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 been 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.

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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 1


I wrote this because, in the aftermath of the attacks in Paris on 13 November, I wanted to provide as concise and clear an account as possible of the events which have led us to this impasse. I wanted to do this, because I noticed it was hard to find a good source online that explained, in a way accessible to non-specialists, the emergence and rise of radical Islamism in an historically accurate way, illustrating (and not merely asserting) its relationship with foreign intervention in the Muslim world over the last century. Having said that, what follows is, in truth, far from brief. These are complicated issues, and if we demand explanations that can only be squeezed into a tweet or a facebook post, we are truly doomed to ignorance. If you really want to understand, read on. If you haven’t the patience, please don’t go around asking why the next time some lunatic blows himself up in a crowd of people in some European or American city.

Most of all, I was moved to write this because the official ‘explanation’ of the horrific violence meted out by Islamic extremists against innocent civilians has, for many years now, seemed to me deeply unconvincing, and ignores so much of the historical context of our relationship with the Muslim world. Such ‘explanations’, dribbled out continuously by the 24-hour news media, usually lay stress on the religious ideology of groups like IS and Al-Qaeda, arguing that the root cause of the conflict is something intrinsic to Islam, that makes them ‘hate our freedoms’ and want to wage unending war against us. Many people are satisfied with this narrative: ‘radicalised’ fanatics are the motive factor behind this conflict, which is a ‘clash of civilisations’ that has been going on for centuries between ‘them’ (backward, intolerant, implacable) and ‘us’ (liberal, free, peace-loving). The evidence at hand simply does not support such conclusions however.

In what follows, it may appear that I am at pains to exonerate Islam of responsibility for the violence carried out in its name. This is not my intention. Exoneration, vindication or justification are not the point here, but explanation. That said, it often happens that those who seek to explain the roots of Islamist militancy are accused of justifying it. It seems clear to me (and I remember well how this was the case in the weeks and months after 9-11) that such accusations are usually nothing more than an attempt to shut down debate and prevent discussion of the historical context of these events. Those who would wish us to blindly support our rulers’ attacks on ‘them’ have good reasons for not wanting an open and broad-ranging discussion of these issues.

To lay my cards on the table, I am in fact temperamentally ill-disposed to religion as a general rule. If I found the evidence suggested it was the primary motive factor behind the rise of violent Islamism, I would be all too willing to reach that conclusion. I am also a historian, however, and a historian must take account of the evidence, even when it leads her/him to conclusions she/he would rather not reach. On a very basic level, it seems impossible to ignore the context in which this movement has emerged, and to conclude that other circumstances beyond religion have fostered its growth. While violent sects will always attract a few individuals, the simple ideological attractiveness of militant Islam alone seems insufficient to account for the droves of people, so filled with hate they are prepared to take their own lives to take revenge on their enemy. It is the conditions from which these people have emerged that I wish to describe in what follows.

This is no more than a sketch, a potted history of political Islam in the modern world, which  tracks its genesis and growth as a reaction to western intervention in the Muslim world over the last century. The modern period will be focused on here, because a longer view, stretching back indeed to the beginnings of Islam in the seventh century, quickly disabuses us of the notion that ‘the west’ and Islam has been at loggerheads, locked in some kind of titanic struggle for supremacy ever since the time of Muhammad. A passing familiarity with the history of the Islamic world in the centuries since will also reveal as false the idea that Islam has always been an aggressively militant and expansionist religion, intent on winning new converts by force and exterminating infidels. Certainly in its early centuries, with the creation and expansion of the Caliphates, this was the case. From the first Christian Crusades at the end of the eleventh century, however, the conflict in which Islam found itself in with ‘the west’ could more accurately described as defensive than aggressive.

Furthermore, and even more interestingly, as the Crusades petered out in the fifteenth century, Islam as a whole exhibited far more tolerance and religious pluralism than European Christianity. While Christians were burning heretics and engaging in endless religious wars up until the seventeenth century, religious minorities within the Ottoman empire (the main power in the Muslim world up until modern times) were guaranteed, under the ‘Millet system’, freedom of worship and to be judged according to their own legal codes. For the Ottomans, no doubt brutal and imperialistic in their political and military ambitions, religion and the expansion of Islam seems to have played little part in their calculations.

