it would become painfully clear they were no longer relevant to most young Algerians, many of whom hardly remembered them. Instead it was the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS: Front Islamique du Salut) who would emerge as the main opposition, so it is time to look at the forces of political Islam which, in the following years, looked poised to take power.

FIS emblem

We have already noted one of the FIS leaders in Ali Belhadj, who was a talisman for the young and angry who formed a large part of their constituency. The appeal of the FIS was not limited to the dispossessed poor, however, and a part of their following also consisted of the pious middle-classes and small-time businessmen who sought social stability and moral certainty through religion. Their interests were represented in the co-leadership of Abbassi Madani (below), a university teacher and preacher who had fought for the FLN during the war of independence and been jailed by the French, who later turned to Islam, arguing that the Islamic content of the FLN’s original charter had been betrayed.

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It’s worth looking briefly at the place of religion in Algeria since independence and the Islamists’ activities. Islam had been acknowledged by leaders such as Ben Bella as central to the identity of the country, and cultivated a kind of state-sponsored Islam which was sold to the people as going hand in glove with socialism. This can be compared with the efforts discussed in part ten, of the Karmal regime in Afghanistan to turn Islamic scholars into employees of the communist regime. Over time, and with the coming of Boumediène, however, the socialism tended to predominate and the government’s stance towards Islam came to be seen more and more by the clerics and fundamentalists as mere lip service. While some preachers and scholars continued to work within the confines dictated by the government’s Ministry of Religious Affairs, others argued that political independence from France represented a revolution only half finished. While French may have been expelled, their culture remained, and from the Islamists’ perspective, the task of cleansing Algeria of French and Christian influence had not been completed.

In this sense, the FLN, and their various charters since the winning of independence were seen as a betrayal of the principles inherent in the original declaration of November 1954 which began the war. The Islamists thus saw themselves as picking up the baton where the FLN had abandoned it. They represented the closest thing to an opposition in the 1960s and 1970s, when they were financed by big landowners and wealthy people threatened by Boumediène’s reforms, especially the redistribution of land. The al-Qiyam (Islamic values) movement was, until its banning in 1970, the standard bearer of this dissenting Islamism, led by Abdelatif Soltani (below), an Imam who had supported the FLN and independence as a means of Islamicising Algerian society, but grown disillusioned when things didn’t pan out that way. He protested vigorously against socialism, and the continuation of practices deemed western after independence, such as the sale of cigarettes and alcohol and the participation of women in public life.


Indeed, the role of women would become a  battleground between the Islamists and statists (for want of a better word) in Algerian society. While women played a central role in the fight for independence, some (and not only religious conservatices) then expected them to retreat to the private sphere and play no further part in politics. Some, such as Djamila Bouhired (below) did no such thing, and took the rhetoric of liberation and equality as effecting everybody, not just men. She continued to be active in several political organisations after independence, coming into conflict with both Ben Bella and conservatives for not wearing a hijab in public and campaigning for equal rights for women. This had to be done, because despite independence, the status of women turned out to be not a high priority for the government, and something of an obsession for the Islamists, who saw women wearing western clothes, working, going to school, etc. as all symptoms of an insidious neo-colonialism and moral corruption.


That it wasn’t massively important to the government can be seen in the fact that they were prepared to roll back whatever progress had been made in this respect in their efforts to appease the Islamists in the early 1980s. Having long been under pressure to legislate on these issues, Bendjedid’s government produced the family law in 1984, which basically threw out the idea of a socialist, progressive Islam that embraced equality for all, and sought to instate a code of laws in which women were treated as legal minors, dependents of their closest male relative, whether it be father, brother or husband. Under these laws, women would need the permission of their ‘guardian’ to travel, get married, work. It provoked a fierce reaction from women and progressive members of society, many of whom were FLN activists and many of whom were veterans of the war against the French. While initially backing down, the government implemented the laws and instead worked to undermine this opposition by undercover police operations and dirty tricks.

It might be asked why the Islamists were already so influential at this stage that the government felt the need to make concessions to them. The support they enjoyed among the population, even while operating largely underground, was evident. In the Friday moque, Islamists had a ready-made recruiting centre and platform for the propagation of their ideas. When Soltani died in April 1984 his funeral, despite going unannounced in state media, attracted 25,000 people. The government sought to mobilise this movement as a means of weakening its other opponents, primarily on the left. As we have seen with Sadat’s attempts to do this in Egypt in the 1970s, this would ultimately prove to be a huge mistake, and one that they would only realise was a mistake when it was too late and the Islamists had already been emboldened and established themselves as a potent force. A part of the reason the Bendjedid’s regime saw the Islamists as a useful cat’s paw was the economic crisis. With its debts out of control, the state had been forced to borrow from the IMF and was as a result was compelled to implement a raft of austerity measures, opening up the economy to foreign investment on more liberal terms, while cutting public spending and removing many of the safeguards that had hitherto made the peoples’ lives tolerable. Some of these measures were popular with the anti-communist Islamists,and in other ways they benefited because the resulting immiseration of the population drove many people into their arms.

The activities of the Islamist movement among the poor must be taken into account when explaining their growing popularity in the late 1980s. While the social conservatism should not be forgotten, it should also be remembered that for many poor Algerians, the Islamists were the only political grouping who seemed to be prepared to come into their neighbourhoods and share their poverty, who really seemed to care about them. The left was completely discredited by this stage, and seemed to offer no solutions. For one thing, the rhetoric of socialism and equality had been hijacked by the ruling FLN. Other left-wing groups were distant, academic theoreticians led by people who had been exiled for decades and displayed little understanding of their lives. The Islamists, on the other hand, spoke in an idiom they understood and seemed to promise a complete overthrow of the existing order and its replacement by the moral certainties of the Quran.

Another factor that increased the influence of Muslim Brotherhood ideas in the country was the fact that the government had been attempting since the 1960s to promote Standard Arabic (very different to the Maghrebi Arabic spoken colloquially in Algeria) as the language of administration and public life in place of the still-overwhelming French in these contexts. Finding few Algerian teachers able to teach it, they had brought in many teachers from other Arab countries, many of whom happened to be Muslim Brotherhood activists. Taking all these factors into account, it is not surprising that, when opposition politics became possible after 1988, the masses chose neither traditional left- or right-wing parties, turning instead to political Islam.

The FIS was created in March 1989 and made legal in September. This was not as straightforward as it might appear, because the new constitution forbade political parties which operated on a confessional, linguistic or regional basis, which frustrated the activities of Berbers campaigning for their rights. While in theory it also forbade religiously-based parties, the government either didn’t dare deny permission for the FIS to operate, or more likely Bendjedid was still trying to use the Islamists as a force in his own power struggles, not so much with left-wing opponents, but with other factions within the FLN and, perhaps even more so, with the army itself. He had been making attempts for some time both to tackle corruption and to rein in the power of the security services and the military. Feeling threatened, elements within these groups suspected that the president was using the FIS to strengthen his grip on power and might even make an electoral deal with them to do so. In the period immediately after October 1988, Bendjedid certainly displayed more political cunning than he is often credited with, and used the fear created by the events to shore up his own support within the political establishment, winning re-election as president by the end of the year and pushing through some modest reforms that weakened the hold of the military on the state.

This is important to remember: that this was not a simple struggle of government versus Islamists, there was far-from a united front on the government’s side, and this fact partly explains why the FIS were allowed to permitted to grow and develop as a force. The big mistake Bendjedid and others like him made was that they thought they could contain the Islamist challenge, and harness it to their own ends. Instead, it quickly grew beyond their control, and asserted its own ideology and objectives, that would clearly have little use for the machinations of le pouvoir once they had obtained power. The success of the FIS was spectacular. In local elections held in June 1990, scarcely a year after its foundation, the Islamists won 54.2% of the vote, almost double that of the FLN, their nearest rival. In the big cities: Algiers, Oran and Constantine, they won a 70% share. They took power in hundreds of local councils which an alarmed government moved to divest of many of their powers and starve of funding. Le pouvoir had no intention of handing over power without a fight, and this kind of underhand dealing did not go unnoticed by the Islamists, and was only the first of many measures, increasingly extreme, that the state would go to to prevent them from taking power.

It should be noted, however, that while the FIS would complain of election fraud and irregularities, its leaders openly admitted that once they took power there would be no more elections, and that there was only one form of just government, one based on Islam and the Quran, that needed no elections or mandate to legitimise itself. It might be asked why the FIS were prepared to use elections as a means to gain power in that case, and its enemies accused it of hypocrisy on that score. There were also those within the ranks of Islamism who likewise were impatient with this strategy, and they would come to the fore when the army closed off the avenue of electoral victory to them. But it had not come to that yet. 1991 saw a transformed Algeria. The rise of the Islamists had not just changed things on paper. The FIS were only the political manifestation of a social revolution, comparable in some ways with what occurred in Iran in 1979. Far more women were now veiled in the streets, some willingly, some unwillingly. Islamist youth, emboldened by their successes, were given license to harass those women that held out against these diktats, and pressurised shopkeepers to cease selling alcohol and cigarettes. Entertainments like concerts and cinemas were frequently canceled and those who had satellite dishes receiving French television signals intimidated into removing them.

The nationalist-religious fervour was only heightened by the start of the First Gulf War in early 1991 which, despite Saddam Hussein’s aggressive secularism and hostility towards political Islam, the Islamists took his side as an anti-imperialist cause, further boosting their popularity among the people, to whom the Iraqi leader (and indeed, pretty much anyone taking on the might of the United States) was a hero. The initial wave of optimism and enthusiasm for multi-party politics hardened into something else as the year progressed. A polarising took place into two camps: those who wanted an Islamic state and those who feared it, feared it so much they were prepared to abjure democratic principles to avoid it. Those who could afford it, the wealthy, Francophone middle classes, began to leave the country before the FIS took power. The army was already making contingency plans to prevent an Islamist takeover.

The FIS and its supporters understood this, and saw the desperate government’s changing of electoral boundaries and rules as a transparent attempt to thwart them of victory in National Assembly elections that were promised for July 1991. In protest against this, and also against continuing and painful economic reforms that were seen (rightly) as a neo-colonial foreign imposition, the FIS called a series of street protests and strikes in late May and early June. The rhetoric of its leaders became more strident and militant, talking of jihad and the establishment of an Islamic state by force if they could not obtain it by electoral means. Belhadj in particular was both an electrifying (to his fans) and terrifying (to his enemies) figure, whose charisma and skills as a impassioned speaker were legendary, capable as he was of whipping a crowd into a frenzy of anger or reducing them to laughter with his withering put-downs. He had a keen sense of the theater of politics and its symbolism (check out the clip below, where he produces an old photograph of his father holding a Kalashnikov, and vows to do the same if necessary), and seemed to have no fear of the consequences of his increasingly reckless statements. The prospect of him holding an office such as Prime Minister was deeply worrying to many, for whom he was almost the personification of unhinged fanatic:

But he was enormously popular and, compared to the career politicians and corrupt technocrats they were accustomed to, he came across as refreshingly blunt. A hundred thousand people came out onto the streets and once again the police could barely contain the violence. Given the pretext it needed to intervene, the army once again came onto the street and shot at protesters. All hope that the FLN might be able to mount a comeback in elections was more or less lost at this point and Bendjedid moved to distance himself from it, resigning as its president. In late June, Madani and Belhadj were arrested on charges of planning an armed uprising. Soon afterwards, the Salafist wing of the movement began gaining traction and younger, more militant members headed to the mountains to take up arms against the state. More moderate elements in the movement managed to retain control, for the moment at least, and a new leader from this wing of the party, Abdelkader Hachani (below), was chosen. This so-called Algerianist faction of the FIS was prepared to take part in elections and co-operate with other groups, and represented an alternative to the unbending ideological clarity of others such as Belhadj.

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Abdelkader Hachani

Hachani was well aware of the militants within his party and their preparations for a war, and indeed he made his own clandestine military arrangements so as not to be outflanked by them. But, when the government announced that the two rounds of national elections would take place after all, in December 1991 and January 1992, the FIS announced they would take part. The government had more or less given up on any hope of the FLN mounting a serious opposition at this stage, and throughout the campaign it was clear that the FIS was heading for a overwhelming victory, not merely because of their undoubted popularity, but also their aggressive taking-over of public space and physical intimidation of political rivals on the ground. A memorable campaign rally held in the Olympic Stadium, Algiers attracted hundreds of thousands of supporters. While Belhadj had invoked the memory of his own father in the earlier press conference, now that he was in jail, his young son was presented to the massive crowd:

The first round of elections were held a few days later, and even though a FIS victory had looked likely, the scale of it was still shocking to the establishment and foreign observers. Winning 188 of the 231 seats contested in that round, it now seemed inevitable the FIS would attain the two-thirds majority of parliamentary seats to be able to make fundamental changes to the constitution, paving the way for their Islamic state. The following fortnight was filled with trepidation and rallies, both by the triumphant FIS and by political groups (especially socialists and feminists) calling for steps to be taken to prevent an Islamist takeover. Much of what took place  in the corridors of power during this time remains obscure, but the broad outlines are clear. While at first it seemed as if the regime was prepared to accommodate and work with the FIS, behind the scenes, the army decided they had sailed close enough to the democratic winds and determined to pull back.

Bendjedid was compelled to announce his resignation as president on television on the 11 January 1992, creating a constitutional crisis in which the continuation of the elections was declared to be impossible. Troops were put on the streets to impose ‘order’ on the situation and it was announced that, until a new president could be chosen (whenever that would be) the country would be run by a council composed of military figures and their allies within the regime. The second round was, therefore, canceled and the FIS were livid that they had been cheated of victory. Within weeks, the party’s leaders were rounded up and imprisoned and over eight thousand members put in camps out in the Sahara desert. With more moderate leaders like Hachani now in jail, the anger of the rank and file was channeled into more militant avenues, and those who could, took to the mountains or went underground, prepared to take up arms against the state.

This was the end of the road for the FIS as a viable political project. From now on it would be war: a war (spoiler alert) that they were destined to lose, but it is worth while dwelling for a moment on the reasons why the movement failed to establish an Islamic state. In retrospect, the FIS, buoyed by its early successes, probably overplayed its hand, and played it too early. They allowed themselves to believe that their victory was inevitable, and that they were in a more powerful position than they actually were. It’s leaders scared away powerful sectors of society (Belhadj making threats towards the army and Madani talking about not having any more elections after the FIS took power), alienating large groups like the middle classes and the military, who had the financial and military resources to thwart their project, notwithstanding its obvious popular appeal.

It’s an interesting conundrum: is it permissible to cancel democracy in order to prevent anti-democratic forces from gaining power? Do you become one of those anti-democratic forces when you do so? While people were justifiably worried about the kind of regime the FIS would establish, at the same time, its followers could not be blamed for thinking the commitment of the state to democracy (and the west’s espousal of it) was all a sham if they refused to recognise the results of any election that brought Islamists to power. In many respects, Algeria would be an early precursor to the double-standards witnessed in our own time, as the west has refused to recognise the democratic mandate obtained by Islamist parties (for example Hamas in Palestine or the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt) and instead gave their support to authoritarian forces seeking their overthrow. But those are stories for another post, as is the continuation of this story.


Charles Robert Ageron, Modern Algeria: A History from 1830 to the Present (London, 1991; first published in French 1964)

Martin Evans and John Phillips, Algeria : Anger of the Dispossessed (Yale University Press, 2007)

James McDougall, A history of Algeria (Cambridge University Press, 2017)

Featured image above: Police keep an eye on Friday prayers in the week after the second round of elections were canceled, January 1992.

A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 17: Algeria #2

A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 16: Algeria #1


As I  often seem to find myself doing, I will begin this post by justifying beginning so far back in the past, given that this is supposed to be a ‘contemporary’ history, and that what I am ultimately interested in exploring here is the Algerian Civil War of the 1990s and the growth and nature of the Islamist movement there. There is no way of understanding what went wrong in Algeria at this time, however, without understanding its bitter and traumatic struggle for independence from France, and there is no way of understanding that struggle without looking at what French rule actually meant in practice. It isn’t a huge leap from examining the conquest by France in 1830, to looking back at the period of Ottoman rule and the very beginnings of a concept of something called Algeria, as a distinct region in the central Maghreb. So, back to the sixteenth century it is, and the fallout of the Spanish conquest over the last Muslim stronghold in Iberia, Grenada, in 1492.

Emboldened by its expulsion of the Muslims from Iberia (at the same time their ships were landing in America for the first time) the Spanish invaded North Africa in the years that followed, and the fragmented dynasties that ruled small territories in the region appealed to the Ottomans (a major power at the time, having conquered Constantinople/Istanbul in 1453) for help. There followed a period in which the Spanish and Ottoman Turks vied for power in the region, some local dynasties siding with one of the other power, embroiled as they were in their own power struggles with each other. By 1529, a group of Ottoman adventurers had succeeded in establishing a unified state from these disparate territories with its capital at a small port town called Jaza’ir Bani Mazghana, or as it is today known, Algiers, which gave its name to this new state, the Eyalet or Regency of Algiers, a vassal state ruled immediately by figures (who held titles like Dey, Pasha, Agha) who were ultimately subordinate to the Sultan back in Turkey. The Ottomans survived a serious attempt to retake Algiers in 1541, led by the Habsburg emperor Charles V, and ruled the area for the following three centuries, during which the idea of a (sort of) cohesive territory known as ‘Algeria’ began to be distinguished from the surrounding area (modern-day Morocco to the west and Tunisia-Libya to the east).

As we want to get to the twentieth century as quickly as possible rather than get bogged down in the detail of Ottoman rule (although interesting in its own right) we are going to gloss over these centuries, noting a couple of points on the way: firstly, the regents who ruled Algeria on behalf of the Ottoman empire enjoyed a great deal of autonomy, especially after the advent of a class of rulers known as the dey in 1671, so much so that they often conducted their own foreign policy, having independent diplomatic relations with many European powers. In this sense, Algeria then might be considered what we now call an independent state, even while nominally a part of the Ottoman empire. This does not mean that it enjoyed self-determination, however. While they shared the same Islamic religion as their subjects, the Ottomans were foreign rulers, and they failed to cultivate an indigenous ruling class. The country was ruled by a Turkish military corps and privateering entrepreneurs, mostly outsiders, while the native population’s main contact with the administration was through judges and tax collectors whose role was to manipulate and control the local tribes and their leaders. A dichotomy in Algeria between the mountains and the plains (see map below) is important.


In the lowland areas, looking out over or at least in contact with the coast, lived a people who not only interacted with whatever foreign power happened to be running the country at the time, but interacted with the broader Mediterranean world as a whole.  The mountains, on the other hand, were beyond the control of the state and inhabited by independent peoples who were never under anything more than a loose, distant rule. They maintained their tradition of resistance to central authority, whether it be that of the Ottomans, the French, or later on the Algerian government itself. This divide can also be loosely seen in terms of the Arab plains and the Berber mountains. Although its ruling elite have sometimes forgotten it, Algeria is not an exclusively-Arab country. The Berbers lived here before the Arabs settled the area in the centuries after its conquest by the Muslim Caliphate in the seventh century, and to this day they constitute somewhere between 25-30% of the population, speaking their own language, Tamazight, and concentrated in the Kabylie region east of Algiers.

The name Berber has the same origins as the term ‘barbarian’, from the Greek word barbaroi, which they used to describe anyone who didn’t speak Greek. For some reason, it stuck as the ethnic identifier of the Berber people of North Africa, and also gave the name ‘Barbary coast’ to the area, as well as ‘Barbary pirates’ which was what this area of North Africa was primarily known for in Europe in the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, when pirates known as corsairs operated with the blessing of the Ottoman regents, kidnapping people and selling them into slavery, or making money by ransoming them back to their European rulers (the ones who were prepared to pay for them anyway). The heyday of the Barbary corsairs had passed by 1830, when the country was conquered by France, although there was a recrudescence of activity in the period of European instability accompanying the Napoleonic wars. It was in this context that the French invaded Algeria in the last days of the restored Bourbon monarchy.

Very very briefly, the French Revolution developed into the military dictatorship of Napoleon Bonaparte, who founded the first French empire. On its defeat by the Seventh Coalition at Waterloo in 1815, Napoleon was finally deposed for good and the Bourbon monarchy, which had been abolished by the original Revolution in 1792, was restored. By 1830, the highly-conservative Charles X was deeply unpopular at home and (classic example of a troubled regime trying to bolster its popularity by launching an unnecessary foreign war) took advantage of a diplomatic incident in which the Algerian dey hit the French consul with a fly whisk while demanding the French pay a very large, and very late loan. In response, the French king blockaded Algiers for three years and, when a French ship was bombarded, decided to launch an invasion in June 1830. The Ottoman (not very robust) defenses were subdued and Algiers taken on 7 July, although the Bourbon dynasty that had launched the war lasted less than a month after this, as the July Revolution of 26–29 saw Charles X deposed and replaced by the Orléanist Louis Philippe, who would rule for eighteen years until France once again became a republic (the second) in 1848.

The Ottoman’s attempt to retain their hold over Algeria may have been swatted aside relatively quickly by the French (who quickly found a new commander prepared to swear allegiance to the new king), but the Algerian’s resistance to the French invasion took decades to quell. This was led in the eastern half of the country by a religious-military leader called Emir Abdelkader, who succeeded in holding the French at bay in the east for over a decade, until forced to surrender in 1847, whereupon the French (who had promised to let him leave the country and settle abroad) imprisoned him in France. Abdelkader is a fascinating figure to whom I can’t do justice in the limited space here. Renowned for his relatively-enlightened views on human rights and his honourable treatment of enemy prisoners, he later gained even more admiration, even in the west, for his protection of Christians in Damascus, having been released by the French and allowed to settle there. He underwent a transformation in the French imagination, from rebellious fanatic to honourable enemy. They even built statues of him in the 1940s.

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Abdelkader photographed in 1865.