The point of this foray into the more distant past is to show that there is no continuity between modern political Islam and the militancy that characterised the religion in its early history, although both IS and western elites (for different reasons) would like us to believe that. In fact, it is a thoroughly modern phenomenon, and emerged from a specific set of historical circumstances which many of us are blissfully ignorant of. It is these events that have created the conditions by which religious fanatics who, under normal circumstances, would be seen as laughable fringe members of society, have come to be regarded as a credible alternative by people who have lost faith in all other ideological alternatives.

The post WW1 ‘settlement’

To describe these circumstances, the best place to start is the aftermath of the First World War, and the break-up of the Ottoman empire in the decade after its conclusion. The Ottoman’s had already lost a number of its territories in the decades before the war. The following map shows the territorial arrangements that were reached between the allies, France (purple) and Britain (pink), dividing the Levant into their own zones of control. The dates indicate the year in which the respective territories broke away from Ottoman control and into the sphere of British or French influence.


Many of the Arabs living in these territories, who had helped the allies defeat the Ottoman Turks, had been led to expect some form of independence after the war was over. Having made commitments to support such aspirations, the British and French secretly negotiated the Sykes–Picot Agreement, by which they agreed to carve up the spoils of the Ottoman collapse between them without taking into account local interests. Not surprisingly, the disappointment and sense of betrayal was therefore acute among some Arabs on account of this. This resulted in uprisings against both their new British and French rulers, in Kurdistan (1919), Iraq (1920), Jordan (1923) and in Syria (1920 and 1925-7), all of which were brutally suppressed by the colonial powers. Egypt, which had passed from Ottoman to British control several decades earlier, was nominally granted independence as a constitutional monarchy in 1922, but the British retained control over defence, imperial communications and the protection of foreigners within the country, as well as the territory of Sudan to the south. Egypt’s so-called independence was therefore severely restricted, something the Egyptians were themselves only too aware of. We will return to Egypt after the Second World War. Other parts of North Africa were likewise subject to the dictates of imperial politics; Algeria and Libya in particular will feature in this story later on and it is there the early background history will be filled in.

The situation was even more complicated in the newly-created British ‘Mandate’ of Palestine, due to the presence of another significant religious minority, namely the Jews. While the Arabs in the region had been led to believe they would be granted self-government after the war, the British government had also, in 1917, promised the Zionist movement support in their campaign to establish a homeland for the Jewish people in the region, the ‘Balfour declaration’, named after the British foreign secretary at the time, Arthur Balfour. At the same time, it will be remembered, they and the French were secretly negotiating to divide up the region between them.

It is no surprise then that the Israel/Palestine region therefore was plagued by instability, as two different ethno-religious groups campaigned for their own independent states and increasingly came into violent confrontation with each other and the British authorities. In the 1930s, the Arabs led an armed uprising, attacking both the British and Zionists. As the Nazi persecution of the Jews in Germany intensified in the 1930s, the number of Jewish refugees coming into the area swelled and further exacerbated tensions. This led the British to impose restrictions on Jewish immigration and land purchases, and ultimately led to an armed campaign by Jewish underground groups against the British during the Second World War. This would ultimately lead to the establishment of the state of Israel (1948) and the expulsion of about 700,000 Arabs from the area. These would form a huge Palestinian refugee population which exists to this day. The foundation of Israel was to have huge significance for the relationship between Muslims and the west, most immediately in the Arab-Israeli war which marked its birth. But we are running ahead of ourselves. Before we address this, we must first return to the inter-war period and note two important themes which it is important to take into account. One is the way local elites were sometimes rewarded by the colonial power to ward off resistance by the Arabs. The other is the growth of Arab Nationalism.

Arabia in the inter-war period

You may be wondering what the story is with the large blue area on the map above. Was this enormous area of the former Ottoman empire allowed go its own way by the British and French after the war? Well, yes and no. While the post-war arrangements did provoke armed insurgency in the region, a number of powerful figures in the region were allowed by the new overlords to found their own ‘independent’ kingdoms and emirates. Two dynasties are important in this respect, the Hashemites and the Saud. This is Hussein bin Ali (left), and his two sons, Abdullah (centre) and Faisal (right).