Having consolidated their hold over the country, the French were in for the long haul. What Algeria endured under French rule was far more thoroughgoing and invasive a conquest than that experienced by most other French colonies. As a writer who is primarily concerned with Irish history of the seventeenth century, I cannot help being struck by the many parallels between Algeria’s ordeal under French rule and Ireland’s with English. For one thing, Algeria became a settler colony just over the water and not merely one in which a distant government exploited a subject population for material gain. French people (often poorer people squeezed out of the home economy or those seeking cheap or practically free land) emigrated across the Mediterranean in large numbers and, at their peak in 1926, came to comprise 15% of the population. The French even denied Algeria was a colony (just as some continue to deny Ireland was) by legally integrating the country (the northern part at least) into France as three départements (Alger, Oran, and Constantine) after the 1848 revolution. This was something which the French settlers liked to imagine made them as French as Paris or Nice. Indeed the latter was only a part of France since 1860.

‘Our lovely colonies, French Algeria.’

The Pieds-Noirs (the name given to people of European descent who were born there and came to constitute the ruling class) actually ruled over the Arab-Berber Muslims as conquerors over a conquered people. The reality of life for this subject people belies the idea that it was ever ‘just another part of France’. Such a notion is patently nonsense, and again I am reminded of Margaret Thatcher’s equally-nonsensical statement that Northern Ireland (basically a war-zone at the time) was ‘as British as Finchley’. So let’s look at what made Algeria a colony in fact, if not on paper. It goes a lot of the way to explaining why most Algerians would come to emphatically reject French rule.

A caveat, and a revealing one at that, should be noted here: that not all Algerians explicitly rejected French rule from the word go, and for a long time some of them believed it might be turned to their favour. There are reasons for suspecting that many of these might have accepted it if they had actually been treated as equals and not subjected to the abuse and depredations of the Pieds-Noirs. Such an idea, that the modernisation and development of Algeria might take place under the aegis of French rule if only the natives were admitted to the same rights and privileges as the colonists, can be detected in the early thought of someone like Ferhat Abbas, who would later become a separatist but who in his earlier years had campaigned for equal rights for Muslims under French rule. It was only when the racist underpinnings of that rule became apparent did people like Abbas realise that this was never going to happen.

And this racism is crucial to recognise: the belief on the part of the Europeans that the native people were simply worth less and that the values that regulate human society in Europe did not operate there. This remained the case right up until the end of French rule and was in evidence from the very start, in the conduct of the war of conquest, where promises of respect for rights and the Algerians’ culture and religion were violated almost immediately, as people were summarily executed by an army completely without discipline and restraint, entire tribes were wiped out (the Ouffia, for example, who were all killed as punishment for the theft of some cattle) and one of Algiers’ main mosques confiscated and converted into a cathedral. As a commission of inquiry appointed by the French themselves put it:

We have sent to the gallows, on the merest suspicion and without trial, people whose guilt has remained more than doubtful, and whose heirs have since been despoiled of their goods; we have killed people carrying promises of safe-conduct, massacred on suspicion whole populations who were afterwards proven innocent [. . .] we have outdone in barbarism the barbarians whom we came to civilise and we complain of not having been able to succeed in civilising them.

Commission nominated by the king, 7 July 1833

Despite the enlightened sentiments here, note at the end the belief that the French had come to ‘civilise’ Algeria. Notwithstanding all the brutality and evidence to the contrary, those liberal Europeans (this is not a uniquely French thing) continued (and continue) to labour under the delusion that their colonial project was motivated by essentially noble intentions of spreading ‘liberty’ and ‘progress’ among ‘backward’ peoples, a cause betrayed by a few wayward generals and greedy landgrabbers. This idea would prove, in its way, more pernicious than the wayward generals and greedy landgrabbers, in that it has allowed France (and Britain) to tell itself a story of its empire completely at odds with the evidence: that the colonies were, in fact, an expression of the will of the aforementioned worst elements in their societies and were all about exploiting subject peoples overseas in the economic interest of the ‘mother country’. The liberal rhetoric was merely window-dressing, and not even window-dressing that was very prominent at the time. While toothless commissions may have condemned the conduct of the conquest and occupation, its commander spoke before the National Assembly in 1840 with refreshing candour:

Wherever there is fresh water and fertile land, there one must locate colonizers, without concerning oneself to whom these lands belong.

Thomas-Robert Bugeaud

And so it was. Algeria became known as a place where poor French people could come and get their hands on land for next to nothing. This land had to come from somewhere or, to be more specific, someone, and that someone was of course the native Algerians.

Some continue to claim that the transformation of the Algerian population to the point that they would become fully integrated into the French nation was a sincere (if long-term) goal of French rule. It bears taking a closer look, therefore, at some of the evidence that this was empty rhetoric, basing our assessment on the actual actions (as opposed to professed intentions) of those who ran Algeria: the settlers who, with the full backing of Paris, sought to keep the native population in subjugation. One hint that the integration of the Algerians into French society was not envisaged is that laws enacted in 1865 stipulated that Muslims were to be subject to Islamic law and Muslim judges (the cadis) as opposed to the French civil code, which sounds very tolerant and relativistic, but does give the lie to the idea that the French were interested in reforming the Muslims’ culture and legal system. Furthermore, it meant that, if a Muslim wanted to become a French citizen and enjoy all the attendant rights, they had to sign away their right to be governed by their own laws, essentially abandoning their religion. Given that religion is tied up with culture and values in such a complex way, it is not surprising that few Algerians made this choice. By 1936 only 2,500 had done this. (Evans and Phillips, 2007)

As an ‘integral part of France’, Algeria sent six deputies to the Assemblée nationale in Paris. But only French citizens could vote, so this effectively disenfranchised almost all natives. The government elected by the Pieds-Noirs served their interests exclusively, and because they perceived their interests to be threatened by any concessions towards the Arab and Berbers, Algeria’s ‘representatives’ worked hard to defeat any measures that might be cooked up in Paris to make life easier for the Algerians. Discrimination was hardwired into the system. Three departmental councils were established in 1875, on which colonists were guaranteed four-fifths of the seats, despite constituting little more than a tenth of the population. The fifth of seats allocated to Muslims were, in any case, handpicked by the French authorities. At a local government level, the percentage of Muslim representatives could not exceed one quarter. In communes mixtes, places where there were basically no Europeans yet, all representatives were appointed by the French administration. While Muslims were subject to Islamic law in some cases, there was also a special set of French laws enacted in 1881, the Code de l’Indigénat, which imposed harsh penalties for ‘crimes’ such as being rude to a colonial official or making disrespectful remarks about the Third Republic. On a day-to-day basis the supposed racial superiority of the Pieds-Noirs was reinforced. Settlers addressed all Muslims by the familiar tu rather than the more respectful vous, by which they insisted the natives address them. Algerians were regularly referred to by racial slurs such as melon, raton and bougnoule (the equivalent of terms like ‘raghead’ or ‘wog’ in English) or addressed by settlers as if they were children, which is reminiscent of the way blacks in Apartheid South Africa or the antebellum south were often addressed as ‘boy’, even by young people addressing elderly men.

Another idea that should be addressed is the claim (which continues to be bandied about by apologists) that French rule, even if harsh, raised the material living standards of the natives and, as such, was somehow a blessing for all its flaws. The facts simply do not bear this out. Economically, the communes arranged their finances for the exclusive benefit of the French settlers and taxed the natives as they saw fit. Even an imperial fan-boy like Jules Ferry described the system as ‘daylight robbery’. (Ageron, 1991) The Warnier law of 1873 was particularly destructive in that destroyed indigenous, communally-owned landowning practices, allowing smaller parcels to be bought up by settlers. And boy did they buy land, in the following three decades acquiring almost one million hectares. (Evans and Phillips, 2007) As more and more land was taken from them, the natives were crammed into the cities or emigrated to France, that is to say, the native population were impoverished by colonisation, with the exception of a small elite of collaborators.

Their growing immiseration was accompanied by a rapid population growth in the century that followed the French conquest, tripling to reach 6.5 million by 1940. This growth was largely a result of French medical science reducing child mortality, which might be placed in the ‘progress’ column, but for the fact that this growth came during a period when Algerians were less and less able to feed all these new mouths. The results were predictably catastrophic. A famine in 1867 cost untold thousands of lives (I have read conservative estimates of 800,000: McDougall, 2017) while as late as 1937, a terrible famine (for which I can find no solid casualty figures) saw corpses litter the roadsides while the colonists suffered few shortages. Again, this was because during times of economic contraction (like the 1930s Depression), the Algerian government was wholly focused on protecting the settlers’ economic interests above all else. Some cheerleaders for French rule have argued that the number of casualties in these famines was a result of the backwardness of native agriculture, and actually spoke for the imperative of French agricultural ‘modernisation’. In fact, Algerian society had, through centuries-long experience of surviving in an environment that permitted only a marginal existence, developed their own techniques, such as storing a certain amount of food for times of hardship, to handle such crises. Life in such harsh environments has to be rigorously disciplined and organised to make the best of scarce resources and the people actually living there knew best how to do so. When the French came in with their land confiscations, the impoverishment of the rural population messed up this system, pushing them to the point where food scarcity resulted in starvation and death. (Evans and Phillips, 2007)

So much for progress.

In 1930, the French establishment celebrated a century of this misery with much aplomb and rhetoric about the benefits of their ‘civilising mission’. The following magazine cover gives you some idea of the vibe. The subtitle beneath the headline reads: ‘Since the capture of Algiers, a century has sufficed to transform the barbarian coast into rich and prosperous departments’.


The Algerians, it would become increasingly apparent in the following decades, did not feel the same way.

The turn of the twentieth century might be mistaken for a period of ‘peace’ in French Algeria, as overt organised resistance from the population subsided. This has more to do with the utter subjection of the people than their contentment, however, as James McDougall has described this gap up until the beginnings of the independence struggle in the 1950s:

…the ‘law and order’ that followed, and with which Algerians thereafter had to contend, remained [. . .] a life lived under conditions of continuous, low-intensity warfare’.

McDougall, A history of Algeria

Even the beginnings of political activity in the Algerians’ interest cannot be rightly considered a nationalist or separatist movement from the start. As indicated above, people like Ferhat Abbas (below) initially saw the struggle of the Algerian people in terms of winning rights under French rule, not outside it. He even denied, as late as 1936, the existence of any notion of Algeria as a nation. Remember, this was the same dude who would become the nation’s first president thirty years later. Other groups, such as the jeunes Algériens or ‘Young Algerians’ of the 1910s likewise presented their demands in terms of increased civil rights and assimilation for Arabs and Berbers within French society, not separation. Things began to change, however, in the period around World War Two, as Algerians’ calls for their rights grew louder, and it became more and more clear the French would never grant them.

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Ferhat Abbas

In 1936, a left-wing, anti-fascist government was elected in France, the Popular Front, which was relatively enlightened and progressive by the standards of its time and attempted to introduce some modest reforms which would have given citizenship to some Algerians. Seeing any conciliation towards the Muslims as the beginning of Armageddon, the Pieds-Noirs bitterly opposed these and they never got off the drawing board. Things might have been different if these reforms had succeeded, but after this failure, it became difficult to argue for anything other than complete independence on the Algerian side; indeed, the reforms were opposed by an emerging separatist movement led by Messali Hadj (below), often considered the grandfather of the independence movement.

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Messali Hadj

Of humble origins and a self-taught intellectual and scholar, Hadj was an electrifying public speaker who had spent time in France, influenced both by the Communists and, increasingly, a sense of Islamic nationalism which placed religion at the heart of Algeria’s struggle for separation from France and a recovery of its honour. From the 1920s onwards he spent long bouts in prison, even being deported to the Congo by the Fascist Vichy government during World War Two. The Vichy regime was of course brutally repressive, although popular with the Pieds-Noirs, and besides a campaign of zero tolerance towards the separatist movement that was emerging, they also revoked the citizenship of the Jews in Algeria, who would henceforth be treated as second-class citizens, just like the Muslims.

The Second World War, and the ‘liberation’ of Algeria from Vichy (although the applicability of the term ‘liberation’ must be questioned, given that it simply returned to the colonial fold of ‘Free’ France), was nevertheless a watershed for the independence movement. Although leaders like Churchill and De Gaulle tried to argue that the principles of self-determination, enshrined in the Atlantic and later the United Nations charters, only applied to European countries, Arabs, Vietnamese and other peoples saw no reason why they should not apply to them as well. Agitation for independence or at least autonomy had been brewing for some time, but the impulse was quickened by several factors and events. Firstly, there was no doubt the huge participation of Muslim soldiers in the French war effort. Just like many other colonies in both world wars, many indigenous people fought for their colonial masters in expectation that their sacrifice would be rewarded by being treated as equals within the empire. Muslims made up 90% of the ‘French’ force defending Algeria. In a desperately poor country, the army was a steady job and many young men were attracted to  what, under the circumstances, was a relatively secure income for themselves and, if they got killed, those family members they left behind. In this respect, Algeria was like Ireland during World War One, where many Irishmen volunteered for the British army and, despite attempts by some to claim that this suggests loyalty and affection for the ruling power, it is far more likely that there weren’t many other jobs available for men, who were left with little choice but to join the army.

The fact that such a large proportion of the army defending Algeria was Muslim begged the question: were they simply holding the fort until the colonial power was able to resume power? After the allies removed the Vichy regime from North Africa and returned the colony to De Gaulle’s government in 1942, there was hope among Algerian separatists that the defeat of German fascism might be linked with the fight against French fascism. An umbrella-organisation of most progressive Algerian parties, the Association des Amis du Manifeste et de la Liberté (AML) was founded and, at the end of the war, on VE Day itself (8 May 1945), demonstrations were organised throughout the country to remind the French that the end of the war did not mean a return to business as usual. Unfortunately, as far as the Pieds-Noirs were concerned, this was exactly what it meant. Most demos passed off peacefully, but at Sétif (see map for locations) in the east of the country, one group was attacked by the police, in retaliation for which the demonstrators began to indiscriminately attack the settler population, killing around 100 people. In counter-retaliation for this, the authorities launched brutal revenge attacks that left between 6,000 and 20,000 dead (yes, those figures are vague, because they are hotly debated, but in any case, it was a lot) and the violence spread to other areas, especially Guelma, where the army carried out mass executions and pretty much all Arab males were considered fair game.


This was a turning point. The AML and other organisations agitating for separatism were dissolved and banned. Even moderate leaders like Abbas were imprisoned and the army given a free hand to crush the movement by violence. Many of those responsible for this repression were the leaders of La Résistance, supposedly the more progressive elements of French political society such as the French Communist Party, who rather absurdly blamed Nazi Germany (who had just been defeated) for organising the protests. It was becoming clear to Algerians that even the left in France was indoctrinated to believe their rule was justified and would never take concrete action towards even modest reforms. This realisation created a new generation of separatists who would fight for nothing less than complete independence, and more radical parties and even armed cells began to form, especially in remote areas where they were harder to keep an eye on. Those reformists who sought to work within the parameters of French rule, meanwhile, became irrelevant, even as modest reforms were carried out, which to most Algerians were too little too late, and to most Pieds-Noir were a step too far.

The first manifestation of a new movement devoted to armed struggle was the Organisation Spéciale (OS), a secret guerilla group that was linked to Messali’s political movement. Several of the key figures in the Algerian War of Independence first made a name for themselves in the OS: Ahmed Ben Bella, Mohamed Boudiaf and Hocine Aït Ahmed, pictured here (left to right) under arrest together in 1956:

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The military activities of the OS simply provoked the French authorities to redouble the repression, and the movement was decimated by arrests and confiscation of their weapons in the years that followed. Ben Bella was arrested but escaped to Egypt, while other leaders had to go into hiding. The momentum seemed lost at that point, and in October 1954, the minister of the interior (later president from 1981-95) François Mitterrand toured the country (pictured on the right, below), sending out a clear message that, although his government had already lost the northern part of its Indochina colony to Hồ Chí Minh’s Viet Minh, and was in the process of conceding independence to neighbouring Morocco and Tuniaia, Algeria would remain French and that the settlers had the government’s full support.

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But unbeknownst to the French, a new body had been in existence for some months which would soon assume the name Front de libération nationale (FLN). This was another clandestine paramilitary organisation, to which most of the OS leaders became attached which, although ostensibly no better-prepared than the OS, launched a series of co-ordinated attacks against French targets only a fortnight after Mitterand’s visit. This date, 1 November, is generally regarded as the beginning of the FLN’s eight-year war against French rule which would win independence for their country. That this would be the eventual outcome was far from clear in the first years of the war, as the French turned the screw and the general uprising of the population against colonial rule which the FLN had hoped to spark off, failed to occur.

In fact, it is questionable whether some of the FLN’s more astute leaders even expected this to happen. Many of them were aware that their struggle, a few hundred poorly-armed men and women against the fourth-largest army in the world, had little prospect of military victory, but this was not the point. The strategy was instead to use armed struggle to achieve political ends by making Algeria ungovernable, by provoking the French into repressive measures that would fatally undermine the legitimacy of their rule both at home and abroad. In this, the FLN were extraordinarily successful, and the Algerian War of Independence is a classic example of an imperial power winning tactically, but failing strategically, winning the war but losing the peace. How exactly was this seemingly-impossible task achieved?

In its initial stages, FLN attacks were isolated and mainly concentrated in the countryside of central and eastern Algeria. Despite its aspirations, it did not enjoy the unequivocal support of the masses. While many no doubt shared the goal and broadly sympathised with its objectives, this does not mean they were willing to risk their lives or their families’ lives in order to help them or participate in the uprising. As ever, most people probably hedged their bets, reluctant to commit themselves to one or the other side until they saw who had the upper hand. This would be apparent in the closing months of the conflict, when it became clear the FLN had won and many so-called marsiens joined in order to gain some of the credit and show their loyalty to the new ruling party.

In the early days, however, when the French state still enjoyed overwhelming superiority, it might sound strange to say that some were obliged to hedge their bets, but this is because the FLN employed coercive methods of their own to drag an uncommitted population kicking and screaming (sometimes literally) into the revolution. As we will see in the civil war of the 1990s, neutrality or fence-sitting was simply not an option for most civilians. Non-committal to one side was considered siding with the enemy, and both the French and the FLN forced people to co-operate with them, often at gunpoint. Examples (often gruesome, such as throat-cutting) were made of those who betrayed the FLN to the authorities and refused to aid the insurgents.

A key dynamic here is that the French played their assigned role of dumb colonial oppressor to perfection. The summer of 1955 especially was a turning point, as the army enforced a policy of collective responsibility, punishing whole populations for the actions of the FLN. This backfired spectacularly, of course, and ensured the population identified with the FLN en masse in areas where they hadn’t before. In August, dozens of women and children were massacred alongside FLN fighters. As the bodies piled up, the situation became more polarised, and the idealistic rhetoric of those who sought to amend the status quo by reform became untenable. The FLN made sure this was made clear to rival political organisations by demanding their dissolution, and that they all come under their umbrella and fight together. One of the FLN’s most firmly-held tenets was the need for unity and an anxiety to avoid the factional infighting of the past. No more, they declared, would Algerian nationalists dissipate their energies by internecine quarreling. Somewhat ominously for the future of multi-party politics in Algeria, however, it is clear that they regarded multi-party politics itself as ‘internecine quarreling’ and a dissipation of vital revolutionary energy, but more of that in the next post.

Even longstanding campaigners for separatism such as Messali Hadj became branded traitors to the cause for refusing to toe the party line. The year the FLN launched their campaign, his followers formed a rival group, the Algerian National Movement (MNA: Mouvement national algérien) which became embroiled in a vicious civil war with the FLN in the following years, resulting in numerous atrocities. The MNA was particularly strong among emigré communities in France, and the two fought each other in what is often known as the ‘café wars’ in which as many as 5000 people lost their lives. While a hero to many with Alegrian nationalism, by September 1959 the FLN was attempting to assassinate Messali Hadj. Although he survived, many other prominent leaders did not, and by 1960, the MNA in Algeria was practically destroyed. While Ferhat Abbas attempted to maintain his stance as a ‘moderate’ conciliatory figure in the early stages of the war, its polarising logic led him to take a more pragmatic route, and he joined the FLN in 1956, being utilised as a diplomat and a representative on the world stage and, when the time came, a figure the French might see as someone they could negotiate with.

The growing prestige of the FLN as the sole torch-bearer of the independence struggle followed a series of diplomatic successes in 1955. They were invited to the historic Bandung Conference of newly-independent ‘Third World’ nations, and recognised as the representatives of Algeria. They also got their situation discussed at the United Nations, which provoked a walk-out by the French in protest against interference in their ‘internal affairs’. While things may have been going well on the political front, however, on the military, they were being squeezed. The actual military wing of the FLN was officially known as the ALN (Armée de libération nationale) and comprised elements within Algeria fighting both a rural and urban war, but also armed forces outside the country in Morocco and Tunisia, who allowed them to operate within their territory when they became independent in 1956. At the end of 1959, this ‘frontier army’ was formally organised under the command of a twenty-seven year-old colonel, Houari Boumediène. Both this frontier army outside the borders of Algeria (for the moment) and Boumediène himself will become crucial figures in the story of post-independence Algeria.

ALN soldiers training in Tunisia

If there had been any inclination on the part of the French to compromise, this was now abandoned and they committed themselves to total victory over the FLN, although they refused to officially acknowledge it as a war (and, by extension, the FLN as a legitimate enemy) and maintained the legal fiction that the whole thing was merely a criminal problem. This renewed determination was perhaps not unrelated to the fact that they had recently discovered oil (they badly needed their own supply which they could pay for in Francs, so they were feverishly searching in the Sahara) at Hassi Messaoud in 1956. Later on, they would be so desperate to hang on to this that they offered the FLN an independent state that excluded the interior areas of desert where the oil was. For all the nationalistic bombast and talk of prestige and defending their colonists, this simple material exploitative relationship between the metropole and colony should always be remembered. Similarly, France used the Sahara to test its first nuclear devices in 1960, and continued to do so for several years after the country became independent.

Getting back to the war (oops, criminal problem), in early 1956, the French government voted ‘special powers’ to the Algerian settlers, and basically gave them a free hand to do whatever it took. Between March and July 1956 the number of French soldiers in the country doubled from around 200,000 to 400,000 (McDougall), and in October of that year Ben Bella, Boudiaf and Aït Ahmed were all abducted after they were kidnapped by the French authorities when en route between Morocco and Tunisia. In what must surely count as one of the world’s first acts of airline terrorism, the FLN leaders were scheduled to take a flight from meeting the sultan of Morocco to the Tunisian government. The airplane, which was Moroccan, was nevertheless registered in France and the pilot had a French license. While flying over Algeria, he was ordered by the military to land, whereupon Ben Bella and the others were arrested. It was a flagrantly illegal act which was initially celebrated by the French ruling elite, but only further undermined their legitimacy and made them look like a criminal gang.

The year that followed, up to around October 1957, is often described as the ‘Battle of Algiers’, as the army focused on crushing the FLN in the capital. They succeeded militarily, but the means they used to do so made a great contribution to the eventual strategic defeat of the French. By this stage, the army was more or less a law unto itself, acting outside all legal and moral norms. The paratroopers under the command of Jacques Massu (below) were particularly notorious, and a campaign of systematic torture and extra-judicial executions was carried out to break the urban guerrillas. Often this torture (which typically involved electrocution, simulated-drowning and rape) was not even to extract information, but merely to humiliate and demoralise the Algerians who, in many cases, were not even FLN activists, although you can imagine a lot of them ended up being after they were released. If they were released. Some prisoners were thrown to their death from the windows of prisons and police stations, others were brought into the forest, ostensibly to collect wood, where they were shot for ‘attempting to escape’. If the FLN member Louisette Ighilahriz is to be believed in an interview she gave in 2000 (and I don’t see why she would lie), General Massu was present at these tortures, and watched as she was raped and tortured repeatedly in 1957.


Massu, along with others like Marcel Bigeard, Raoul Salan and Maurice Challe (more of whom below) were the ones who presided over this carnage. Another well known name is that of Paul Aussaresses, who orchestrated much of the killing and torture under Massu. While others tried to play down or express mealy-mouthed regret for what happened, Aussaresses is one of those unrepentant imperialists that provide great material for a historian. Either too stupid or too racist to be ashamed of his and his colleagues’ actions, he wrote a bullish defense of French crimes, arguing that they were necessary, also revealing how these actions were not just those of a few ‘bad apples’, but sanctioned from the highest levels of government. Aussaresses could write with the assurance of knowing that De Gaulle passed an amnesty by presidential decree for all Algerian commanders in the 1960s, which meant they couldn’t be prosecuted for what they did. Even if it couldn’t form the basis for a trial, it is in any case a great source for the period. Another great source is The Battle of Algiers (1966), a fantastic film about the war, an absolute classic of the art form directed by the Italian Gillo Pontecorvo based on the memoirs of FLN soldier Saadi Yacef.

It also contains one of my favourite bits of dialogue from a film ever, at 1:28:34, when the captured FLN leader, Ben M’Hidi, is attacked by a French journalist for using bombs in baskets to kill innocent civilians:

Isn’t it cowardly to use your women’s baskets to carry bombs, which have taken so many innocent lives?

To which Ben M’Hidi replies:

And doesn’t it seem to you even more cowardly to drop napalm bombs on unarmed villages, so that there are a thousand times more innocent victims? Of course, if we had your airplanes it would be a lot easier for us. Give us your bombers, and you can have our baskets.

Larbi Ben M’Hidi, incidentally, was one of the founders of the FLN who was captured in February 1957, tortured and hung by the army, who said he committed suicide. Aussaresses in 2000 finally admitted that his men murdered him in custody. Here is a picture of him with his captors. Everyone looks oddly cheerful:


It was in military defeat that the FLN and its cause found the path to victory. With the people now not merely alienated towards the French, but prepared to risk everything to end their rule, they declared a Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic (GPRA) in September 1958, in exile, first in Cairo, then moved to Tunis. Abbas was its first president, although this should not mislead us into thinking he was really a leading figure in the struggle now. The post was largely an honorary one, and he was appointed mainly because of the esteem in which he was held abroad and in diplomatic circles. The new president was very much being led by events now, as opposed to leading them. Just who was leading events is hard to say. Within the FLN certainly, the military was always the prime mover, and the political elements affirmed this over and over again. Militarily, however, the FLN was almost defeated by 1958. At this point, however, French political turmoil breathed new life into the Algerian liberation struggle.

As this is a post about Algerian history, I do not want to dwell at length on French internal politics. Briefly, the Algerian situation was one of several causes of mounting discontent with the series of ineffective governments of the Fourth Republic, which suffered from, among other defects, a weak executive, and was perceived as being too indecisive to hold on to the colonies. The crisis came to a head in 1958, as rumours were rife that the government (there had been twenty-one of them since the republic’s founding just twelve years earlier) were about to enter into negotiations with the FLN. The Algerian settlers, led by General Massu, campaigned to have the retired Charles de Gaulle returned to a new, more powerful, presidency, and the army threatened a military coup if the government refused to make it happen. In May, the Fourth Republic acquiesced, voting itself out of existence and making De Gaulle ruler of what would soon be the Fifth Republic.

The Pieds-Noirs and the army generals were, of course, delighted. They had got ‘their man’ installed in power now, and surely he would soon put the boot in and finish off the independence struggle once and for all. This is what they were under the impression he had promised when he declared from the balcony of the governor-general’s residence ‘Je vous ai compris’ (I have understood you). They were, however, in for a rude awakening. Although De Gaulle had made macho statements about keeping Algeria French forever, when it came to the crunch, he showed the pragmatism and shrewdness that had made him such an astute political survivor. Maybe he had understood something else about the Pieds-Noirs.

He first attempted to quell the drive for independence by promising to modernise Algeria and work towards integrating it into France by bestowing on it the benefits of that status: modern technology, development, education, health-care etc. These were all nice ideas, but in practice they involved forced relocation of people from rural zones in which they were no longer allowed to live in for security reasons; they involved disrupting social patterns of life that had existed for centuries in a misguided zeal for ‘progress’; in short, it was ‘development’ on France’s terms, many aspects of which Algerians didn’t want. In any case, it was too little, too late. As McDougall has put it:

The metropole was thus at last imposing a solution, but as ever, it was a solution to the problems of twenty years earlier.

Even offers of a paix des braves, a sort of amnesty to those who had taken up arms against the state, were largely ineffective, and under pressure from outside (the Americans especially) and the growing prestige of the FLN on the international stage, De Gaulle began to give way. The problem was that, as he put out feelers towards offering some kind of limited recognition or autonomy, the settlers reacted with intense fury and accusations of betrayal towards the man they had thought would save them. Settler paramilitary organisations had been around for some years already, manned by ‘ultras’ who had been responsible for numerous atrocities towards Algerian civilians. Now, their violence intensified and involved elements within the army who felt they were being sold out, and several attempts were made to kill De Gaulle when he visited in 1960. Early 1961 saw the foundation of the Organisation armée secrète (OAS), the ‘secret army organisation’, by right-wing former army officers exiled in fascist Spain, and began a campaign of violence in Algeria designed to keep Algeria French.

Thus, just as the army thought it had quelled the revolution, the country descended into a downward spiral of violence orchestrated by those who were determined to make sure that the French government offered no concessions that would alter their domination of the natives. This, of course, guaranteed that the crisis could not be defused and made independence inevitable. De Gaulle began to realise this and (probably even more importantly for him) that the Algerian problem threatened to stymie all his attempts to rectify the problems facing France itself in his new Fifth Republic. Another development also forced De Gaulle’s hand, which was in part a response to settler and OAS violence: namely, the mobilisation of the Algerian people. Whereas in the early days, the FLN had been a relatively small group of visionaries who often had to coerce the civilian population into co-operating with their strategy, by the end of 1960, tens of thousands of Algerians were demonstrating on the streets of Algiers, Oran and other towns, not just against the nature and abuses of French rule, but French rule in itself. French soldiers firing indiscriminately into the crowds and killing hundreds only hardened their.

Nor was the violence confined to Algeria. In France itself, where the Algerian émigré community (by 1964, there were almost half a million Algerians in France) was an important source of funding and support for the FLN, protest marches took place, one of which was attacked by the police on 17 October 1961, enthusiastically joined by métro workers, firemen and passers-by. At least 120 (but possibly as many as 300) of these peaceful protesters were beaten to death or thrown in the Seine to drown.

‘Here is where we drown the Algerians.’ Saint-Michel Bridge over the Seine, Paris, 1961.

Even after independence, a deeply-poisonous relationship between Algerians and the French occasionally erupted into violence. As late as 1973, the killing of a bus driver by a mentally-ill Algerian in Marseille sparked off a Summer of killing across the south in which thirty-two ‘Algerians’ (many of whom were French citizens of Algerian descent) were left dead, killed by French mobs, whipped up by a media which likened Algerians to a ‘vermin’ and ‘a plague’. Another aspect of this is the effect that large numbers of Pieds-Noir fleeing Algeria as independence became more likely had. There were about a million in 1960, of whom 800,000 more or less left immediately and another 150,000 in the years that followed, so that there were only about 50,000 of them by the end of the 1960s. These overwhelmingly settled in the south of France or Corsica, and many would go on to support the anti-establishment, far-right Front National of Jean-Marie Le Pen, which was founded in 1972 and support for which was strongest in precisely the areas where the Pieds-Noirs settled, disgruntled and resentful towards a French political establishment which had betrayed them, and likewise resentful towards the Arab emigrants in France, with whom they lived side by side, and whom they felt it was their birthright to lord over, which was now taken from them.

This was just another sense in which the poison of the Algerian war was seeping into the body politic of the ‘mother country’, and De Gaulle began to talk of the inevitability of ‘self-determination’ and an Algerian republic. A referendum was held in early 1961 which gave him permission to negotiate with the Algerian provisional government, and negotiations began shortly after. One result of this was an attempt by some of the more right-wing generals in Algeria to launch a coup, designed to remove De Gaulle and prevent the loss of Algeria. It had the opposite effect. De Gaulle went on television to appeal to the nation to stand by him, and in the end most of the army backed him. Having faced down this threat, serious talks with the FLN got underway near the Swiss border at Évian-les-Bains in May, and continued until March the following year, during what the violence of the OAS intensified, against both the FLN and French government targets.

One of the main sticking points preventing an agreement was the French demand, alluded to above, that they retain large areas of the Saharan interior, where oil had been found and nuclear weapons could be tested. The increasing brutality of the OAS (they blinded a four year-old child in an assassination attempt on a French minister in February 1962) undermined the efforts of the French to hold out in their demands, however, and in March a ceasefire was declared, with referendum called for April (in France) and July (in Algeria) to ratify the so-called Evian accords, granting independence to Algeria. The French agreed to hand over most of the territory, excepting small areas they could temporarily use for military bases and testing sites; they also secured preferential treatment when it came to trading for Algeria’s oil, as well as guarantees regarding both the rights of Algerian immigrants in France and those of the settlers in Algeria.

Celebrations in March 1962

Algeria became formally independent on the 5 July, 132 years to the day the French invaded the country. This did not mean an end to the tragedy, however, and in many ways the worst of the killing was still to come. It seems a theme of grudging imperial decline (cf: the Belgians sabotage of the Congo before they left, and the British hasty withdrawal from India that resulted in horrific communal riots and mass killings) that the departing ruler likes to leave as much of a mess as possible behind them, and Algeria was no exception. This could be seen in long term effects, such as the fact that the French took with them the blueprints for the drainage system and refused to share them, so that the Algerian authorities would have to dig up half the city every time they wanted to fix a burst pipe. The more dramatic short-term effect was the flight of the Pieds-Noirs, reprisals towards those who had collaborated with the French, and a campaign of senseless nihilistic violence by the OAS.

Many of the provisions of the Evian accords as they related to protecting the rights of those French left behind in an independent Algeria were rendered obsolete by the speed of events. As noted above, about a million Pieds-Noir fled to France, having no faith in the promises made regarding their lives and property. They can hardly be blamed for scepticism, since events like the Oran massacre, where hundreds of settlers were massacred by mobs after independence, and the FLN (or indeed the French police) didn’t lift a finger to help them, cannot have inspired confidence. Over the Spring and Summer, over 3000 settlers disappeared. You would think the OAS would have seen the writing on the wall in early 1962 and given up, but quite the opposite. They ratcheted up their campaign, exploding over a hundred bombs a day and launching attacks on French police and army. They also sought to prevent Pieds-Noirs from leaving, and had hoped to provoke the FLN into breaking their ceasefire and thus wrecking the prospects of peace, but the FLN kept their discipline and obeyed orders not to retaliate.

It was this discipline and organisation that probably sealed their victory, but as noted, this discipline did not extend to preventing vengeful mobs from massacring civilians, both Pieds-Noir and those who had sided with the French in the war, the so-called Harki (from the Arabic word for a ‘war party’). The fate of the Harki is, in many ways, saddest of all. While the Pieds-Noir were allowed to migrate to France for protection, the French authorities were far less generous towards those Algerians who had fought for them over the past decade, and De Gaulle issued orders that they be prevented from leaving along with the settlers. Although some escaped with the help of sympathetic police and army personnel, the Algerian population took a bitter revenge on the Harkis, killing perhaps 70,000 over the summer, often torturing them beforehand. Much of this was done by the above-mentioned marsiens, who joined the independence struggle late in the day and were now especially brutal in order to signal their loyalty and zeal to the new regime.

That the FLN condoned, even encouraged, this, did not bode well for the future of the independent state. In September, Boumediène’s ‘army of the frontier’ marched into Algiers, and a new round of blood-letting got underway, as the new state sought to consolidate its power and eliminate threats from within, both rival factions of the independence movement and the remnants of pro-colonialist sympathy. But nothing could be more misleading than to portray a united, harmonious FLN now taking the reins of power. As is often the case, when they had a single enemy and objective to rally around, factional struggles could be laid aside in order to focus on the task in hand. Now that was achieved, rivalries and conflicts-of-interest began to emerge as the victors squabbled over the spoils. I have not spent a great deal of time in this post looking closely at the personnel of the FLN and those who would become the leaders of an independent Algeria, because in the next post we will look at these power struggles, as the FLN established a one-party state and the heroic early years of Algeria as a torchbearer for Third World liberation gave way to the stagnation of the 1980s and devastating civil war in the 1990s.



Charles Robert Ageron, Modern Algeria: A History from 1830 to the Present (London, 1991; first published in French 1964)

Martin Evans and John Phillips, Algeria : Anger of the Dispossessed (Yale University Press, 2007)

James McDougall, A history of Algeria (Cambridge University Press, 2017)



Featured image above: soldiers search women in Algiers during the war of independence.

A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 16: Algeria #1

A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 15: The ‘Afghan Arabs’ : foreign fighters in Afghanistan

bin laden

We have already looked in previous posts at the war in Afghanistan from its beginnings in 1979, beyond the Soviet pullout and into its civil war phase, up to the Taliban’s conquest over much of the country in 1996. This gives us, in a fair amount of detail, a good understanding of the heterogenous groups first fighting the Soviets in a loose coalition, and then each other, providing the background for the story we have to tell here, of another group which assisted in the jihad of the 1980s, those who volunteered from other countries throughout the Muslim world to help their Afghan brethren defeat the invaders. While these ‘Afghan Arabs’ (yes, the term belies the fact that these were not Afghans and sometimes not Arabs either, but it’s the term people use) were a small minority of those who fought the Soviet Union, and the importance of their contribution is debated (even bin Laden acknowledged that the war was won by ‘poor, barefoot Afghans’) their status and reputation was legendary among Muslims. There is another reason why they are a focus of interest, and that is in the widespread perception that Afghanistan provided the breeding/training ground for the internationalist strand of jihadism that would emerge in the 1990s, often (clumsily, I will argue) lumped together under the label of al-Qaeda.

This post will be an attempt to trace the participation of these non-Afghan fighters in the Afghan war, then look at their evolution as the war was winding down into something else, which will turn against the sole remaining superpower which had helped in the jihad against the Russians. Essentially, we will try and trace the roots of al-Qaeda, but it should be noted at the outset that looking into the genesis of al-Qaeda is a minefield. You quickly realise there are numerous different accounts of its early years, different opinions as to when it was ‘founded’ (if this word even has any real meaning here) and what we even mean when we use the term al-Qaeda (a word meaning, the ‘base’ or ‘foundation’ in Arabic). Rather than favour any single one of these accounts, I am going to try and synthesise what seem to me the more reputable of them, and by necessity keep things somewhat vague where there is absolutely no consensus on an issue.

So there is going to be a lot of ‘in the late 1980s’ and so forth in what follows, at least up until 1998, and the aftermath of the US embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, when something called al-Qaeda begins to emerge from the mists of obscurity in contemporary documents. I think it’s interesting, for a multinational organisation that some claim had existed from the late 1980s onwards, that I can find not a single reference to the name al-Qaeda in any of the major western newspapers until 1998, and the American president Clinton continued to use the term ‘bin Laden network’ for the group even after 1998. This is worth bearing in mind. If anyone out there has fluent Arabic and can do a text search of some database with all the major Arabic-language newspapers and journals, I would be very interested in seeing what the earliest reference to the ‘organisation’ they can find.

Before we get to al-Qaeda, however, it is important to remember that such an organisation did not exist during the war against the Soviet Union. The main organisation for funneling Muslim recruits and money into the country from outside was the Maktab al-Khidamat (MAK), usually known in English as the Afghan Services Bureau. This was basically a guest house in Peshawar where Muslims from outside could stay on their way to the battlefield, receive training and indoctrination. It also acted as a publishing centre for theological works, primarily those written by the founder of the MAK, Abdullah Azzam, a Jordanian-Palestinian scholar and jihadist who was the ideological driving force behind the development of an internationalist and militant Islamist movement towards the end of the war, anxious that the momentum should not be lost and the foreign fighters disbanded.

Although bin Laden is often represented as the mastermind behind these developments, in many ways this is anachronistic, a result of the prominent role bin Laden assumed in the 1990s. In fact, it was Azzam (below) who was bin-Laden’s elder mentor for much of the 1980s and some even credit him as coming up with the term al-qaeda al-sulbah (the solid base) in a magazine article he wrote, to refer to the revolutionary vanguard he argued was necessary to lead the Muslim world into rejuvenation and a resurrection of the Caliphate. While this might be an accurate explanation of the origin of the term al-Qaeda, this sounds a little bit too neat to me. Bin Laden himself is supposed to have said the name came about more or less by accident as a result of the term ‘base’ being used to refer to the Salafist training camps in Afghanistan, from which the name stuck. Either way, perhaps the best way to explain the evolution of this movement is to look a bit at the personal histories of the three figures so instrumental in its foundation and development: Azzam, bin-Laden, and Ayman al-Zawahiri, whom we have already met in part two of this blog.

Screenshot from 2018-05-20 16:28:00.png

Abdullah Azzam was born in what is now the West Bank, Palestine, in 1941. The 1967 war forced him and his family to flee to Jordan when he was twenty-five years old. He secured a job as a teacher in Jordan (he had already begun his life-long study of Islamic jurisprudence) but abandoned what might have been a relatively-secure (given the circumstances) existence to join the Fedayeen fighters against Israel. While, as we have seen in previous posts, the Palestinian resistance to Israel, led by the PLO was overwhelmingly secular (Hamas would not be founded until 1987), Azzam was unusual in that he combined his attempts to liberate his homeland with membership of the Muslim Brotherhood, at the same time developing militant ideas about reviving Islam that were at odds with the Brotherhood and had more in common with Salafist ideologies. Indeed Azzam found himself at odds with the PLO and was reportedly once brought before a tribunal, accused of insulting Che Guevara, to which he replied that Islam was his religion, and Che Guevara under his foot.

At this stage in the early 1970s, the left-wing umbrella-organisation, the PLO, was the only show on the road as regards resistance to Israel and, feeling such groups dishonoured Islam and neglected the broader cause of Islam in pursuit of Palestinian goals (although these should be central to a wider struggle), Azzam abandoned the fight and returned to his academic work in Egypt and Jordan. Having been fired for his continuing political activism in Jordan, he moved to a university position in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia in 1981. It was not long before Azzam, who seems to have been a somewhat restless figure, began to feel disenchanted with those around him who, while they may have agreed on much ideologically, did little or nothing to put their ideas into action. The perfect opportunity was arising far to the east, however, where the war in Afghanistan was intensifying, and he perceived clearly that, while Palestine would always been the more important long-term goal for him, Afghanistan was the more immediate and pressing business at hand. He managed to get himself transferred to a university in Islamabad, Pakistan, from which he began to regularly visit Peshawar, the gateway for foreign jihadists into the Afghan war, a city he often referred to (here’s that term again) as al-qaeda al-sulbah.

He met Osama bin Laden (below) on one of his many return visits to Jeddah in 1984. Bin Laden’s family owned the guest house where Azzam would stay, preaching and raising money for the cause in Afghanistan and the younger bin Laden was profoundly influenced by Azzam. At this stage, the jihad had the full support of the Saudi state, and Azzam’s call for an influx of Muslim fighters into Afghanistan had been endorsed by the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, effectively the seal of approval from the king himself.

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Bin Laden in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Osama bin Laden was born in 1957, one of over fifty children of the Yemeni construction magnate Mohammed bin Awad bin Laden who died in 1967 in an airplane crash. His mother was a Syrian of Yemeni descent, Hamida al-Attas, who divorced Mohammed soon after Osama’s birth. It is sometimes claimed that she belonged to the Alawite sect, and even that she wasn’t really married to Mohammed bin Laden, being merely his concubine or ‘slave wife’, but this seems to be a fairly crude attempt to denigrate Osama bin Laden himself, and there is no evidence he was treated as a ‘lesser’ member of the  extended family, which he surely would have been if this was the case.