This was the Hashemite dynasty, one of the most powerful ruling families of Arabia, and were induced to assist the British in the war against the Ottomans by the promise of rule over the own kingdoms after the war. The patriarch, Hussein, was initially sceptical of co-operation with the British, but following correspondence with the British High Commissioner in Egypt, Henry McMahon, he  agreed to support a revolt against the Turks in 1916, in return for independent rule over a vast span of territory from Egypt to Persia. The British, with reservations, agreed to this, but as has already been seen they simultaneously made contradictory promises to  both the Jews in Palestine and their allies the French. It may be asked why the British went to such lengths to win over a local ruler in a region which, for much of the previous centuries had been a backwater with little importance in geopolitical considerations. The answer is that they were anxious to secure oil supplies from Persia, which the Turks could potentially cut off.

It is worth reflecting for a moment on the tremendous importance that oil and petroleum products were assuming  in modern industrial society at this time, on account of the invention of the internal combustion engine and the boom in car production, among its other uses. It is surely no co-incidence that Arabia suddenly became of vital importance in western power politics at the same time. Just before the First World War, the Anglo-Persian Oil Company had been set up to secure a supply of oil for the British in what is today Iran. The British navy, under Winston Churchill, was converting its ships from coal to oil in this period; to secure a supply of oil was therefore doubly important.

To return to Hussein bin Ali, with the defeat of the Turks, he was only recognised by the British as ruler of a relatively small area of western Arabia called the Hejaz, although this area did include the very prestigious cities of Mecca and Medina. The Hashemites had been, for some years, in conflict with the rulers of neighbouring Nejd (see map above), the Saud dynasty. In 1924, when Hussein’s kingdom was attacked by the Saud, the British declined to assist him and he was defeated, fleeing into exile. The Saud dynasty, led by Abdulaziz Ibn Saud, had been expanding their territory for some years from a core area around Riyadh, which would become the capital of the state they founded (1932) from their conquered territories, Saudi Arabia.

By the sheer scale of his conquests (by the end of the 1920s he dominated almost the entire Arabian peninsula) Ibn Saud made himself indispensable to the British in the increasingly important region. Recognising this, he undertook not to threaten British territories in the region, in return for which he was supplied with money and weapons. With these, he was able to further strengthen his hold over the peninsula. This is Ibn Saud, talking to President Roosevelt on board an American warship anchored in the Great Bitter Lake, Egypt in 1945.


As the Second World War drew to a close, an exhausted Britain was clearly on the decline and its imperial interests being eclipsed by American ones. That an American president was prepared to make a detour after the Yalta conference attests to the importance they now placed upon friendly relations with Saud, even more so after the discovery of vast oil reserves in 1938. It cannot be stressed enough that the necessity of securing control over the oil supply became of primary importance in the region. The following graph shows the relative explosion in oil consumption in the decades after 1920:


Ibn Saud and his sons (each subsequent king of Saudi Arabia would be one of his estimated 45 sons) were thus able to sell their co-operation to the highest bidder, and became the United States’ most important strategic ally in the region, besides Israel.

Besides the importance of oil, it is also vital to our story to recognise the fact that Saudi Arabia, assisted by the west, has been a bulwark of conservatism and religious fundamentalism in the middle east. This is largely on account of an alliance between the ruling Saud and the adherents of a movement within Islam called Wahhabism. This religious ideology is a strand within a wider movement known as Salafism, which calls for a rejection of innovations and heretical practices that they argue have crept into Islam in the centuries since it was founded. They call, therefore, for a return to the practices of the first three generations of Muslims, known as the Salaf (ancestor), hence the name of the movement as a whole. The alliance between the Saud and Wahhabism goes back to the eighteenth century, originating in the Nejd region. Fuelled by petrodollars, the movement has expanded throughout Arabia since the mid-twentieth century.

In the early years of Ibn Saud’s consolidation of power, he did find himself in conflict with some of the more strict Wahhabis, who wished to keep foreigners and modern technology out of the country. These elements were defeated by Saud, and a trade-off accepted by the Wahhabis, that in return for its promotion by the ruling dynasty, it would accept Saud’s dealings with outsiders on which his power was based, and the modernisation of the country to the extent that it was necessary to extract the oil. It is an irony of Saudi religious policy that a movement which regards as objectionable the trappings of modern life, such as technology, as well as and dealings with non-Muslims, should become dependant for its vitality on these very things. The efforts of Wahhabism to expand its influence beyond Arabia, and the support which it will give to militant Jihadist groups later on make it a crucial part of this story. It should be noted at this stage, however, that these Jihadists are only a small minority within the Salafi movement, but for obvious reasons have received far more attention than other strands, who either avoid politics altogether or expressly disavow armed force.