Although there is no direct evidence for it, bin Laden’s first meeting with Azzam may have been in the late 1970s, as he attended the University of Jeddah to study business, and probably received religious instruction at the same time Azzam was working there. Most accounts of bin Laden in these years describe a hard-working, conscientious young man, modest almost to the point of shyness, and dedicated to his family, its construction business, and his religious faith. He worked for his father’s company, and not just in the token way the kids of rich people sometimes work, but actually worked on the sites, operating machinery, eating with the workers and earning a reputation for quiet generosity and for helping those less fortunate than himself while, although insanely wealthy, living a markedly austere lifestyle himself. There is no reason to doubt any of the many positive descriptions of bin Laden’s character that come down to us from those who knew him, especially those who have no ideological reason to eulogise him, and indeed have come under significant pressure to disparage and condemn him. There must, after all, be some reason for the tremendous personal loyalty he inspired in those around him, and we don’t need to buy into the simplistic image of an irredeemable monster that is peddled by the tabloid media. The overwhelming evidence is, unsurprisingly, that he had some admirable qualities, and this  does not imply sympathy for his ideas or actions.

Another notable aspect of bin Laden’s character was the synthesis of word and deed. Like Azzam, bin Laden knew his theology and, like Azzam,  knew that book learning alone was worthless unless acted upon. Conversely, he had tremendous respect for religious scholars, recognising that action without the wisdom to guide action alone was worthless too. If Azzam had been the kind of stay-at-home religious scholar that bin Laden would later criticise for not travelling to Afghanistan and joining the fight, their relationship would not have been as profound as it was, but his equal dedication to lecturing, writing and to fighting on the battlefield was one of the reasons the younger man admired him so much.

Although the precise date of his arrival in Afghanistan is debated, Osama bin Laden traveled to the war zone within months, perhaps weeks (some even say days but this is probably an exaggeration) of the war’s outbreak in December 1979. In these first few years. he acted mainly a conduit through which money passed from Saudi supporters to the Afghan Mujahideen. He recognised that his family’s financial resources, and those of other Saudis, were the greatest gift he could bestow on the cause at this juncture, and spent his time fundraising among his fellow Saudis and managing the disbursal of these resources back in Afghanistan-Pakistan. As time went on, however, he gradually assumed a more hands-on role as he developed a network of contacts, with the help of Azzam, and honed his military and organisational skills, taking a more and more prominent role in the operations of the MAK. For most of the 1980s, the Saudi government worked hand in glove with bin Laden and the Afghan fighters. Bin Laden’s main point of contact with the Saudi state was Turki al-Faisal, the son of King Faisal (see part 12), the head of its intelligence service, the Al Mukhabarat Al A’amah (General Intelligence Directorate) from 1979 to 2001. This is he in 2002 (for such an important dude, he seems to have been surprisingly camera-shy throughout the 1980s-1990s; I can find no images of him in that period whatsoever):

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Bin Laden’s deteriorating relationship with the Saudi state in the early 1990s will be key to understanding his evolution from a jihadist against the communist enemy in Afghanistan, to declaring war on those governments in Muslim countries who he saw as inimical to Islam, and their chief enabler: the United States. Throughout the 1980s, however, he and the Saudi regime were rock solid in their support of the Afghans. You might want to return and look at part ten to refresh your memory as to the various factions fighting the war. Most of the resources from bin Laden and the Saudis were funneled into the factions of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, that is, those with the most fundamentalist and intolerant vision of Islam (and that is saying something, given the competition they were up against). Sayyaf, who had the closest links of all with Saudi Arabia, was the main facilitator in bin Laden building his ‘Afghan Arab’ unit, an objective which indicates something of a rift growing between bin Laden and Azzam from around 1987 onwards, as the two men began to grow apart on these subtle ideological differences.

Azzam had always a champion of promoting unity among the Ummah (the community of all Muslims) and wanted to disperse the non-Afghan volunteers out among the various Afghan groups as a way of fostering this. Bin Laden, however, was keen to found a separate unit of foreign fighters, believing this would better prepare them to return to their own countries after the war and wage war against the secular authorities there. There was also a perception that the ‘Afghan Arabs’ were being used by Afghan commanders as cannon fodder, although I have conversely read in places that there was an opposite concern, that the Afghans were treating the foreign volunteers as guests and refusing to put them in danger, depriving them of valuable combat experience. There was also a concern among Afghan commanders that the foreign volunteers were overzealous in seeking martyrdom, disrupting Afghan units with their recklessness. While prepared to die for the cause if necessary, Afghans were fighting a war to liberate their country and trying not to get themselves killed.

Another potentially-more troublesome rift was that Azzam championed Massoud (whom he described as the best Mujahideen commander) and this led to tensions with bin Laden and his allies. Perhaps the word ‘allies’ is putting it a bit too strongly. We should not exaggerate the differences he had with Azzam. Both men were concerned with preserving the unity of the Afghan forces and tried to avoid taking sides. Bin Laden would continue this attempt during the collapse into inter-factional fighting that followed the defeat of the communists.  Azzam and bin Laden remained friends and comrades, and there is certainly no evidence to suggest that bin Laden was involved in the conspiracies that grew up among Azzam’s enemies and eventually led to his assassination in November 1989, only months after the Soviet withdrawal, but before the Afghan communist regime had been defeated.

But before we get to Azzam’s death, however, there is one more faction among the ‘Afghan Arabs’ that we should examine, that led by the Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri.

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Zawahiri at some point in the mid 1990s.

We have already briefly examined the early career of al-Zawahiri way back in part two when he was among the hundreds of Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) members rounded up and arrested in the aftermath of Sadat’s assassination in 1981. Following this, he was imprisoned and tortured in Mubarak’s prisons for three years, leaving Egypt upon his release in 1984, first for Saudi Arabia and then to Pakistan and Afghanistan, where he had already worked as a relief worker prior to his arrest in Egypt. It was here that he met Azzam and bin Laden. Al-Zawahiri was one of many members of EIJ who left Egypt during the years after Mubarak’s crackdown, as hopes for a religiously-inspired uprising of the people in their country were disappointed.

A potted history of EIJ might be in order here, seeing as they are going to be folded into the broader story of Salafi jihadism as it evolves in the 1990s. For the background to the Egypt of the 1970s in which EIJ had it roots, see part two. As we have seen, al-Zawahiri had already been involved in underground Islamist activity since the death of Sayyd Qutb in 1966. The individual who provided the catalyst for the formation of a jihadist organisation, however, was Muhammad abd-al-Salam Faraj (below left), an engineer and university administrator who wrote a widely-read pamphlet entitled The Neglected Obligation (in English sometimes translated as the ‘The Neglected Duty’, the ‘Forgotten Duty’ or variations thereof), which argued that, not only did the defense of Islam justify the taking up of arms against unjust rulers who were hostile to it, but that this was in fact a duty of all true Muslims. It was a key text in the development of modern jihadism and Faraj further argued that the ‘near-enemy’ (that is, hostile secular regimes in their own countries) were the enemy to be prioritised. An engaging speaker, Faraj soon attracted a cadre of followers recruited from his sermons in mosques. They included al-Zawahiri and, as fate would have it, an army lieutenant named Khalid Islambouli (below right).

Muhammad abd-al-Salam Faraj (left) and Khalid Islambouli (right), on trial for the killing of Sadat.

Islambouli told Faraj about a military parade planned for 6 October 1981 which President Anwar Sadat would be attending. Hated by the Islamists for the oppressive secular regime he ran, this hatred had intensified since the 1979 peace treaty with Israel. Islambouli and other sympathetic army officers attacked Sadat on the appointed day, killing the president but failing to kill vice-president Mubarak, who would go on to rule the country for three decades. The ensuing trial gave Faraj and Islambouli an opportunity to promote their ideology from the dock, following which they were executed, no doubt satisfying a desire for martyrdom in the process.

As previously mentioned, many members of EIJ were imprisoned and rounded up in the period following the assassination, al-Zawahiri among them, but EIJ was not the only jihadist organisation active in Egypt at the time. Another branch (no doubt there was some overlap) developed in the 1970s called al-Jama’a al-Islamiyya (‘the Islamic Group’) particularly among students. Such Islamic groups had initially been tolerated, even encouraged, by Sadat as a counterweight to his enemies on the left. When he perceived that he had let the religious genie out of the bottle and turned on them, they hated him all the more for it. Some (including al-Jama’a itself) have claimed that they were responsible for Sadat’s killing, and personally I cannot conclusively say who did it. Both EIJ and al-Jama’a were inspired by the teachings of a blind religious scholar, Omar Abdel-Rahman (below), who would become particularly associated with al-Jama’a, and was considered by many to be its leader, perhaps more of a spiritual leader after his arrest and imprisonment in the United States in 1993, implicated in a supporting role for the bombing of the World Trade Centre in February of that year, but that is a story for another post.

Omar Abdel-Rahman in 1988

The 1980s were a decade of dispersal and defeat for the Egyptian jihadists. Bearing in mind this is something of a simplification, many in the EIJ went to Afghanistan while al-Jama’a, once it had regrouped, became more synonymous with the war at home against the Mubarak regime. Loosely organised in the towns and villages among the poorest sections of society, the al-Jama’a was extremely difficult for the Egyptian state to prosecute. Having spent some time in jail after Sadat’s killing, Omar Abdel-Rahman was released in the mid-1980s and provided a talisman for the movement, even after he left for the United States in 1990. They set in motion a cycle of violence in which they provoked the Egyptian state (always happy to oblige) into more and more repressive measures, thus acting (hopefully) as a recruiting tool for their movement. In the early 1990s, hundreds of those considered blasphemous or hostile to their project were assassinated, the most famous example being the writer and critic of armed jihad, Farag Foda in 1992.

al-Jama’a al-Islamiyya

The armed campaign within Egypt began to have counter-productive results, however. While repressive measures may have alienated some towards the government, on the whole al-Jama’a‘s actions merely alienated the population towards it. In 1993, a bomb attack blamed on them killed seven and wounded twenty in a poor suburb of Cairo, an area supposed to be their natural constituency. Attacks on tourists damaged the heavily tourist-dependent economy, the most notorious of which was the killing of sixty-two people (all but four of which were tourists) at Luxor, which may have been carried out  by a faction within al-Jama’a who wished to scupper attempts by others within the movement to declare a renunciation of violence.

The reason some within al-Jama’a were prepared to do this was because the movement had already been battered hard by the state, thousands of its members having been thrown in jail and the public mood turning against them. The Luxor massacre only intensified this revulsion, which in turn allowed the government to enact much harsher measures against them, which really went into overdrive following a failed assassination attempt on Mubarak in Ethiopia in June 1995. Responsibility for this attempts was also claimed by EIJ, and even bin Laden may have been involved. By this time, al-Zawahiri and bin Laden were in Sudan, and known to be funding and assisting EIJ members who had been exiled. What had happened in the interim to al-Zawahiri and his fellow Egyptians? According to Faraj’s creed, having killed Sadat, the people were supposed to rise up spontaneously and topple the existing order, replacing it with an Islamic state and the imposition of shari’a. When things didn’t pan out this way, and after having spent a few years in prison, many Islamists went to Afghanistan, al-Zawahiri among them. Here, they linked up with the foreign fighters’ being organised by Azzam and bin Laden, al-Zawahiri becoming a sort of counter-influence with bin Laden and no doubt a factor in his shifting away from his mentor and taking his own initiatives.

The Egyptians, many of whom were well-educated (doctors, lawyers, teachers, etc.) became known as the ‘brains’ of the operation and quickly rose to prominent positions in the non-Afghan units. As al-Zawahiri’s importance as an advisor to bin Laden grew, so the ideological fissures in the jihadist movement as a whole become more acute. Azzam had been a great proponent of Muslim unity, to the point that he disapproved of wars against other Muslims, even those regimes in Egypt and Algeria who had shown themselves hostile to Islamists. Azzam’s priority was the building of a new Islamic society based on Koranic models and the worldwide revival of Islam through defensive jihad. So, while in the long term they no doubt looked forward to a distant time when the whole world would convert to Islam, in practice they were not interested in aggressively spreading the religion, merely recovering to the fold of true Islam what they saw as areas that belonged rightly within it. It should be noted that although scholars call this ‘defensive’, it meant to people like Azzam and bin Laden, places like Andalucia in Spain and Mindanao in the Philippines.

In the question of who should constitute the enemy, the influence of Qutb was therefore far less marked in Azzam and, by extension, bin Laden, than in the case of al-Zawahiri and the other Egyptians, who vied for influence over bin Laden (who was, after all, the one holding the purse strings) as the Afghan war grew to a close. This contest culminated in a series of bitter disputes in 1989, as the al-Zawahiri faction accused Azzam of various misdemeanours, ranging from the specific (misappropriating funds) to the outlandish (that he was working for the CIA). Resentment at his support for Massoud and his closeness to bin Laden no doubt played a role too. Warned that his life was in danger in Peshawar and that he should leave town, Azzam ignored this advice and was killed (along with his two sons) by a roadside bomb on the 24 November 1989. Although the context in which I place this event here might suggest al-Zawahiri’s faction had him snuffed out, really pretty much anyone could have done it: al-Zawahiri, Mossad, the Iranians, the Pakistani ISI, the Afghan or Jordanian secret secrvices, you name it, they’re all suspects, and I’m not in a position to determine which of these claims is the more credible. I really do want to try and avoid flirting with conspiracy theories on this blog, so I will leave it at that. He was killed. We don’t really know who did it because the Pakistani authorities didn’t release any of the forensic evidence.

With Azzam gone, you might imagine that the way would now be clear for al-Zawahiri and the Egyptians to exert more complete control over bin Laden and his money, but by now, the Saudi had matured and was very much his own man. Although he would show influences of the Egyptian doctor in his thinking over the coming years, in many respects he would keep alive the ideological legacy of Azzam, especially in concentrating his mind, long-term, on the ‘far enemy’ and the transnational jihad which would be necessary to confront it. The Egyptians, on the other hand, may have fled abroad, but that does not mean they had given up the struggle against the ‘near enemy’ at home. This would be evinced by the 1995 bombing of the Egyptian embassy in Islamabad by EIJ, of which bin Laden reportedly disapproved. As already noted, there was the attempt to assassinate Mubarak in this year too, and in the early 1990s, an observer might be forgiven for thinking that the future of jihad lay in these localised national struggles in Egypt, Algeria, Chechnya, Bosnia, etc. and the attempt to build an Islamic state piece by piece.

We will look at some of these struggles in subsequent posts, because they are absolutely vital (although few in the west appreciate how important they were) to shaping militant Islam in the last few decades. As a general observation, the psychological effect of victory against the Soviet Union should be grasped. Bin Laden’s generation of Muslims was one that had grown up in the shadow of multiple defeats to Israel, the gloss had gone off Nasser’s secular nationalism and the idea that the Muslim world might regenerate itself by adopting the technological innovations of the west and imitating its culture. The pessimism that replaced these hopes had been deep-seated, but the Mujahideen‘s victory in Afghanistan was transformational, seeming to affirm the belief of young men like bin Laden that, instead of trying to copy the west, the way to regenerate the Ummah was to return to the fundamentals of Islam and the example of the prophet Muhammad.

Fighters came home from the glory of victory with their defeatism dispelled and full of hope for the struggle back in their own countries, and the expectation that the oppressed masses (and make no mistake, they were oppressed) would rise up against their corrupt secular rulers. But, as we have seen, in Egypt and elsewhere, this didn’t happen, and disappointment led some to turn towards the ‘far enemy’ or turn towards the civilian population in their own countries in bitterness (we will see a textbook example of this with the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) in Algeria). As popular Islamist uprisings failed to occur, and resurgent secular states turned the screw on the jihadists, it began to appear that Azzam and bin Laden had been right after all: transnational jihad against the ‘far enemy’, the sponsor of their repressive regimes, was the real solution, to confront the real threat to Islam at its source: the United States.

Whether al-Zawahiri and his allies were really thinking along these lines is debatable, however. It was likely pragmatic concerns as much as anything else that dictated they bend to bin Laden’s will as the 1990s went by. Desperately lacking funds, and in the aftermath of increasingly-successful repression by Mubarak’s regime, EIJ deemed it politic to hitch a ride on bin Laden’s project of building up a base for transnational jihad instead of everyone fighting their own individual battles against their respective secular enemies. In 1992, both bin Laden and al-Zawahiri were in Sudan, where they had been given sanctuary by the regime of Omar al-Bashir and the influential Islamic leader Hassan al-Turabi, who was responsible for inviting bin Laden and many other jihadists into the country, both for ideological reasons, and in the hope that some of the wealthier Arabs, mostly Saudis, would invest in the country, which was relatively poor (this was before the discovery of significant qualtities of oil in the late 1990s). We will discuss Sudan in a separate post, but just to note here that many regard al-Turabi as having been not entirely honourable in his dealings with bin Laden (Michael Scheuer, for example, who is very knowledgeable about bin Laden, although I would not always concur with his interpretations), accusing him of draining the Saudi’s bank account and then allowing him to be expelled from the country under pressure from the Americans, having spent a great deal of money to little or no purpose in the country.

What al-Zawahiri was running away from in Sudan is obvious. Not only was Egypt no longer safe for EIJ members, but Mubarak’s security services had their tentacles in all sorts of other countries too, and were getting increasingly effective help from the CIA now that the Americans no longer needed the jihadists to fight the communists on their behalf. Al-Zawahiri’s movements in the early 1990s are a bit mysterious. He traveled around a lot on forged passports. At one point he was arrested in Russia in 1996 and held in prison for six months, but they didn’t know who he really was and released him. Bin Laden’s whereabouts between the end of the Afghan war and Sudan are less mysterious. He had returned to Saudi Arabia a hero, his legend only being burnished by an injury he received at the Battle of Jalalabad in March 1989. He still enjoyed the stamp of approval from the regime and, for his part, appears to have been still been a loyal Saudi subject at this stage.

Bin Laden’s passport photograph from this period

Tensions soon emerged with the Saudi regime in several areas. First of all, there was their meddling among the Islamist factions in Afghanistan. While bin Laden had tried to use his prestigious position to bring the various groups together in order to prevent a civil war (which would happen anyway) between Rabbani-Massoud on the one hand and Hekmatyar-Sayyaf etc. on the other. Turki al-Faisal, however, strove on behalf of the latter alone, thus perpetuating divisions and hastening the slide to war. Then there was South Yemen where, as we saw in the last posts, the Islamists were emerging as a force to be reckoned with, fighting against the attempts of the southern Marxists to reassert their independence. Bin Laden and other jihadists in Saudi Arabia saw this as a more-or-less identical cause to the one they had fought in Afghanistan: atheistic communists, and camped in the Arabian peninsula of all places. They therefore threw themselves wholeheartedly into fighting them, participating in numerous attacks and assassinations of socialist leaders in the 1990-94 period. To the horror of bin Laden and his followers, however, their own government supported the Yemeni socialists, because they were seeking to undermine Yemeni unity and weaken the northern regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh. For the first time, bin Laden came up against the realpolitick of the Saudi regime when they asked him to stop fighting the socialists in South Yemen. Appalled by this failure to fulfill their religious duty to expel the infidel, he carried on regardless.

But worse was to come, far worse.

On 2 August 1990, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded Kuwait. There followed a six-month long standoff in which the United States and its allies (among them Saudi Arabia) demanded that Iraq withdraw or face an international coalition, which would indeed expel the Iraqis from Kuwait in January. The Iraqis let it be known that they would attack Saudi Arabia if they were attacked (which they eventually did) and the kingdom was on high alert, aware that its existing defense forces would be no match for Iraq’s. This was before Iraq was destroyed by two wars and a decade of sanctions; at this time, Saddam Hussein had built its army into a formidable military power, regionally at least. Bin Laden had been warning, both in letters and public talks, about the threat posed by Hussein (whom he regarded as a monstrous secularist) and these warnings had gone largely unheeded. His continuing loyalty to the House of Saud is evinced by his offers to use his family’s resources to construct defensive fortifications and raise a force of veteran jihadists from the Afghan war to man it.

The Saudi government rejected his proposal and, most shocking of all, requested the United States send a force to help defend the kingdom. This is an absolutely crucial moment in understanding the rest of Osama bin Laden’s life and career. Here was the Saudi rulers bringing infidels, armed ones at that, into the land of the holiest sites in Islam, which were supposed to be defended by faithful Muslims alone. Among the Saudi king’s titles is ‘Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques’. This was an egregious violation of everything bin Laden and his fellow fundamentalists held dear, and a shocking betrayal by those whose duty he saw it to uphold the strict Wahhabist conception of Islam he believed in. On top of all this, King Fahd secured theological justification for his decision from the Grand Mufti (the same one who had blessed the foreign fighter’s intervention in Afghanistan), Abdul Aziz bin Baz (below) for the move.

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Up to this point, bin Laden had always deferred to religious scholars, even when their dictates seemed to be guided by the interests of preserving the House of Saud rather than the sanctity of Islam. This critique was implicit in the Islamic Awakening (Sahwa) movement, which bin Laden supported when he returned to Saudi Arabia. This was a peaceful activist group which sought to bring the regime into full compliance with Islamic law and curb its more excessive material excesses. To even suggest that the monarchy isn’t already in complete compliance with Islamic law is, however, deeply subversive in Saudi Arabia, and the movement was met by a mobilisation of theologians and scholars by the state. The establishment of American troops in the kingdom was the straw that broke the donkey’s back as far as bin Laden and his companions were concerned, but it should be remembered that it was only with the utmost reluctance that he ‘went rogue’. Henceforth, he publicly denounced these state-sponsored scholars as corrupt propagandists and his farm was raided by the security services, who disarmed his followers.