To return to the Sauds’ rivals, the Hashemites. While Hussein bin Ali had been deposed by the burgeoning Saudi state, Hussein’s sons were to prove more astute in their dealings with the west. Faisal (most westerners familiar with him will probably picture Alec Guinness, who played him in the film Lawrence of Arabia) was an active leader of the Arab campaign against the Turks and, with the British, led the liberation of Damascus from Ottoman rule in 1918. He then set himself up, with British recognition, as the head of a Syrian kingdom. British concessions to the French, however, sacrificed Faisal’s interests, and Syria was handed over the the French in 1920. French attempts to control Syria had already provoked an armed revolt the previous year, and Faisal now led a brief military campaign to resist the imposition of French mandatory rule. This failed, and he was forced to flee to exile in Britain.

Faisal’s ambitions to rule an Arab kingdom were far from over however. The territories east of Syria and the Levant had been conquered and occupied by the British at the end of the war. These had originally been three Ottoman provinces: Mosul, Baghdad and Basra. They contained a variety of ethnic and religious groups, and to bunch them together in one ‘country’ like this was a classic example of colonial powers creating nations-and problems for the future-with little regard to the identity of the people actually living there. This is exactly what the British did with these territories. They called the new country Iraq. Initially, the plan had been to make the area a British mandate territory called Mesopotamia, but the local Arab population, as well as the Kurds in the north of the country, revolted in 1920.

After initial successes, due to the scarce British resources in the area, the British brought in aircraft and extra troops, and this turned the tide against the Iraqis. A sense of the contempt in which the Arabs were held by the British can be gauged from the serious discussions which took place to use poison gas against them, if the ‘need’ should arise. Winston Churchill (who had by now been made Secretary of State for War) wrote in 1919: “I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes” for its “moral effect”, that is, to “spread a lively terror”. Lest it appear that Churchill was singular in this respect, the British Manual of Military Law at the time stated that the rules of war did not apply  “in wars with uncivilized States and tribes” in which commanding officers were advised to use their own discretion.

Although it continues to be the subject of debate, poison gas does not appear to have been used in the event. The campaign as a whole, however, cost the British more than the entire Arab revolt against the Turks had, and made them modify their plans for the region. Realising concessions had to be made to aspirations of Arab independence, the British chose instead to create a monarchy in Iraq, although maintaining indirect rule (let’s not forget the oil!) through the mandate. They chose Faisal, who was practically unknown to the locals, as their puppet king. Faisal attempted to foster pan-Arab unity, bringing in many Syrians and Lebanese to the Iraqi kingdom (which was resented by the locals) and maintaining hope of a unified Arab state at some future date. With the mandate expiring in 1932, the British negotiated a treaty of alliance with the newly-independent kingdom, especially important after discovery of a huge oil-field in the north of the country in 1927, found by a consortium of companies, the largest of which was the aforementioned Anglo-Persian Oil Company.

Oil gusher spouting near Kirkuk, c.1932

Faisal died, possibly poisoned, while visiting Switzerland in 1933. His successors lasted until 1958, when a coup removed the king and created a republic. This was part of a movement rejecting colonial domination by Arab states, personified most famously by Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt, who shook off British rule in 1952. These events will be discussed in the section below concerning Arab nationalism.

One entity created in this period that would prove more enduring than the Iraqi kingdom was that of Jordan. This was awarded as an emirate in 1921 to Abdullah, Hussein bin Ali’s other son, and subsequently made a kingdom in 1946. Abdullah was given this as a reward by the British for not intervening in support of Faisal when the French took Syria from his brother. Abdullah ruled Jordan with an iron fist, and he and his successors (his great-grandson rules today) would be seen as one of the west’s more dependable allies in the region. Jordan’s role would become particularly key in the events surrounding the creation of Israel and the dispossession of the Palestinians. Before we examine this, however, it may be useful to stop and take stock of the situation following the end of World War Two.