Bin Laden became an increasingly dissident figure in Saudi society, dangerous from the point of view of the state because of the respect he enjoyed from his leadership in Afghanistan. It would certainly have been tremendously destabilising to have imprisoned or executed him. It is sometimes claimed that they banished bin Laden in 1991, or even that they let him go on condition that he not direct his activities against them. The most plausible story seems to me, however, is that he escaped. Having had his passport taken from him, he managed to get one of his brothers to acquire a ‘one-time’ passport for him to wrap up some business in Pakistan, after which he promised to return. He never did. In 1994, he would be stripped of his citizenship and disowned by his family. After a brief period in Pakistan, he moved to Sudan where, as noted above, by the time he was finished he had lost a fortune in unprofitable business ventures and payments to the regime in exchange for the sanctuary he gave them.

By 1996, the only country to which he could turn for refuge was Afghanistan, by now coming under the rule of the Taliban (see part eleven), who were soon busy forcing women to stay home, banning music, blowing up Buddhist statues and generally cutting the country off from the outside world. The idea that the Taliban and bin Laden and his movement shared the same goals and ideology, however, is very mistaken (although seems to be widespread). While they gave bin Laden and his followers refuge, for reasons which we will examine in a future post on Afghanistan after their takeover, the Taliban had little interest in transnational jihad and were in fact concerned about the kind of trouble bin Laden’s activities might bring upon them. Rightly so, as it would turn out.

In 1996, Afghanistan seemed the only country where the dream of an Islam, assertive in the face of what it saw as an expansionist and hostile west, could be kept alive, but it was only barely kept alive. This is important when we come to the late 1990s and the beginnings of al-Qaeda and its attacks on the United States: the jihadists were in crisis, weakened and harried, their project having run out of steam after the failure to overthrow regimes in Egypt, Algeria and elsewhere. It is all-too-often forgotten in the wake of 9-11 and the blowing up of the al-Qaeda threat out of all proportion, that what was still being referred to as the ‘bin Laden’ network was in pretty desperate straits, hiding out in the wilds of Afghanistan in one of the few places were it might still have a chance of hiding from the U.S. war machine. Of course, this is not to say that they could not inflict damage on property and life. As the 1998 embassy bombings and 9-11 indicate, they certainly had the financial means, the manpower and the will to do this, but none of this mitigates the fact that militant political Islam, that sought to establish regimes based on shari’a, as a movement, was largely a spent force.

Bin Laden, photographed by Robert Fisk in Afghanistan, 1996.

Knowing this, men like bin Laden and Zawahiri knew that only by somehow provoking the west into some serious atrocities against the Muslim civilian population could they breath some life back into their failed project. The only way to do this was to commit some atrocity of their own, big enough to get the American’s attention and ignite the kind of apocalyptic ‘Clash of Civilisations’ that they (in common with American neo-Conservatives) were hoping for. It is round about here that we have to start giving consideration to the ‘organisation’ we now call al-Qaeda which would attempt to ignite such a conflict. I place the word ‘organisation’ between inverted commas because some accounts give the impression that a group of that name, with an explicit and definable hierarchical structure, was founded around 1988 when Azzam was still alive, along with bin Laden and Zawahiri, and straightaway began to prepare the Afghan veterans for a coming battle with the United States. Things are far from being that straightforward.

Certainly, as we have already seen, Azzam was talking about something called al-Qaeda or ‘the base/foundation’ in the years prior to his death. It doesn’t necessarily mean that this was an organisation though, at least not from this early stage. You will sometimes see numbered amongst bin Laden’s early attacks on the United States, the bombing of two hotels in Aden, Yemen, where American soldiers were staying on their way to Somalia. There is, however, very little evidence for his involvement. It is likewise with the bombing of the World Trade Centre in 1993, in which his role was at most limited to a distant and tangential financial support for some of those involved, possibly. In the early 1990s, there is nothing resembling a structured international network of jihadists directed from a centralised leadership. That does not mean that the idea of creating such an organisation did not exist. It seems overwhelmingly likely that it did, and that the term al-Qaeda was meant to suggest this aspiration, the base, foundation or basis on which a real movement which could realistically take on the west might one day emerge. The name can be seen as a recognition that this was more of an aspiration or long-term project.

Exactly how long term is difficult to say. Fawaz Gerges, for example, argues that al-Qaeda in the late 1980s and early 1990s meant only a series of maxims, not an actual organisation. This is perhaps an exaggeration, but there is very little evidence it amounted to much more than that. One of the best assessments is that of Jason Burke, who I think has done the most authoritative work (in English at least) on this. By the late 1990s, he argues that:

…bin Laden and his partners were able to create a structure in Afghanistan that attracted new recruits and forged links among preexisting Islamic militant groups…


…they never created a coherent terrorist network in the way commonly conceived. Instead, al Qaeda functioned like a venture capital firm—providing funding, contacts, and expert advice to many different militant groups and individuals from all over the Islamic world.

Jason Burke, Foreign Policy, No. 142 (2004), p.18.

So, basically, rather than resembling a limited company with a board of directors and a CEO, by the late 1990s al-Qaeda was more like a franchise, McDonalds or KFC, with a certain amount of financial and logistic support given to those jihadists who wanted to perform a deed regarded as faithful to their cause. At times, indeed, it would seem as if certain groups and individuals were acting independently and simply using the name al-Qaeda (and the same is true more recently of ISIS) to lend gravity to what are basically  lone-wolf actions. In this sense, al-Qaeda and ISIS have borne more similarity to the Animal Liberation Front than any conventional paramilitary group, in that anyone can carry out an action (there is no leadership) in the name of the ALF as long as they follow some basic guidelines, among which it must be mentioned to their credit is that no-one should be harmed, and indeed the ALF have never killed anyone.

As I suggested at the start of this post, I am sceptical of claims that al-Qaeda existed in any meaningful sense before, at very least, the late 1990s. The bombing of American embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam on 7 August 1998 is a crucial turning point in this respect. It is only after these that the security services and the media start talking about something called al-Qaeda. This doesn’t even mean that the people who carried out the bombings thought of themselves as members of an organisation of that name, even at this stage. One of the bombers, Khalfan Khamis Mohamed, denied having even heard of anything  called al-Qaeda. The most plausible explanation for al-Qaeda‘s sudden emergence (it seems pretty weird, after all, that you go from nobody talking about them to them being this international network of highly-competent militants, practically overnight) is given once again by Burke:

It was the FBI, during investigation of the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombing in East Africa, which dubbed the loosely-linked group of activists that Osama bin Laden and his aides had formed as “al Qaeda.” This decision was partly due to institutional conservatism and partly because the FBI had to apply conventional antiterrorism laws to an adversary that was in no sense a traditional terrorist or criminal organization.

Jason Burke, Foreign Policy, No. 142 (2004), p.18.

That is, in order to have any realistic chance of indicting and convicting bin Laden and other instigators of these acts, the FBI needed to work within existing laws regarding criminal conspiracy. These necessitated the prosecutors providing evidence of the existence of an organization, in order to prosecute its leader, even if that person could not be linked directly to the ‘crime’. Of course, they needed witnesses for this, to testify that bin Laden was indeed the one pulling the strings from his hideout in Afghanistan. Enter an obscure figure called Jamal al-Fadl. He is so obscure that this is the best picture I could find of him:


This is a court picture from the trial which began in February 2001 of those who had carried out the embassy bombings, and (in absentia) bin Laden, al-Zawahiri and others who had financed them. Al-Fadl was a Sudanese jihadist who had joined bin Laden’s network in Afghanistan in the late 1980s. He was apparently a senior member of the ‘organisation’ in the following years but grew resentful of receiving a smaller salary than others and embezzled around $110,000 from them. Having been caught, he then went around to various security agencies hoping to be given refuge and a reward for offering them information. Finally the American embassy in Eritrea took him up on his offer and he went to the United States in 1996. It was a case of being in the right place at the right time for al-Fadl. When, two years later, the FBI badly needed someone who could join the dots for them and help construct a picture of al-Qaeda as a complex and tightly-structured organisation, al-Fadl was ready and waiting to do the job for them.

He gave them exactly what they wanted, because he had every reason to exaggerate the complexity and scope of al-Qaeda. The same was true of L’Houssaine Kherchtou, a Moroccan who was involved in the embassy bombings and gave detailed evidence of the ‘organisation’ in return for immunity from prosecution and witness protection. This is pretty much ‘the evidence’ for the existence of an international terrorist organisation called ‘al-Qaeda’ having existed since the late 1980s, and it is deeply flawed. In the aftermath of the 1998 bombings, and even more so after 9 September 2001, the exigency of building a prosecution against bin Laden and co. had become a more important priority than the actual truth of what al-Qaeda was and how long it had been around. The problem is that the flimsiness of the evidence it was based on was forgotten and subsequent accounts have reported the findings of the trial as if it was solid primary evidence.

Once again, none of this is to deny the fact that some kind of a network clearly existed prior to 1998 (and likely for some years) that had as its aim the extension of the war to the United States. Bin Laden made this clear in a public declaration of war on the United States in August 1996, published in the London-based newspaper Al-Quds al-Arabi, making clear that he had shifted his focus on corrupt regimes like Saudi Arabia, to their main sponsor. There was also the well-attested creation of the ‘World Islamic Front’ in February 1998, a union of al-Zawahiri’s Egyptian faction of EIJ and bin Laden’s network (whether we wish to refer to it as al-Qaeda at this stage or not) along with a few smaller jihadist groups. The fatwa in question contained sentences like: ‘The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies — civilians and military — is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it…’ You get the drift: the kind of thing you would imagine a formidable anti-American jihadist organisation to declare.

Six months before the embassy bombings, however, these grand declarations were greeted in the west with the semi-indifference they probably deserved at the time. Even afterwards, in 2000, Fawaz Gerges, an expert in this field was writing:

Despite Washington’s exaggerated rhetoric about the threat to Western interests still represented by Bin Ladin [. . .] his organization, Al-Qa‘ida, is by now a shadow of its former self. Shunned by the vast majority of Middle Eastern governments, with a $5 million US bounty on his head, Bin Ladin, has in practice been confined to Afghanistan, constantly on the run from US, Egyptian, and Saudi Arabian intelligence services. Furthermore, consumed by internecine rivalry on the one hand, and hemmed in by the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt on the other, Bin Ladin’s resources are depleting rapidly. Washington plays into his hands by inflating his importance. Bin Ladin is exceptionally isolated, and is preoccupied mainly with survival, not attacking American targets. Since the blasts in Africa, not a single American life has been lost to al-Qa’ida.

Fawaz Gerges, ‘The end of the Islamist insurgency in Egypt?: Costs and prospects’, in The Middle East Journal, 54:4 (2000) 597-8.

Writing a year before 9-11, Gerges would appear to have been spectacularly wrong. But if you think about it a little more, it seems to me that he was essentially correct in all but one (dramatically important) respect. He failed to note that even a relatively small and battered group like this could still carry out an attack like 9-11, and rely on the reaction of the United States to spark off a decades-long war. The terrifying fact of the matter is that any dedicated small group with a pile of cash could have carried out 9-11: the ALF, ETA, the IRA, any of these paramilitary groups could, if they put their minds to it and weren’t bothered by mass civilian casualties. This was certainly true at that time, before the stricter security protocols that 9-11 brought about were introduced.

Nothing about 9-11 changed the fundamental geopolitical situation, but so traumatic was the event to Americans that they felt the need to believe that it ‘changed everything’. This compounded the tragedy. The American government’s response made sure it ‘changed everything’, not the attack itself, and this is exactly what bin Laden and his allies had been hoping for. Ironically, by declaring a ‘War on Terror’ against an amorphous network of desperadoes as if it was a coherent ‘army’, sophisticated and hierarchical, there is a good argument to be made that the United States brought such an organisation closer to actually existing. After 9-11, many jihadist groups started calling themselves ‘al-Qaeda in the something or other’. A glance through some of the names of these groups claiming to be branches of al-Qaeda (below) suggests they are actually more-or-less independent organisations seeking to claim some of the street cred which bin-Laden’s group acquired among jihadists from the exaggerated threat they were presented as after 9-11. Again, bin Laden was only to happy to be blamed, and presented as some kind of omnipotent and mercurial Bond villain.

Al-Qaeda in Iraq (2004)
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (2007)
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (2009)
Al-Qaeda in Somalia (2010)
Al-Qaeda in the Levant (2012)
Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (2014)

If al-Qaeda was a franchise, the American state department drummed up some great business for them.

Screenshot from 2018-06-03 12:39:40.png

It might be asked why they did this? To analyse the American military-industrial complex is beyond the scope of this post, but it’s pretty obvious to any impartial observer that the military, security services and large swathes of the political classes have a vested interest in keeping the public in a heightened state of fear from an external threat. Adam Curtis’ fantastic series The Power of Nightmares suggests that, with the apparent failure of ideology and dreams of a better future to inspire people politically, politicians have found a useable replacement in fear of a vague, implacable and irrational enemy, who ‘hate us for our freedoms‘. It should also be noted that the threat from Islam and Muslims begins to come to the fore just as the communist bloc is collapsing and they could no longer use that particular bogeyman.

Besides, this there is the extremely lucrative arms industry, which would collapse without a good war to keep it going (even better, one with a vaguely-defined and shifting enemy and no obvious objectives, just like the ‘War on Terror’, which can be extended indefinitely). This is worth $1.69 trillion a year (2016), a quarter of which ends up in the Middle East or North Africa. The US, the UK and France are responsible for around 70% of all exports of major conventional weapons to the Middle East. You can read more fun facts here. There are literally armies of people whose very livelihoods depend on the existence of something like al-Qaeda or ISIS. This included not only actual military or law-enforcement personnel, but a legion of academics (whose numbers have swelled since 9-11) who follow the money when it comes to the many postgraduates programmes and postdoctural fellowships which abound in the subject of terrorism and security. These, the very people we look to for authoritative answers about this subject, are institutionally disinclined to offer an alternative narrative to the one we were stuck with, even though it is highly dubious. They are no more likely to question it than a member of the theology department is likely to question the value of studying the bible, or someone in a business school is likely to critique capitalism.

Given all this, if we ask ourselves whether the world’s most powerful intelligence-gathering agencies misunderstood the nature of al-Qaeda or whether they deliberately distorted the picture to create an organisation where one hardly existed, the ‘exaggeration’ thesis seems more plausible than the idea that they got it wrong. This is not to say that there was no threat (clearly there was) or that these intelligence agencies knew about 9-11 beforehand or anything. Simply that the nature of the threat was manipulated in order to justify attacks on entire countries that had little or nothing to do with the atrocities bin Laden sponsored. Where, you might ask, does exaggeration shade into outright lying? Round about here:


Rather than go into the attacks on the World Trade Centre in 1993 and 2001, or the embassy bombings of 1998, I will examine them in some detail in a future post. Before we do that, however, we have to look at some of the conflicts that have been alluded to in this post, where the fight was taken up by jihadists in the 1990s to the ‘near enemy’ in Algeria, Chechnya and Bosnia, discrete national stories that have been forgotten in the haste to paint a picture of all-encompassing global conflict between ‘the west’ and ‘the Muslims’, but which, if anything, are more significant.


Featured image above: Eyes of Osama Bin Laden.

A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 15: The ‘Afghan Arabs’ : foreign fighters in Afghanistan

A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 14: Yemen #2


This second part of our focus on Yemen will cover the period from the emergence of two independent states in the 1960s (not without a fight) to the end of the 1990s, when a formally-united country was anything but united if you cared to scratch beneath the surface. As we saw last time, North Yemen emerged in 1962 as a republic which had to fight for its existence against the monarchy which had controlled the country for decades. Having secured its existence through some compromises with the royalist faction, the civil war was over by 1970 and the foreign armies who had intervened in the northern war (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, British-backed mercenaries) gone. In the south, an insurgency based around the British-controlled port of Aden had emerged victorious in 1967, but the newly-independent People’s Republic of South Yemen did not avoid some teething troubles of its own. These revolved around the clash between different branches of the ruling party, some more left wing than others. A tension had already been present during the fight with the British, as the more centrist FLOSY (who had held off joining the fight for a long time in the expectation that the British would negotiate) and the more left-wing NLF fought for control over the newly-independent state, a fight won decisively by the NLF pretty rapidly. Once in power, the NLF set to work fighting with each other over the direction the new state would take, a struggle in which the more radical left-wing members won in 1969 when they ousted president al-Shaabi (see previous part) in what was known as the ‘corrective move’ and set the country on a more explicitly Marxist path, renaming it the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen.


The new government looked eagerly to the Soviet Union for economic and military support and the Soviets for their part found one of the world’s greatest natural harbours fall right into its sphere of influence without even having to fight for it. The new government sought to build a Marxist state out of distinctly unpromising raw material (although I guess you could have said about Russia in 1917 as well). It is not just that southern Yemen bore no resemblance to the kind of industrialised society with a proletariat that doctrinaire Marxists might claim is necessary to build a successful communist society. It was also South Yemen’s specific circumstances: it was much smaller in population than North Yemen, but much larger in area, only 1% of which was arable. The south had no significant natural resources to speak of and, perhaps worst of all, its greatest asset, Aden, was a far-less significant port after the 1967 war closed the Suez Canal until 1975.

The government did not help matters by locking up or expelling a large proportion of the small proportion of its population that had an education, distrusting them as subversives and a threat to the tightly-controlled authoritiarian state they felt was necessary to keep the fragile country together. This control was facilitated by a secret police trained by the East German Stasi itself. The external threat represented by the rival Yemen to their north and west was also a drain on resources; spending on the army was gobbling up half the state budget by 1971. Credit where credit’s due though: like many socialist states, great advances were made in education and healthcare and to some extent in the status of women. Attempts were made to curtail the influence of religious leaders and tribalism, but of course corruption and tribalism remained, and would play a role in South Yemen’s demise. Its three main leaders stand side by side in this picture, taken in 1977 (from left to right): Salim Rubai Ali, Abdul Fattah Ismail and Ali Nasir Muhammad.


Rubai Ali became president of South Yemen at the time of al-Shaabi’s removal in 1969, but we are not taking about an centralised, autocratic ruler; power was really distributed throughout a number of top posts within the administration, awkwardly as it would turn out. Rubai Ali was more Maoist and oriented towards China, and found himself in conflict with Abdul Fattah Ismail, who was closer to the Soviets and an eager promoter of international left-wing armed groups like the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the German Red Army Faction, and gave a South Yemen passport to Carlos the Jackal. When in power in South Yemen, he also secured backing for the insurgents in neighbouring Oman during the Dhofar rebellion in south-western Oman (which we will no doubt get to in this blog someday). Ismail was more of an idealistic doctrinaire Marxist and internationalist than the others, and occupied the important position of General Secretary of the Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP) which he played a leading role in creating in 1978 as the party of consensus among South Yemen’s political classes, in order to occupy the position of ‘one party’ in the one-party state they were designing.

The third of these pals, Ali Nasir Muhammad, was less ideologically-committed to the ruling socialist ideology and, his enemies would claim, more committed to his political career and using his position to serve himself and his clients. Because he had less principled obstacles in the way of his politics, Ali Nasir Muhammad was in a much better position to compromise with South Yemen’s enemies, and was viewed by North Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Oman as the much more preferable of the alternatives, whereas Ismail sponsored liberation movements and encouraged the oppressed masses to rise up there. Most of South Yemen’s fairly short existence would be characterised by these three guys plotting against each other. Rubai Ali was the first skittle to fall. He was also more amenable to improved relations with Yemen’s non-socialist neighbours, and Abdul Fattah Ismail’s faction distrusted his attempts to do so. Someone (although it remains unclear precisely who) put a bomb in a briefcase which killed the president of North Yemen, Ahmad al-Ghashmi (we’ll get to him below). The recriminations down south, with both Rubai Ali and Ismail’s factions blaming each other, led to a short, sharp contest of arms in which Rubai Ali lost, was tried and executed in 1978.

But if Abdul Fattah Ismail thought he had won, it was no more than a pyrrhic victory; the alienation of many that followed the removal of Rubai Ali, and growing impatience at Ismail’s dogmatism (even the Soviets found him too inflexible) led to his removal as party leader in 1980 and his removal to Moscow ‘for health reasons’. Ali Nasir Muhammad now appeared to be undisputed leader, and a period of loosening-up, of improved foreign relations with South Yemen’s erstwhile enemies followed. While the Soviets were only too happy to see this (they had no wish to see South Yemen drag them into some kind of costly unnecessary war in Arabia) the pragmatic Ali Nasir began to stray too far from the path of socialism for everyone’s comfort, inviting private enterprise and investment, oil prospecting, foreign companies, building hotels and living it up in the lap of luxury with the other top brass in the YSP.

But not everyone, because Ismail back in Moscow still had his supporters and he returned in late 1984 and attempted to carry out another ‘corrective move’. The two leaders’ forces sought to secure support for themselves within the army, and people tended to take sides along tribal lines. Ali Nasir got the South Yemen Civil War rolling, (colloquially referred to as The Events of 1986) on the 13 January when he sent one of his bodyguards into a politburo meeting with a machine gun and attempted to have all of his opponents shot. While some were killed, Ismail escaped, only to be killed in the shelling of a tank later that day (probably; his body was incinerated and never found), this incident sparked off an eleven-day orgy of killing by both sides of the YSP in which over 5,000 people were killed. While Ali Nasir might have initially seemed to have the upper hand, the division of the army with the tanks went over to the Ismail faction and that basically decided things. Ali Nasir fled to North Yemen, with whom he already had cosy relations (although not cosy enough to help when he begged them to send troops to help keep him in power), and power was taken by the Ismail-allied Ali Salem al Beidh (below), who had been in the meeting-room when the bodyguard opened fire but threw himself on the floor and pretended to be dead, which pretty much sums up what it took to get ahead in South Yemen politics.


The country limped on for a few more years, fatally undermined by the bloodletting that had taken place, not to mention its chronic economic problems. The death-blow came with the collapse of the eastern bloc and the withdrawal of Soviet support. By 1990, unification with the north was suddenly a welcome prospect for the al-Beidh regime, but what kind of country were they going to be unifying with?

Unlike the south, North Yemen didn’t fit easily into the Cold War jigsaw puzzle. The great controlling influence was the oil-rich Saudi state to the north, and by extension that would place them in the American camp in the east-west dichotomy. Except for the fact that they received Soviet arms as well, and as a general rule, North Yemen diplomacy was characterised by making deals with whoever gave the most and asked for least in return. As we noted last week, the northern civil war had ended with a kind of deal by which the republicans kept their republic, shed its more left-wing elements and replaced its military rule with a civilian president, Abdul Rahman  (1967-1974) (below). In return, the royal family agreed to stay out of politics but some of the royalist camp were given a role in the new regime. Furthermore, a great deal of power was still accessible by the northern tribes, who were guaranteed posts in the administration and lucrative stipends as a part of the peace deal that ended the war. This was storing up trouble for the future, as it constituted a great check on the ability of the state to expend resources on development and constrained the independence of the president and other political leaders to serve the countries best interests as a whole.


An example of this institutional weakness was the outbreak of war between the two Yemens in 1972, little more than a series of border skirmishes, which took place largely against the will of the political leadership and at the behest of the military, goaded by the Saudis, who were fiercely hostile to South Yemen, who in turn seemed to seriously entertain the prospect of conquering the north by force, as unlikely as that sounds. Seeing the forces arrayed against him, and the growing Saudi displeasure towards his soft approach towards the south, al-Iryani, while abroad in Syria in 1974 decided to stay away. North Yemen’s first (and only) civilian leader died in exile in Damascus twenty-four years later. The country was then ruled by military leaders for the best part of a decade. Initially, this was not as bad as it sounds. The first of these, Ibrahim al-Hamdi (1974-77) is generally well-remembered as a constructive, conciliatory figure who made attempts to deal with corruption and ease tensions with the south. He ruled during a period of economic growth for the country as many young Yemenis from the north went to work in Saudi Arabia (basically, the oil crisis was a bonanza for those in oil while the rest of the world’s economy went down the toilet) and sent home remittances. North Yemen also managed to secure for itself a great deal of aid from western governments anxious to lure them securely into its camp in the Cold War.

Al-Hamdi’s talk of tackling corruption made him enemies among the powerful northern sheikhs whose privileges he threatened by carrying out a rationalisation of the state apparatus. The Saudis were likewise not happy with his talk of building bridges with the south because they feared nothing more than a united Yemen. They may have been involved in his assassination, although evidence is inconclusive. The main suspect was his successor, Ahmad al-Ghashmi who, as we noted above, was assassinated by southern agents only eight months later. Hopes can not have been high that his successor, a lieutenant-Colonel named Ali Abdullah Saleh (below right), would last much longer, but Saleh enjoyed family connections among the powerful northern tribes and the support of the leader of the powerful Hashid tribal confederation, Abdullah al-Ahmar (the dude standing to his left below). Saleh was to prove himself adept at balancing, and ultimately mastering, the numerous forces that vied for power in the country. Far from being assassinated after a few months, he would reign as president of first the north, and from 1990 on, a united Yemen, for an astonishing thirty-four years.


One of Saleh’s first challenges was another war with the south in 1979, fallout from the assassinations of both countries’ presidents. With troops massed on the border and South Yemen arming insurgents in the north, it was harder not to have a war than have one. These insurgents, the National Democratic Front (NDF), were basically those elements of the left in North Yemen who had been shunted off the political stage as a result of the compromises inherent in ending the civil war. Denied a role in public life, they took up arms after the series of assassinations of presidents, seeing the increasingly consolidation of a conservative political elite in the country through strong-arm tactics. The war did not appear to be going well for the north. While the south was smaller in population and resources, it was given resolute military backing by other communist states. The real possibility of the north’s defeat spurred the Arab League into diplomatic action and the crisis passed as peace was mediated with these and the support of the superpowers; basically, things were tense enough in the world without the US and USSR going to war over Yemen.

The peaceful resolution of the conflict, and accompanying declarations of the intention to somehow unify the two states someday, also meant Saleh was able to confront his opponents within the country more effectively. The NDF insurgency fizzled out with a lessening of southern aggression, especially after Ali Nasir Muhammad took over there. An early sign that Saleh really meant business was his purging of elements in the army hostile to him and his execution of thirty officers who were accused of plotting to overthrow him. In the years that followed, he built up a system in North Yemen that buttressed his power by compromising with the powerful tribal leaders, offering them the spoils of power, while still strengthening the state apparatus and maintaining his popularity with the army, who were also generously funded. In many ways, Saleh used his power to not only keep them at bay, but to control the sheikhs through the granting or withholding of largesse and lucrative contracts at his pleasure. It might be argued that much of this took place at the expense of the average Yemeni citizen, but this was deemed a minor inconvenience. It is not for nothing that the country was described at this time by Robert Burrowes as ‘a kleptocracy, government of, by and for the thieves’.

The increased opportunities for investment in North Yemen, not to mention the discovery of commercial quantities of oil in 1984, brought about a certain degree of economic growth (or at least the appearance of it). Certainly the north began to pull ahead of its southern neighbour to some extent, especially as Soviet aid to the latter became more parsimonious. This is reflected in Sana’a’s overtaking of Aden as the largest city in the country(ies). In the immediate aftermath of the crazy events of 1986 in the south, relations were not particularly good between the two Yemens. More border skirmishes took place in 1988 and yet within two years, the two countries were unified. What happened? Well, behind a lot of the sudden enthusiasm for unification was the fact that oil was found in the border region, and in order to extract as much as possible, co-operation made far more sense than fighting. Indeed, the last round of border fighting had led to the creation of a demilitarised zone in order to assist oil extraction.

Both the Saleh and Beidh regimes saw advantages in joining with the other. South Yemen had been cut loose now that the USSR was collapsing, and Saleh had his own problems in North Yemen, where the growing prospects of oil wealth also created the problems of tribes feuding over access to it. He also came under pressure to pursue unity from Saddam Hussein, who was at the height of his influence and power in the Arab world at this time, and who saw a united Yemen as a potential ally in a showdown he wanted to engineer with Saudi Arabia. The leadership of the south were initially less enthusiastic of merging their much smaller (demographically) country with the north, but were won over by promises of disproportionate influence within the ministries of the new country and the illusion that the YSP would win subsequent elections. A certain personal chemistry between the two presidents seems to have played a part, and al-Beidh in particular became a decisive advocate of unity. By no means were all convinced, as one member of the southern government threatened to have everyone else shot if they agreed to the plan.

Friends forever! Beidh (left) and Saleh (right) at the announcement of unification

But agree they did, with what some might describe as undue haste, likely in order to forestall their opponents’ attempts to rally opposition, and on 22 May 1990 the new Republic of Yemen was declared. If you look closely at the picture above, where unity was declared, you can divine more about what lies ahead from the expression on the soldier’s face in the background than either of the politicians.

This was never going to be a union of equals any more than England and Scotland will ever be a union of equals (let’s not kid ourselves!), and it didn’t take long before this became apparent. Flowery rhetoric about taking the best of each country’s systems and amalgamating them into one improved state were not followed through by practice. Instead, ministries were not really integrated in anything more than a superficial sense and officials continued to think of themselves as northerners and southerners. Oil was found in the south later that year, fueling regret among some in the south that they had agreed to the union so hastily, now that they had to share the profits. Timing wasn’t great either. Only two months after unity, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait (yes, this blog is well overdue a post on Iraq) and Saleh was placed in an awkward predicament. It has already been seen how he enjoyed fairly close relations with Hussein (although they look like they’re squaring up for a fight in the image below) and he probably would have preferred to avoid taking Iraq’s side against the entire western hemisphere at this juncture. Popular revulsion at Saudi Arabia’s welcoming American troops into the land of Islam’s holy sites, however, pushed him to side with Iraq, the only other Arab state to do so.


Yemen’s refusal to get on board with the First Gulf War cost them dearly in economic terms; the Saudis kicked out the almost one million Yemenis working there, who had been keeping the economy afloat with remittances. When they came home, unemployment skyrocketed. The Americans were livid that their Secretary of State, James Baker, had been publicly defied by Saleh when he visited the country in late 1990 to basically order the Yemenis to toe the line. In retaliation, the U.S. withdrew $70 billion dollars of aid to the country.

All of this boded ill for the country and for prospects of a successful union, but oddly enough it did not bode particularly ill for Saleh’s regime in itself. New oil finds meant new wealth to distribute to his supporters, the first unity elections held in 1993 were a triumph for his General People’s Congress (GPC) who won 123 seats in parliament, and a massive disappointment for the YSP who had expected to do so well but ended up with only 56. They were even surpassed by a moderate Islamist party called al-Islah (reform) led by the above-mentioned sheikh Abdullah al-Ahmar, which is a sign of the growing sympathy for political Islam in the early 1990s, as we will see in subsequent posts. Southerners’ frustration at being dominated instead of treated as equals grew and Beidh retreated to Aden, fearing for his life in Sana’a. One of the many institutions which had been no more than superficially amalgamated was the army, and brigades from north and south respectively began to mass along what had been the border in early 1994.

Fighting had already started by the time Beidh announced the rebirth of South Yemen in May, but this ephemeral state hardly existed outside Aden and Mukalla, notwithstanding the fact that Saudi Arabia now, ironically, supported the ‘godless Marxists’ because they were espousing the breakup of Yemen. Perhaps surprisingly, the United States did not back up the Saudis for once and, forgiving his lack of support against Iraq, backed Saleh. Islamists within the country also sided with the North Yemen president, who made deft use of this combined appeal to religion and national unity to garner popular support to his side. It was all over within six weeks, northern forces rolling into Aden while Beidh and his supporters fled by boat to Yemen. The army proceeded to loot the city as conquerors, and from here on in unification comes to resemble conquest of the south by the north more and more. It’s telling that Beidh and other YSP leaders were airbrushed out of pictures celebrating unification, leaving Saleh along, unchallenged as ‘the leader’ of a united (whether it wanted to be or not) country. This was reflected in the results of the first presidential election, held in 1999, in which Saleh won with 96.2% of the vote. Popular guy eh?

But for all his supposed popularity, Saleh was about to be challenged not by a rival from the conventional political spectrum, but by a force he had helped unleash in Yemen. Among the soldiers from the north who sacked Aden in 1994 were many jihadist veterans who had fought with the Mujahideen in Afghanistan, whose support Saleh had been happy to harness for the cause of defeating the south. They also often came from families who had their roots in the south, but had been expelled by the Marxists back in the 1960s and lived in exile in Saudi Arabia ever since, and saw themselves as taking back what was rightfully theirs. Of course Islam was not new to Yemeni politics, but the context in which it was appearing now was innovatory. Unlike earlier brands of moderate reformist Islamists, more akin to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or Syria, many of these younger activists embodied a more combative, crusading mission; there were reports, for example, of them destroying alcohol and trying to impose sharia in Aden when they took part in the assault.

These were uncompromising zealots who would not be co-opted or bought off by the president but who, on the contrary, would push him aside if he did not share their vision. As Saleh came to enjoy warmer relations with the United States, it became increasingly clear that he did not share their vision, but few in the United States could even find Yemen on a map, let alone have any idea it was becoming a hub of Islamism and anti-American sentiment towards the end of the 1990s. In Aden harbour six years after the civil war, they signaled even more dramatically their intentions of taking jihad to the infidel by detonating 300kg of explosives in a small boat against the hull of the USS Cole docked there, briefly grabbing the Americans’ attention before it (transient at the best of times) was diverted to Afghanistan and Iraq in the aftermath of 9-11. But something was stirring in Yemen, a movement that would see Islamic-inspired insurgents challenge the state’s authority from north to south. It would be in the north among the Zaydi that one of the most successful of these organisations, Ansar Allah (the supporters of Allah) would emerge. Colloquially known as the Houthis, after their leader Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi (below), they would go from being a relatively apolitical religious revival movement to being forced into confrontation with the government on their home ground in 2004, to become a formidable military force that had taken the capital San’a itself in 2014. But the manner in which they achieved this really merits another post.

Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi



Featured image above: Ali Salem al Beidh (left) and Ali Abdullah Saleh (right) at the announcement of unification.

A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 14: Yemen #2

A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 13: Yemen #1


This seems to be as good a juncture as any to look at Yemen, partly because we touched on it in the last post, and partly because it is so topical. One of the most shameful man-made humanitarian catastrophes is taking place right now (May 2018) in this country as a result of the civil war which has been raging since March 2015, in what was already the Arab world’s poorest country. Now, over 8 million people are facing the immediate threat of famine, 50,000 children alone died last year of starvation and a cholera outbreak, probably the worst the world has ever seen, has killed over 2000, with a million suspected cases up to the end of 2017. One of the world’s richest countries, Saudi Arabia, is bombing one of the world’s poorest, with the implicit approval of not only the United States, but also the United Kingdom, France and Canada, who all sell arms to them.

What’s going on right now does not, of course, take place in a vacuum but in the context of a power struggle between the Houthis and the government, which itself had taken power after a series of popular protests in 2011 had forced the president of 33 years to step down. In the spirit in which this blog is intended, therefore, it behooves us to examine the historical context in which all this took place, and to show that the tragic events that have taken place in Yemen over the last few years are not a bolt from the blue, nor are they the kind of incomprehensible, ‘tribal’ or religious war they are sometimes portrayed in the media, but the result of long-festering political tensions and power struggles between actors both inside and outside Yemen.

First of all, some basic facts about Yemen: it’s a country of 27 million people, a bit bigger than Spain, takes up most of the southern part of the Arabian peninsula. As can be seen from the map below, it consists of a highland area to the west (confusingly called the north, which we’ll get to in a minute) and a much less-densely populated desert lowlands in the eastern part of the country, a region called Hadhramaut.


The frequent division of Yemen into North and South (they were separate countries until 1990) is because the west of the country is far more densely populated than the east. When people refer to ‘south’ Yemen therefore, they mean the bit around Aden, south of Sana’a, although as you can see from this map, parts (mostly empty parts though) of the former South Yemen were further north than parts of North Yemen.


This western part of Yemen is (or at least has been historically) pretty fertile by Arabian standards, and the frequently-cited fact that Yemen is the poorest Arab country has not always been the case. Once upon a time, this was one of the richest corners of Arabia, and was known to the Romans as Arabia Felix (happy Arabia) as opposed to the rest of the peninsula, which is mostly inhospitable desert. The Yemenis (who seem to have thought of themselves as a distinct people since the seventh century at least) once had a monopoly (which they closely guarded) over coffee, although Europeans eventually succeeded in stealing the plant and began to grow it cheaper elsewhere with slave labour. Yemen’s wealth and geographically important location (at a vital point on the sea lanes between European and India) also meant Yemen was the subject of interest from several imperial powers. The Ottomans dominated a great deal of their history until the twentieth century.

It is the immediate aftermath of the First World War, and the collapse of the Ottoman empire, which we took as the chronological outset of this blog, and for good reason: so many modern Arab nations have their genesis at this moment when they escaped the dominion of the Turks only to fall into the clutches of the French and British, in the case of Palestine, Lebanon, Syria for example (see part one). Such was not the case of Yemen, however, at least not the northern part. The Ottomans had never really established a strong hold over the country, and when they abandoned any pretensions to doing so, neither the French nor British were in a position to move into their place. The south, around the port of Aden (one of the world’s greatest natural harbours) was a different story. The British had been there since the 1830s, when they purchased the port, recognising its massive potential as a refueling point for their steamships on the way from Europe to India. Aden was integrated as a Province of British India and remained so until 1937, when it became a crown colony.

What emerged from the Ottoman collapse in the north of Yemen was an independent kingdom, led by a dynasty of Imam-Kings from the northern highlands, a region which has historically produced formidable fighters and is home to a brand of Shia Islam more or less unique to Yemen: the Zaydi. The Zaydi are a group within Shia Islam whose followers, in the eighth century, recognised a younger son, Zayd, of the fourth Shia Imam as their leader instead of the eldest son, recognised by other Shia. Yemen is pretty much the only country with significant numbers, and the rulers who founded and ruled the Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen (1918-1962) were both political leaders and religious ones, who kept a tight rein on the country, jealously guarding absolute rule for themselves and, for the most part, attempting to keep their kingdom cut off from the threatening influence of the outside world.

Flag of the Mutawakkilite Kingdom from 1927.

Imam Yahya had already been Imam of the Zaydi since 1904 when he became king in 1918. He proved himself a canny and ruthless ruler in the three decades he presided over the kingdom, recognising the importance of the clans and tribes in the highlands, whose frequent interventions in the politics of the region in the centuries of sporadic Ottoman rule had shown how they could make or break a ruler. Imam Yahya micromanaged Yemen to an extraordinary degree, trusting no-one to make any decision of consequence besides himself and running things according to a kind of medieval petitioning-system whereby people had to come and petition him personally if they wanted anything done. He was also notoriously jealous of foreign interest in his country’s resources and (probably wisely, as it happens) rebuffed attempts by oil companies to prospect there and by other western corporations to open up the country to their products by trying to give him lavish gifts. His rejection of such offers and the austere lifestyle he lived despite his great wealth won Yahya a great deal of respect among Yemenis as befitting a man who was their spiritual as well as temporal leader.

The same could not be said for his son, Ahmad, who took power after the assassination of the king in 1948. Yahya became more and more unpopular towards the end of his reign, as his heavy-handed repression of those who called for fairly modest reforms provoked a more radical opposition movement. Their killing of the king might have led to a toppling of the regime, but for the fact that Ahmad acted quickly when he heard of his father’s killing, heading north to the northern tribes loaded with as much gold as he could carry to win them over to his side in the coming struggle. Within a few months, he had wiped out his enemies and installed himself in power, a position he would hold onto for fourteen bizarre years of decadence of madness. Ahmad (below) is the kind of figure whose excesses presage the downfall of a monarchy. While his father had been ruthless but perceived as fair, Ahmad was ruthless but petty and unpredictable, gratuitously cruel at times, preoccupied with his own aggrandisement and the acquisition of technological marvels such as cars and telephones from abroad for his own personal enjoyment, while continuing the policy of keeping the country isolated from outside influence. A few vignettes from his reign that give some impression of the vibe: he had a gigantic portrait of himself erected in the public square outside his palace, he drowned his court jester dwarf, he collected hundreds of bottles of aftershave and liked to personally attend public beheadings and play with electric trains.

Screenshot from 2018-04-19 11:49:11.png

Although clearly a conservative figure who would have liked to keep Yemen in a perpetual middle-ages with himself as the divinely-appointed ruler, Ahmad nevertheless made alliances and sought aid from whoever was willing to give it with the least strings attached. This made for some unlikely alliances with, for example, the Soviet Union and Maoist China. His foreign policy was largely dictated by fear of domination by Yemen’s large neighbour, Saudi Arabia, which was beginning to flex its muscles and exploit its oil wealth towards the end of his reign. While he and his father had been pretty successful in cutting Yemen off from the outside world, by the 1950s the cult of Nasser could not be kept out, the contagion of Arab nationalism, republicanism and secularism. It is no surprise that plots were laid against him, and yet, despite his eccentricities, Ahmad also seems to have had a cat’s nine lives, surviving an astonishing number of attempts to depose him. The most amazing was when he was sick in hospital in 1961 and some plotters shot him three times at point blank range; he survived by rolling onto the floor and pretending to be dead, although he was injured and lived only a year longer in a morphine-induced haze. He died in September 1962, against all the odds, peacefully.

His son was duly appointed but this was the end of the road for the Mutawakkilite monarchy. In many ways, it is amazing they soldiered on for as long as they did, and even the last king, Muhammad al-Badr, made a decent fist of fighting to take back the throne from the republican army officers who deposed him after only a week in power. Such a coup had been on the cards for some time, led by a cadre of officers who Imam Ahmad had taken the risk of sending to Iraq for training, risky because since 1958 that country had been a republic, having overthrown the Hashemite monarchy. The transfer of power from father to son was the window of opportunity these officers needed to seize control of Sana’a with little opposition and declare the Yemen Arab Republic, what is usually referred to as North Yemen. The republicans were led by Abdullah al-Salla, a forty-five year old colonel who was among those who had trained in Iraq. Here he is with his pals at a military display the year after taking power.


The seizure of power was initially fairly efficient. The usual massacre of ministers and royal allies took place in the main square. The monarchy might have fallen then and there if it wasn’t for two factors: firstly, Imam Badr escaped, fleeing north for the traditional rallying of northern tribes to fight for him (well, for money really) and secondly he received outside help. The second is probably by far the most important, as most accounts suggest that the Imam-king did not inspire a huge amount of loyalty or love from his subjects, but that they fought for him because he could pay them handsomely, and because he commanded the support of the Saudis. Here is Imam Badr with some of his fighters during the civil war which followed:


It was really only over the border in Saudi Arabia that any prospect of a counter-attack against the new republic became realistic, but of course  the monarchists were not alone in receiving outside help. We alluded in the last post to Yemen, and this war, as ‘Egypt’s Vietnam’, and indeed the North Yemen civil war (1962–1970), when it is remembered, is usually primarily remembered as a proxy war between Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The Egyptians staked far more in North Yemen than the Saudis. By the time of the Six-Day War against Israel in 1967 (when they really could have done with extra troops) roughly half of Egypt’s forces were bogged down in North Yemen and the war consumed over 20,000 in casualties by the time they were finished. While they ultimately managed to prevent the king’s return to power, it would be hard to argue that the Egyptians ‘won’ the war in any meaningful way.

In many ways the country exasperated Nasser and his officers, who found Yemeni fighters (both their allies and enemies) untrustworthy and indifferent to ideology, simply fighting for whoever would pay them the most. A Soviet journalist reported on the shocking amiability between supposed enemy tribesmen when gathering for negotiations near the Saudi border: ‘They hugged each other like old friends, kissed each others’ hands, and, once the initial greetings were over, spent a good while strolling around the enclosure hand in hand, as is the local custom.’ (cited from Victoria Clark’s excellent Yemen : Dancing on the Heads of Snakes, Yale University Press, 2010). Nasser reportedly introduced al-Sallal to Nikita Khrushchev, remarking, ‘I just wanted you to see what I have to put up with.’ For all its fine republican rhetoric, the Egyptian campaign was distinctly unheroic and can be seen, along with the Six-Day war, as one of the turning-points at which Arab secular nationalism lost its way. Yemeni villages were bombed, chemical warfare was used, the kind of torture methods alluded to in part 2 as common in Egyptian prisoners were exported to Yemen. This is not the way to win converts to your cause, and in the end, the Egyptians were seen by many Yemenis as just another invader. Again, parallels with the United States (whose invasion of Vietnam was masked in rhetoric about not being like the old European colonial powers) abound.

Another foreign power that intervened in the North Yemen civil war was Britain, although they were not honest enough to do it openly and to this day, in all the coverage of the current Yemen crisis, it is hardly ever talked about. Of course, the British backed the fedual despotic monarchy but before we look at their clandestine intervention in North Yemen, lets get up to date with what was happening in the south, where there was nothing clandestine about the British presence whatsoever. As noted above, the British had obtained the port of Aden back in the nineteenth century and, while not entirely unwelcome to many of the Indian and Jewish merchants who lived in the port town, the Arabs and surrounding tribes put up sporadic resistance to the British presence. Aden was something of a backwater in the British colonies, hot and uninviting, it was perceived as one of the less desirable places you could be sent as a soldier or administrator. This changed somewhat when the Suez Canal opened in 1869 and Aden became more prosperous as a result of the increased importance of the Red Sea route to the east.

Although it became an economically more attractive location, and could be said to have thrived in some respects, the Yemenis continued to resent the British occupation of their best port and largest urban centre. In order to deal with the surrounding animosity, the British made more and more treaties with shiekhdoms in southern and eastern Yemen, seeking to buy off local rulers with arms and money, to convince them to leave them in peaceful possession of Aden in return for which they were largely left to their own devices. It was much cheaper than filling the country with soldiers and trying to pacify it, which the British were smart enough to realise (from looking at what had happened to the Turks, and would happen to the Egyptians) was pointless. Another cheap expedient was using the RAF to punish disobedient tribes and villages from the 1920s onwards, a technology to which the Yemeni tribesmen (like the Iraqis bombed by British aircraft in the revolt of 1920) had no answer.

The application of this in Yemen is described by a retired colonial official in this 1985 episode of a TV series, End of Empire, around 7m24s in:

What the old dude is describing in the clip sounds a lot like terrorism but the narrator of the programme seems to accept the whole thing as perfectly acceptable, referring to it without the bat of an eyelid as ‘air policing’!

The political arrangements of the British with southern Yemeni tribes evolved into the Aden protectorate, subdivided for administrative purposes into eastern and western divisions. When an independent kingdom emerged in northern Yemen, the Imams there claimed to be rightful rulers of the whole land, providing weapons to anyone within the British areas who would back up their claims. The British, for their part, filled the region with weapons given to anyone who would support their claims, which became more and more important to defend as Britain’s empire began to fragment and disintegrate in the period after the Second World War. This corresponded with the growing importance of Aden as both a maritime (it was the third-busiest port in the world) and aviation hub (the busiest RAF base in the world) at this time, not to mention the fact that BP had built a huge oil refinery there. Retention of Aden, especially after the Suez crisis, therefore became the concern to which everything else was subordinated in British planning.

The port’s success, however, was linked to growing hostility towards British rule in that the increasingly-powerful merchant community and the growing number of industrial port workers began to demand rights associated with an urban bourgeoisie and proletariat. In the post-war period, a kind of legislative assembly for Aden was granted (for which few could vote), and workers began to organise trade unions. Political astute Arabs were almost inevitably influenced by the Arab nationalism that was proving an inspiration all over the Middle East in the 1950s, and the inevitability of independence was recognised by the early 1960s by everyone, including the British, who hoped to manage this ‘independence’ in their own interests by creating a state called the Federation of South Arabia, which was to consist of sixteen of the more westerly sultanates over which the British had exercised a protectorate, wedded (somewhat reluctantly) to Aden. The remaining territories in the east (see the .gif above) would remain outside the federation as the ‘Protectorate of South Arabia’.

But history had run ahead of the British, and the offer represented by the federation was too little, too late for Yemenis, who now wanted full independence like their northern counterparts, and were prepared to fight for it. The proposed state would exclude most Yemenis from participation in political life and in any case offered them no real self-determination, especially not over Aden. The fact that the British designated the place the ‘permanent’ headquarters of their Middle East Command in 1962 would suggest they were not planning on giving it up any time soon. The federation also gave undue power to the rulers of the various small states at the expense of Aden, against which the British had long been playing the rural hinterland as a means of divide-and-rule, and which now wanted no part of this proposed puppet state. It did have quite a nice flag though:


The opposition to British rule had, by the time the monarchy fell in North Yemen, morphed into an effective movement for full independence in the south, which received assistance from the republicans in Sana’a and Egypt. The National Liberation Front (NLF) was the name of this group and attracted broad support because it recruited not only among port workers but also among rural tribesmen. Led by Qahtan Muhammad al-Shaabi (below), a British-trained agricultural officer who had come under the influence of Nasserist ideas in Egyptian exile, the NLF perceived nothing less than direct armed action would induce the British to leave, and initially waged a guerilla war in the Radfan area north of Aden. The British, whose intelligence on the freedom fighters appears to have been dreadful, dismissed the NLF as primitive tribal forces, seemingly missing the fact that these were being armed and trained by professional Egyptian soldiers from just over the border in North Yemen. Failing to take them seriously at first, it was far too late by the time they realised they commanded widespread support from the population and collaboration from the British-trained Arab police and military that carried out much of the day-to-day policing in the protectorate. Aden and the surrounding area drifted into all-out war towards the end of 1963.


The NLF’s instruction manual encouraged its activists to engage in relatively-innocuous actions like breaking the colonists’ air-conditioning and pouring sugar in their petrol tanks, but it wasn’t long before the things turned distinctly ugly: hand grenades were hurled at parties of British soldiers and their families (whom they persisted in bringing over with them as if nothing was amiss) and the British in turn responded with the torture of civilians in custody and summary collective punishment in the streets.


You might think it would improve things, but the coming to power of the Labour Party in October 1964 if anything only made things worse. As centre-left governments often come under suspicion of not being tough enough militarily, they often feel compelled to dispel these doubts about their resolve by being even more pigheaded and aggressive than their right-wing counteparts. Harold Wilson’s party in opposition had criticised the federation plan for not giving any representation in power to the people of Yemen, but merely handing some power over to autocratic sultans. Once in power, however, they came under American pressure behind the scenes to dig their heels in and stick to the Conservatives plan. The Americans were concerned (rightly, as it happened) about southern Yemen falling into the Soviet sphere of influence if the British lost it. They, therefore, continued the policy of imposing the British settlement by force. They also lost the support of the Arab contingent associated with the labour movement in Aden, led by Abdullah al Asnag (below) which up until now had been campaigning peacefully for democratic rights for the inhabitants of Aden, and felt deeply betrayed by the Labour Party when they failed to support them.

Abdullah al Asnag.jpg

Coming to the conclusion that full independence and a military campaign to achieve this was now the only option, they formed the Front for the Liberation of Occupied South Yemen (FLOSY) in early 1966. It was less Marxist in its outlook than the NLF and would soon be fighting them for control over the independent state which was to emerge in South Yemen. By this juncture, Wilson’s government had decided to throw in the towel and declared their intention to depart by 1968. What with the speed of political developments in the Middle East (the Six-Day War) and the rapidly deteriorating situation in Aden, they were compelled to leave even earlier, in November 1967, leaving their erstwhile allies, the sultans and shiekhs whom they had tried to install as rulers of the federation, completely high and dry and without protection after independence.

The period between announcing their intention of leaving and actually leaving saw, oddly enough, an escalation of violence, as embittered British troops and Arabs engaged in tit-for-tat killings which escalated as the British-trained local army and police forces came out openly on the side of the freedom fighters. June 1967 saw the occupation of the Crater district of Aden by these forces, who killed twenty-two British soldiers in one day. The area was reoccupied the following month by a force (they marched back in playing bagpipes) led by one Colin Mitchell, nicknamed ‘Mad Mitch’ in the British media which, smarting from the injury to their imperial pride, built him up into a folk hero, who would later be elected an MP on the basis of his celebrity. Dubbed ‘the last battle of the British empire’, in reality, Mitchell’s forces engaged in looting, sniping at civilians from the rooftops and pointless gratuitous violence in the final few months of British occupation.

The fact that this episode was perceived by sections of the British public as a victory of some kind says a great deal about the continuing emotional draw of empire and the reluctance (which continues to this day) to see it for what it was. Episodes like Aden were the bully’s last petulant punch before withdrawing in a huff, and (like Cyprus, Kenya, Northern Ireland) are far more representative of the vicious way in which the empire was relinquished than the much better-remembered and celebrated withdrawal from India. It’s also telling that the British to this day refuse to refer to it as a ‘war’, persisting in calling it the Aden ’emergency’ (just like Kenya, Cyprus, Malaysia, the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland), they seem reluctant to describe them as wars. I wonder why.


The NLF meanwhile was moving more and more to the left and under Soviet influence. The Egyptians switched support to the more centrist (and more malleable) FLOSY and it may well have been Nasser’s support that induced the departing British to recognise the rival NLF as its successors to power as they were leaving. The latter crushed the former more or less at the same time as the British left and the People’s Republic of South Yemen was declared on the 30 November 1967 with Qahtan Muhammad al-Shaabi as its first president. This would quickly become an avowedly-Marxist state, renamed the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen three years later, when al-Shaabi was removed from power by the more hardline communists, and we will look at its history up to unification with the north (1990) in the next post.

Returning to North Yemen, Britain’s intervention there was far more hush-hush and not widely acknowledged to this day. After the takeover by the republican government backed by Egypt, the British were keen to see the Imams regain their kingdom, being against whatever was Nasser was for and for the same reason they backed the tribal rulers in the south. One of their more well-informed officials in the country, Christopher Gandy, described what they were defending as ‘an arbitrary autocracy’ and recommended recognising the republic who were ‘much more open to contact and reasoned argument’. He was overruled by British leaders, however, who at the same time recognised the embarrassing inconvenience of standing up for reactionary despotic regimes, but for whom Britain’s imperial interests (fading as they were) were always prioritised over everything else.

The spread of modern republicanism and democracy was perceived as a direct threat to these interests, and so had to be combated, not only in Yemen, but everywhere in the Middle East where Britain continued to have a finger in the imperial pie. Indeed, some of the more die-hard imperialists saw no shame in what they were doing and again, we have the bigotry of one of their number for a fairly frank account of what was going on here. Aviation minister Julian Amery commented in 1963:

The prosperity of Britain rests on the oil of the Persian Gulf, the rubber and tin of Malaya, and the precious metals of south and central Africa. As long as we have access to these, as long as we can realize the assets we have there, as long as we can trade with this part of the world, we [the people of the United Kingdom] will be prosperous. If the communists were to take them over we would lose the lot. Governments like Colonel Nasser’s in Egypt are just as dangerous.

This can be seen around 11:50 in a documentary made by the wonderful Adam Curtis back in 1999.

The obvious contradiction between all of this reactionary conniving and the progressive, democracy-loving image the British wished to convey was becoming obvious to the more intelligent of their own population, so they had to do it all covertly. The man for the job was the subject of the above documentary, David Stirling (below), who had founded the SAS during the Second World War and, in the 1960s, was among those active in the corridors of power (Amery was a personal friend) resentful of Britain’s declining imperial role in the world and looking for ways to exert it again. He agreed with Amery and another Conservative MP, Billy McLean, to recruit mercenaries from among his SAS comrades and in France for a clandestine operation in North Yemen, funded largely by the Saudis and Jordan. The SAS couldn’t be committed officially (but were in all but name) but enough plausible deniability was created to distance the government from their actions.


The purpose of Britain’s covert operation was less to win the war than make life hard for the Egyptians and in the (as we have seen, ultimately vain) hope of preventing the war in North Yemen from upsetting their rule over Aden. As Mark Curtis has noted (see Unpeople: Britain’s Secret Human Rights Abuses) the British recognised in private that their clients had no chance of winning the war but, as Prime Minister Harold Macmillan told President Kennedy ‘it would not suit us too badly if the new Yemeni regime were occupied with their own internal affairs during the next few years’. An internal memo at the time noted that ‘the present stalemate in the Yemen, with the Republicans and Royalists fighting each other and therefore having no time or energy left over to make trouble for us in Aden, suits our own interests very well’. Mines were lain, railways blown up. Again, it’s hard to avoid the impression that, if all of this had been orchestrated by Colonel Gaddafi or Iran, they would call it terrorism, but there you go.

The British operation in North Yemen no doubt made a contribution to Egypt’s military disaster there, and although they pulled out in 1967, the royalists did not retake power (the Saudis had also withdrawn their far-less extensive military presence). Once the foreign armies left them to it, the Yemenis eventually came to realise that neither side was likely to achieve outright victory and, when al-Sallal was removed and replaced by a civilian leader, Abdul Rahman Al-Iryani, things began to move towards a compromise. By 1970 it was agreed that the republic would stay, but many of the royalist figures would be offered influential roles in government, with the exception of the royal family itself. Muhammad al-Badr went into exile in Britain and died in London in 1996.

In the next post, we will follow the paths of these two Yemens, North and South, from the early 1970s on to unification in 1990 and beyond. While the south pursued a doctrinaire Marxist line until the collapse of their Soviet sponsor, the north occupied an ambiguous position in the late Cold War years, dominated by president (1978-2011) Ali Abdullah Saleh and preferring to take help from whoever would give it with least strings attached. While the northern Zaydis had failed to restore their Imam to the throne, they remained an important factor in the north’s politics, re-emerging in another form and another name, the Houthis, in the mid 1990s.

Featured image above: Sana’a skyline.

A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 13: Yemen #1

A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 12: Saudi Arabia and the ‘Arab Cold War’

nasserfaisalAfter the previous posts on the Afghan war, my intention was originally to examine the participation of foreign fighters in that war and their subsequent attempts to launch jihad in various other countries in the 1990s. I will defer this story for another post, however, as I wish first to backtrack somewhat to where we were after part two of this series, that is, back in the Arab world, and back in the 1960s, looking at the demise of the secularist Arab nationalist movement, personified by Egypt’s president Gamel Abdel Nasser. What left the story somewhat incomplete at that stage was the existence of an opposing movement in the Arab world at the same time that Nasser and his allies were espousing a modern, technologically-driven rebirth of society that would stand up against western imperialism. This was a conservative, theocratic vision centered around the traditional monarchies of the region, led by Saudi Arabia, which in the 1960s would become the standard-bearer and chief rival of Nasser’s Egypt in what scholar Malcolm Kerr termed the ‘Arab Cold War’.

I wouldn’t push this analogy between the US-Soviet Union Cold War and the Egypt-Saudi Arabia one too far. It certainly isn’t universally accepted and differs in profound ways. One similarity is that it did not develop into direct military confrontation, but involved proxy conflicts fought between the two regional powers in other countries, namely Yemen, which sadly is back in the news (although not enough in the news) on account of outside interference. In any case, this rivalry, and the wider battle for the soul of the Muslim world, between conservative Islam and secular nationalism, is crucial for understanding what lies ahead. The notion of an Arab Cold War is also a useful framework within which to prepare the ground for future posts I want to write on Iraq, Libya and Yemen, although a lot will be said about Yemen in this post as well. In part two, I took a fairly detailed look at what was happening in Egypt up to the assassination of Sadat. In part one, I also covered the beginnings of Saudi power in Arabia, and its emergence as a power after world war two, when it positioned itself as a firm partisan of (and oil supplier to) the United States in the Cold War.

To comprehend the weirdness of Saudi Arabia, it really has to be understood how rapid was the transformation from a feudal (probably a clumsy use of that word, sorry) society, tribal in structure and desperately poor, to a modern petro-state, one of the richest in the world with the military capacity of the world’s preeminent superpower at its disposal, and yet underpinned by a conservative religious ideology that sought to reinstate an imagined ‘purer’ Islam, using tremendously-enhanced resources, acquired by linking its economic fate inextricably with the modern world, while at the same time trying to keep that world at bay. Contradictions such as this about in Saudi Arabia. While a bastion of traditionalism, there is nothing traditional about the kingdom. It is a thoroughly modern creation, dating as we saw in part one, to the 1920s-30s. The name literally means the country conquered and ruled over by the Saud dynasty. I can’t think of any other country whose name reflects its rulers in this way; it’s as if ‘Putin’s Russia’ or ‘Elizabeth’s England’ were the actual official title of those respective countries.

We have already seen, in brief outline, how Ibn Saud came to power by warring on his rivals in the decades prior to ‘independence’ in 1932. What we haven’t really examined, however, is how the kingdom he established came to be a functioning coherent state, as opposed to a loosely-allied group of warlords under the umbrella of one uber-warlord. And this is where the American oil companies came in, for it was they who initially built the infrastructure which would tie together the new state and lay the foundations of its power. At the time of independence, little of this existed. Ibn Saud consolidated his power by personal alliances, marriages, suppressing possible rivals (especially within his own huge dynasty) and lavish hospitality. All this left him with huge debts, which the Standard Oil company of California, SOCAL (a predecessor of today’s Chevron Corporation) offered to help him with if he would let them prospect for oil in his territory.


It is interesting to note that Ibn Saud took the trouble to consult the religious authorities, the ulema, on the wisdom of consorting with infidels in this matter, not so much because they said it was acceptable, but because the were hardly likely to say otherwise. The fact is that the Saudi king had already co-opted them to a large extent, consulting them publicly on the compatibility with Islam of other innovations such as the car and telephone, to none of which they offered any serious challenge. It was a formality, but nonetheless it is notable that he felt the need to keep up the pretense. This was because, despite the acquiescence of the religious establishment in his project, Ibn Saud still faced opposition from Islamic traditionalists in other corners of Saudi society. At the time the first foreigners were arriving to look for oil, anecdotes tell of the imam of the mosque in Riyadh giving a sermon to a congregation of which Ibn Saud was a part about the sinfulness of co-operating with infidels. The king is said to have interrupted angrily and countered with another sura from the Qur’an, suggesting such co-operation was permitted. This tension, between the Saudi government-sanctioned form of the faith, and those who felt the integrity of Wahhabist doctrine had been compromised, will be a constant underlying theme throughout the whole of Saudi history, and once we’ve had a look at the kind of state Ibn Saud and his sons created, we will backtrack a bit and examine the various undercurrents of dissent that existed in the country and how they were dealt with (spoiler alert: it ain’t pretty).

Oil was of course found, in large quantities, in 1938 at Damman on the Persian Gulf in the east of the country and things moved quickly from there. Although the disruptions caused by Second World War in some ways slowed early development, the post-war reconstruction and alliance with the United States no doubt made up for this. A subsidiary of SOCAL, the California-Arabian Standard Oil Company, took care of business in Saudi Arabia, and in 1944 its name was changed to the Arabian-American Oil Company (ARAMCO). It might be argued that ARAMCO is as important a factor in the story of Saudi Arabia as the Saud family itself. In these first decades after the war, ARAMCO basically performed the functions of a state which the Saud family didn’t initially have the resources to: building infrastructure (much of it in the early years at least, primarily for the use of the royal family) such as roads, railroads, a communications network, schools, hospitals, you name it: ARAMCO took care of it, for a hefty fee of course.

Screenshot from 2018-04-11 11:23:31
Still from Aramco publicity film, 1950

Riyadh’s population exploded in these years, from around 50,000 at the end of the war to 150,000 in 1960 and over 500,000 in 1970. The capital was connected by railway (built of course by ARAMCO) to Damman in 1951. The country was basically a construction site, much of this work (not to mention the drilling) supervised by infidels the conservative elements in Saudi society had been so reluctant to allow in-mostly Americans but also some Dutch, British, Italians, etc. While the years after oil-extraction commenced saw an explosion in the numbers of non-Muslims in Saudi Arabia (before this, they had probably numbered fewer than fifty), this does not mean that they wandered around the country at will, freely interacting with the locals. On the contrary, ARAMCO’s workers lived in a weird, cloistered world shut off from Saudi society in vast compounds in which they attempted to recreate as much as possible the conditions of suburban America which they had left behind. At the Dhahran compound near Damman, a regime of racial segregation was imposed in which the foreign workers lived in luxurious, air-conditioned quarters surrounded by barbed wire fences, while their Arab colleagues lived right next door in an unfenced compound that, in the early days, lacked basic services such as electricity, water and plumbing.

Images from Aramco compound, Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, 1950s

The Saudi workers in these oil-fields were people who, for the most part, had been almost entirely cut off from the outside world, living a sedentary or nomadic life within the desert that had changed little in centuries. This world was suddenly turned upside down, exposed to the influence, not only of the westerners which both ARAMCO and the Saudi government attempted (but never completely managed) to confine within the compounds, but also of Arabs who came from other parts of the middle east to work in the industry. Palestinians, for example, came and told their fellow Arabs of their travails and the Nakba; ideas of pan-Arab nationalism begin to foment within Saudi Arabia, even secularism; workers came under the influence of socialist ideas and attempted to organise. Another potentially destabilising factor was the fact that in the early years, most of the functioning oil wells were in the eastern province of the country where most of the country’s Shia live, a minority (about 10%) with which the Saudi rulers have not always enjoyed smooth relations, especially after the revolution of 1979 in nearby Iran. In the mid-1950s, about 60% of ARAMCO’s native workforce were Shia.

This propaganda video gives an idea of the kind of hybrid world being built in the desert in the 1950s:

These revolutionary social developments began to see political consequences in the 1950s, for all the government’s (and the Americans’) efforts to maintain the status quo. The deplorable conditions in workers’ camps led to strikes among the ARAMCO workforce in 1953 and 1956 that obtained some improvement of conditions. The authorities’ tactic seems to have been to take the edge off this dissent by making material concessions, but conceding nothing in the way of political rights, and certainly not allowing the labour movement any opportunity to organise itself into anything resembling an opposition. The most prominent of these opposition figures was Nasir al-Sa’id, a worker from Ha’il in the northern interior of the country. While offering improved wages and camp conditions, people like al-Sa’id were imprisoned. When released, he left the country and led a kind of opposition in exile from Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Egypt. While not regarded as a huge threat by the Saudis for most of the 1960s-1970s, in the period following the seizure of the Grand Mosque of Mecca in late 1979, which he claimed was part of a people’s revolution, al-Sa’id was kidnapped from his home in Beirut and never seen again, the widespread suspicion (never confirmed) being that the Saudis got hold of him.

What happened to al-Sa’id—exile, possibly execution, attempts to excise him from public memory (he doesn’t even have a wikipedia page as far as I can tell, nor can I find a picture of him anywhere) is typical of those who have stood up to the Saudi regime, which has this strange double face: on the one hand presiding over dramatic changes in the social and material fabric of the country, while simultaneously trying (largely successfully) to maintain an unchanging political hegemony. Just as all these dramatic changes were taking off, the country’s founder Abdulaziz Ibn Saud died in 1953, and power passed to the first in a series of sons which, to this day, have ruled the kingdom in succession. Saud (one of forty-five sons) came to the throne at the age of 51. He had been groomed to inherit his father’s kingdom from an early age, after the death of his older brother of flu in 1919. Here he is, posing with two of his favourite  butlers in 1957:


Saud was a dud, which became clear over the following decade. He spent lavishly on palaces and stuff for himself and his dynasty while the country’s debt spiraled out of control. While the oil business was booming, but it wasn’t that booming, and huge debts (much of which he had inherited from his father) meant that cuts had to come somewhere, given the refusal of ARAMCO banks to extend. Under Saud, these cuts generally came from public works projects. Given that the ‘public sphere’ in Saudi Arabia was more or less limited to the royal family, opposition to Saud coalesced around two focal points: his brother Faysal, with whom he had been vying for power since before their father died, and a much younger brother, Talal. But Faysal first:

Faysal, king from 1964 to 1975

Both Saud and Faysal had received extensive training in expectation that they would succeed to positions of power in the kingdom. This training seems to have impressed itself upon the mind of Faysal more profoundly than Saud. He had been minister for foreign affairs since 1930 and prime minister since the time of Saud’s accession, when the post had been created, along with a Council of Ministers, as a gesture on Saud’s part towards sharing power with his relatives. This council would instead become a battleground, as Saud used it to promote his adherents and immediate family members. Government ministries became pawns controlled by the king as he sought to scheme against what he (rightly) suspected was his brother’s scheming against him and filled posts with allies, some from the royal family, others from less-prominent collateral branches or people he trusted. This alienated those in the family who felt shut out, who rallied around Faysal. One of the most important of these was the ‘Sudairi Seven’, so called because they were all sons of Abdulaziz Ibn Saud with Hussa bint Ahmed Al Sudairi, and two of whom have succeeded as king. Instead of getting bogged down with all their names for the moment, just to note that these were a powerful ally for Faysal as the Saud regime’s financial situation deteriorated and the king’s incompetence more and more apparent to those in the know.

Relations began to deteriorate between the two brothers in the early sixties and Saud was less successful than Faysal in maintaining a power-base. Saud’s assumed for himself the powers of prime minister in 1960 and at this point his rival was merely waiting for his opportunity to act. This came in 1962 when Saud went abroad for medical treatment. Forming a cabinet in his brother’s absence, Faysal, with the support of the ‘Sudairi Seven’ and other allies, announced a program of reforms that included the creation of a basic law, the abolition of slavery (yep, they still had that) and the establishment of a judicial council. Having secured the support of the ulema (Islamic religious scholars), it was a done deal by the time Saud came home. Although there was a short period in which he was allowed to remain as a figurehead, it wasn’t long before Faysal had him removed from this capacity as well, and Saud left the country, dying in Greece in 1969.

And yet in many ways, his predecessor was the least of Faysal’s worries. Saud was yesterday’s man. The threats facing the Saudi regime going forward came from other sources, some within, some without. As we have already seen, politics in Saudi Arabia was essentially something practices only by the extended family of the king. Everyone else was a bystander, if they were even observing public events. Among those in the inner circle were younger sons of Ibn Saud, especially Talal bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (below) whose mother was Armenian, and who Ibn Saud had doted over in his old age. Talal and some other younger brothers formed a faction that oscillated in their loyalty between Saud and Faysal, and when Saud failed to listen to their proposals for some modest liberalisations of the autocratic regime, Talal and some of his allies moved abroad in 1961, forming an opposition in exile in Lebanon and Egypt and heavily influenced by the vibe behind Gamal Abdel Nasser, hence the moniker they gave themselves: the ‘Free princes’ (cf. the ‘Free Officers Movement’ in Egypt).


Although influenced by Nasser, the Free Princes did not go as far as proposing the deposition of the king, merely its transformation into a constitutional monarchy. Although their movement was clothed in the revolutionary-sounding language of nationalism and socialism, in reality it was liberal and rather modest in its vision for Saudi Arabia. It basically envisaged the Saudi kingdom making the leap that France had made in the 1790s. Notwithstanding these ideological differences (although Nasser’s ideology is somewhat opaque also), the Free Princes Movement became closely associated with the charismatic Egyptian leader, who enjoyed a god-like status in the Arab world in the early 1960s. Nasser had not always been at loggerheads with the Saudis. Initially, they had been allied in common enmity towards the Hashemite regimes (see part one) of Jordan and Iraq. Nasser visited Saudi Arabia in 1956 and was greeted with popular enthusiasm, something worrying to the Saudi authorities. Don’t forget this was an era when monarchies were being overthrown all over the place (Egypt: 1952, Iraq: 1958, Yemen: 1962 and Libya: 1969). The image of solidarity was shattered when it emerged in 1958 (following the short-lived union of Egypt and Syria) that Saud had hired a hitman to assassinate Nasser.

By the time the Free Princes Movement emerged, therefore, relations between Egypt and Saudi Arabia had soured, and this rivalry for leadership in the Arab world is what is sometimes dubbed the ‘Arab Cold War’, a rivalry between two states that were merely emblematic of a deeper rivalry between two visions for the future of the Arab world: one secular, modernising, left-leaning and the other monarchical, conservative, informed by a three-centuries-old religious orthodoxy. When Faysal came to power in 1964, he defined more sharply Saudi Arabia’s role as a counterweight to secular nationalist regimes like Egypt and Syria. You would probably think, standing at the vantage-point of 1964, that a contest between these two visions would inevitably lead to the triumph of the modernising, forward-looking vision. You’d be wrong.

The ‘Free Princes’ were reconciled with the Saudi regime when Faysal came to power. It might be asked why. They achieved none of their aims really. Their return to the fold had less to do with improved relations with the dynasty back home than a worsening of relations with Nasser, and this had a lot to do with the ‘Cold War’ between Egypt and Saudi Arabia which had become distinctly hot. This actual war took place in one of those corners of the Earth where ‘great powers’ like to wage their proxy wars: Yemen.

Rather than treating Yemen as an aside in another story (which is the way it often gets treated) I want to go into it in a more detailed post of its own) so let’s not dwell here on the circumstances surrounding the civil war that started in 1962 when republicans took power from the king and imam, Muhammad al-Badr, who had only been in power a week. This transformed the Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen (what is today the western part of Yemen, often confusingly referred to as ‘North Yemen’) into the Yemen Arab Republic. The king fled north and got help from the Saudis, the republicans got help from Egypt. This set the scene for a proxy war between the two Arab heavyweights on Yemeni soil (sound familiar?), the Saudis being freaked out by the sudden presence of 20,000 Egyptian soldiers on their southern borders, not to mention the first republican government on the Arabian peninsula.

A quick Yemen gif

While Nasser’s commitment to the republicans in Yemen was wholehearted, Saudi support for the royalists was less spectacular, reflecting the fact that, while the country was an economic powerhouse, politically, militarily, Saudi Arabia remained a fairly minor player in the Middle East. To change this was one of Faysal’s main objectives. The Yemen war, however, was something of a shambles; some Saudi pilots even flew their planes off to Egypt to defect. Saudi Arabia got some half-hearted help from the Americans, but under Kennedy, they themselves were going through a period of attempting to win Nasser over from the Communist side, so they weren’t going to do too much to help; indeed, the United States recognised the Yemen republic in late 1962 to the dismay of the Saudis. Saudi and Egyptian involvement in the Yemen war would come to an end in 1967. They had already agreed behind the scenes that it was mutually destructive and in any case they had bigger fish to fry in dealing with Israel in the Six Day War. Incidentally, the Yemenis themselves worked out a compromise that ended the civil war in 1970, but more of that in a separate Yemen post.

While the Saudis did not achieve their objective of restoring the king in Yemen, it could not be said that Egypt emerged from the war with the spoils of victory. Yemen is sometimes referred to as ‘Egypt’s Vietnam’ and, in the years that followed, Faysal would implement a series of administrative and fiscal reforms, coupled with a series of diplomatic manoeuvres which would place Saudi Arabia in a more commanding position within the Arab world. Crucially important was Arab defeat in the Six Day War, which damaged the reputation of Nasser, and after which the Saudis pledged a great deal of petrol-dollars to the Palestinians’ struggle. Perhaps even more important were the events which followed the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War in 1973. At the same time, Faysal brought the country into greater alignment with Israel’s greatest ally, the United States. In order to flex its muscles more effectively in the world at large, Faysal took advantage of the only asset Saudi Arabia had: oil.

After the outbreak of another war with Israel in 1973, the Saudis will lead an attempt to punish Israel’s western allies, especially the United States, for its steadfast support for the occupation of Palestine. This oil embargo on a select group of countries is epoch-making, not so much for the impact it had on the Israel-Palestine conflict (very little as it happens) but as heralding in a new era of Saudi power and the increased centrality of oil to geopolitics, not to mention contributing greatly to  a severe recession which would have huge knock-on effects, both political and social, which we arguably live with to this day. It is worth backtracking a bit to look at the evolution of Saudi oil policy and the creation of OPEC, the organisation through which this embargo was effected.

Handing over the exploitation of your oil to someone else, in return for a cut of the profits, makes some sense when you don’t have the expertise or resources to get it out of the ground, refine it and transport it around the world. What happens over time, though, is usually that the resources derived from oil-wealth are partly spent on developing indigenous resources and infrastructure, educating and training indigenous technicians and administrators, until the day comes when the reasons for handing over your resources to the oil companies no longer apply. The original disadvantageous agreement comes to be seen as an unfair constraint on the country with the natural resources, and the desire to reassert control over them becomes irresistible. We have already seen what happened in Iran when Mohammad Mosaddegh attempted to nationalise Iran’s oil and take it back from the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (BP to you and me). In Saudi Arabia, taking over control of the oil did not have such destabilising consequences. ARAMCO remained an American-owned company until the 1970s, when the Saudi state began to buy it out, a process complete by 1980.

From the 1960s on, one of the most important figures in Saudi politics was the head of the Ministry of Petroleum and Mineral Resources. The first of these was Abdullah Tariki (below), who had gained an education abroad patronage of the state in geology and was made first minister for oil in 1960. That year, he was instrumental in founding OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) along with his Venezuelan counterpart. They did this (Iran, Iraq and Kuwait also joined) in the hope of exerting more control over the price and volume of oil produced, which at that time was controlled by the a cartel of multinational oil companies with little regard for the countries from whom they had obtained concessions. Particularly resented was the oil companies attempts to keep prices low as new sources of oil glutted the market in the post-war decades.


In its early years, OPEC wasn’t hugely successful in its objectives. Much of the oil was still in the hands of western multinationals, not the states in question, but as states like Saudi Arabia acquired more and more control over its own resources (another long-term strategic goal of OPEC) their leverage gradually increased, as did the prospect of them using oil prices to exert influence over politics, especially as they concerned Israel-Palestine. To those in the west who are happy to guzzle petrol like there is no tomorrow, but pay little attention to where it comes from (i.e. most people) the measures taken by the Arab OPEC countries in response to the west’s support for Israel in the 1973 war came as a big shock. It shouldn’t have (OPEC had, only months before the war, raised the price of oil by nearly 12%) but it did, and I think if we are honest, there has always been a sense among many in the west that the petroleum under the ground in foreign lands, even if they are no longer colonies in a formal sense, is somehow the birthright of white people living in Europe and America.

In October 1973 then, OPEC cut production by at least 5% (and some countries like Saudi Arabia by more) and increased prices by an initial 17% (in the following months, this would result in a 70% increase in the price of oil internationally), but most spectacularly of all, announced a complete oil embargo against Israel’s main western allies: the United States, Canada, Japan, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. Tariki had been replaced by this stage by Ahmed Zaki Yamani (below), who in many ways was the face of this effort to deter the west’s support for Israel.


To show the long-term effects of the ‘oil crisis’ of the 1970s is beyond the scope of this post. Just one observation: it can be seen as a crucial nail in the coffin of the post-war economic boom and the social-stability afforded by the accommodation between business and organised labour, resulting in rising living standards, the welfare state, etc. All of this entered a period of crisis in the 1970s, which was taken advantage of by neoliberals like Reagan and Thatcher at the end of the decade.

But for Saudi Arabia, the results of this period were more mixed. Israel emerged triumphant from the Yom Kippur War and the embargo was lifted in March 1974 having failed to achieve its political objectives. The increase in oil prices that following during the series of oil shocks of the 1970s brought a huge increase in revenue to Saudi Arabia, from about 22.5 billion SR (Saudi Riyals) in 1970 to 163.6 billion SR in 1975, to 546.6 billion in 1980, an astonishing increase of 2329% in just a decade. An image in the west of underhand practices, of oil being used as a kind of blackmail, and underhand manipulation of the oil markets became widespread in the west at this time, which is kind of hypocritical when you consider that multinational oil companies had been doing this for decades. Their cartel had been informally known as the ‘Seven Sisters’ and while there isn’t space to go into it here, this Al Jazeera series on the subject is well worth a watch:


This is the time when an image of the ‘greedy sheikh’ emerges in the west, and a growth in anti-Arab feeling in some quarters, a resentment towards the Arabs for using their oil-wealth which follows logically from the idea that this is really the property of western nations. The 1970s can be pinpointed as the beginnings of what will become a widespread Islamophobia in the west. It is worth reflecting that it emerges at the same time that the oil-producing nations began to assert control over their own natural resources. Just a thought.

Faysal was able to use these huge financial resources to invest in infrastructure, to both improve living conditions for Saudi citizens and consolidate his control over them, not to mention purchasing ARAMCO from the Americans. His stance in at least offering symbolic support for the Palestinians bolstered his country’s standing in the Arab world, at least temporarily, and in flexing its economic muscles and provoking conflict with the United States, Saudi Arabia actual found itself in a more favourable relationship in the aftermath, having demonstrated how indispensable they were as an ally. Faysal was not to enjoy the fruits of all this for long though, as he was assassinated in March 1975 by one of his nephews, ostensibly as an act of private revenge for the killing of the assassin’s brother ten years earlier (although conspiracy theories abound).

Faysal’s trusted oil minister Yamani was standing next to him when he was shot and, in December (he had a hell of a year) he and several other oil ministers were taken hostage at the OPEC headquarters in Vienna by a team led by Carlos the Jackal who hoped to promote the Palestinian cause. The plan was to ransom all the oil ministers with the exception of Yamani and his Iranian counterpart, Jamshid Amuzegar. A plane was provided which brought the kidnappers to Algeria, where they had hoped to fly on to South Yemen. In the event, pressure from the Algerian government, which was revolutionary but not that revolutionary, secured the release of the oil ministers, although they did allow Carlos and his associates to walk free.

When all this smoke had cleared, the tensions between Saudi and American interests appeared to have been resolved. The old deal stood firm: Saudi Arabia would supply cheap oil to the United States and Europe and in return, the United States guarantee Saudi Arabia’s  (or rather the Saudi dynasty’s) security, both internal and external. But there was always (and still is) a glaring paradox to both parties allegiance to the other: Saudi Arabia’s closest ally just happened to be the main sponsor of Israel; later on, when American claims to be combating Islamic fundamentalism will be starkly contradicted by their close alliance with the Saudis. Another problem was that the explosion in oil-wealth had produced a materialism in Saudi society, as well as a growing reliance on American military technology, which was frowned upon by the hardline Wahhabists and others who questioned the Saudi monarchy’s claim to be the legitimate interpreters of what constituted the ‘true’ path.

It is interesting to reflect that the Saudi monarchy has always tried to legitimise itself by stressing its religious credentials and its adherence to the Wahhabist doctrine of returning to a ‘purer’ Islam and shedding it of idolatrous and erroneous practices that it has allegedly accumulated over the centuries. At the same time, the measures that it has taken to maintain its grip on power and accumulate its massive wealth have involved what many would argue have taken the country in the opposite direction. While always careful to get the establishment ullema onside, not everyone has been convinced, and it hasn’t always been easy for the Saudi monarchy to put the genie of religious fundamentalism back in the bottle once out. An early and dramatic example of this came in November 1979 (only months after the revolution in Iran) when the Grand Mosque in Mecca, the Masjid al-Hara, was seized by al-Ikhwan, armed followers of a religious figure they claimed to be the Mahdi, or redeemer who many Muslims believe will appear shortly before the end days and rid the world of evil. Many of those who participated in the seizure of the Masjid al-Hara were indoctrinated by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood who had fled Nasser’s repression and been offered sanctuary by Faysal in the 1960s and early 1970s. Their military leader was Juhayman al-Otaybi (below), who was the son of one of the original Ikhwan, who had fought for Ibn Saud in his conquest of the country in the 1920s. When Saud won independence and recognition from the British, and began to collaborate with westerners to consolidate his rule, the Ikhwan, who had been told that all foreigners were infidels and wanted to keep fighting, revolted against Saudi rule in 1928 and were brutally suppressed in the following years.


The complaints of the 1979 Ikhwan bear certain resemblances to their forefathers’ criticisms of the Saudi regime (by now, Khalid was king: 1975-1982), that they had betrayed Islam by their pursuit of profit and adoption of western decadence; also subject to criticism were the ulema for rubber-stamping all this. Al-Otaybi railed against any concessions to a public role for women, immodest dress, television, and currency with an image of the King on it. The mosque seizure lasted two weeks and was ended when Saudi troops, with Pakistani and French assistance, stormed the area and captured most of the Ikhwan, beheading al-Otaybi and sixty-two others the following month at eight locations around the country.

But this, as you no doubt know, was far from the end of Salafist militancy in Saudi Arabia. Much of its energies would be channeled into fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan during the 1980s, a cause the Saudi government heartily supported, providing them with funds and training and packing them off on their merry way. The cause of the Mujahideen Afghanistan was also helped by private donors, the more ardent of which even traveled to the country itself to see what could be done on the ground. Among these was the seventeenth son of fifty-two children born to a construction magnate named Mohammed bin Awad bin Laden, who had come from Yemen with practically nothing and become one of Saudi Arabia’s richest men by founding a construction company which undertook a large number of infrastructure projects for the monarchy. Mohammed, a close associate of Faysal in particular, was also deeply religious and before his death in a plane crash in 1967, imbued in his children a deep respect for the austerity and orthodoxy of Wahhabite traditions, despite the temptations offered by their enormous wealth. Here are some of his kids on a visit to Falun, Sweden in 1971, while one of the brothers conducted business with Volvo. See if you can spot the most famous child, Osama, aged sixteen.


But this story will be the subject of a future post on foreign fighters in the Afghan war and the development of the Salafist movement generally in the 1980s and 1990s. Whether this will be the next post or the one after that I am not sure yet. I would like to set things up for a proper assessment of political Islam as it becomes a major geopolitical factor in the nineties. This involves taking a close look at places like Algeria, Bosnia, Chechnya, not to mention giving Yemen some detailed attention. In summary to this post though, we have seen in the 1960s and 1970s, the eclipse of the left-leaning, Nasserite vision in the Arab world by a conservative Islamic monarchist one, American-allied and fiercely anti-communist. Even in Egypt, as we saw in part two, the regime after Nasser’s death will begin to move away from the Soviet sphere of influence and towards the Americans, flirting with political Islam as it did so, although Sadat would pay dearly from his drawing back from this alliance when he perceived that it was a force that he might have trouble controlling.

If there was a winner of the ‘Arab Cold War’, it was the religious conservative establishment, personified by the Saudi monarchy, a triumph that seemed to be consolidated as the Soviet Union and the eastern bloc tottered and fell in the 1980s. But although they used religion to legitimise their rule, and the Americans were happy to see Islamic fundamentalism as a stick to beat the Russians with, they had opened up a Pandora’s box and unleashed a political ideology they would lose control of in the very moment when the ‘end of history‘ seemed to have arrived. Of course, it might also be argued that the west simply needed a new bogeyman once the communist one had been vanquished, and the Islamists fit the bill perfectly.


Featured image above: Nasser and Faisal of Saudi Arabia, 1960s.



P.S. Osama bin Laden is second from the right.

A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 12: Saudi Arabia and the ‘Arab Cold War’