Arab nationalism

Given the intentions I expressed at the beginning of this piece, you might expect that I would link grievances among Muslims with the genesis of Islamic fundamentalism. In fact, the overwhelming response of the Arab world to European imperialism in these years did not take a backward-looking or religious form at all. The ideological challenge to British and French rule in the region came instead from Arab nationalism. This was a secular movement, often vaguely-socialist in character, which sought to imitate European nation-building and combine the benefits of western technology, while championing Arab identity. It often included a Pan-Arab dimension, and sought to establish a large and unified state stretching across North Africa to Iraq. What is important to remember at this point is that the Arab nationalists were rivals to the Islamists, and would become bitter rivals. Outside Saudi Arabia, secular nationalists held overwhelming power in most Muslim countries until the Iranian revolution of 1979, and brutally suppressed Islamist organisations. Indeed, there would develop a kind of religious fanaticism in the way governments like Nasser’s in Egypt and Assad’s in Syria dealt with the Islamists’ movement, a brutality that no doubt fostered the militant tendency in political Islam and hardened its resistance.

But this repression would intensify later on, when the secular nationalists were on the defensive against a growing Islamist threat. Immediately after World War Two, they were in the ascendancy, and Arabs across the middle east placed their faith in leaders who represented modernising, secular, anti-imperialist leaders. No leader was more emblematic of this movement, its rise and downfall, than Gamal Abdel Nasser.


Nasser was an officer in the Egyptian army under the British-backed King Farouk. In the 1940s, he and other military personnel grew increasingly dissatisfied with not only British domination of Egypt, but the king’s rule as a whole. While nominally independent, the extent of British control over Egyptian affairs can be seen in the fact that the British Ambassador, in 1942, forced the king to dismiss his prime minister for having pro-Axis sympathies. Nationalists like Nasser, and his fellow officers in the clandestine group, which would become known as the ‘Free Officers Movement’, naturally saw such incidents as a humiliation, and indicative of the degenerate state of the country under the king. Defeat in the 1948 war against Israel further fuelled public discontent with the regime. The success of a 1949 coup in Syria (see below) further emboldened the officers, and they finally deposed the king in 1952 and established a republic.

At first Nasser, while the power behind the coup, remained in the background, allowing the older General Muhammad Naguib to assume the post of first President. He had Naguib (who would remain under house arrest for 18 years) removed in 1954 and became President himself. Both the coup, and Nasser himself, were tremendously popular among the Egyptian people. The Islamist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, supported the revolution, even though their ultimate objectives were quite different from Nasser’s secular nationalist ones. They took Naguib’s side in the power-struggle of 1954, however, and after one of its members attempted to assassinate Nasser that year, they were suppressed and thousands of its members (as well as communists and other opponents) were arrested and some sentenced to death. Mistrusting his plans for the modernisation of Egypt to the vagaries of free elections, Nasser banned opposition parties and instituted a one-party state. Despite all this his popularity, not only in Egypt, but among Arabs elsewhere, soared. A great deal of this had to do with his role in the Suez canal crisis of 1956.

This crisis, often read in the west as the swansong of British imperialism, arose when Nasser announced that the Suez canal, which was in the hands of a private European company, would be nationalised and run by the Egyptian republic. His army immediately occupied the canal and closed it to Israeli shipping. This move was widely seen as a response to the British and Americans’ abrupt withdrawal of a loan to build the Aswan dam. Nasser now promised that funds generated by Egypt’s execution of sovereignty over the dam would provide the necessary funds (the dam-a huge engineering project, was completed in 1970). This move enraged the old imperial powers, who (despite a UN security council resolution supporting Nasser’s move) made an agreement with Israel to re-occupy the canal and remove Nasser from power.

Britain and France were not what they had once been, however. Both exhausted by the war, the United States and the Soviet Union had now superseded them as the real power in the region, and this was soon made abundantly clear. While Israeli invaded the Sinai desert, and British-French forces took Port Said, the tripartite invasion was condemned by President Eisenhower of the United States, and the three countries were forced to withdraw. Despite the poor performance of the Egyptian military, Nasser was left, not only in power, but in possession of the canal, and he became an icon of Arab nationalists across the middle east. One of his great ambitions had been the creation of a pan-Arab state, and what was hoped would be the first step in this process took place in 1958 with the unification of Egypt and Syria as the United Arab Republic.

As it would transpire, this was the closest anyone ever got to the formation of a united Arab state, and it lasted only three years. To look at how it came about, it is worth backtracking a bit and looking at events in Syria after the Second World War, a period and country little understood by western observers. The process by which Syria became an independent country was a lengthy and messy one, involving the negotiation of an independence treaty in 1936, which the French parliament refused to ratify, the taking over of the country by Vichy France in 1940, and its liberation by Free French and English forces the following year. Once again declaring its independence, Syria was not recognised as a sovereign state until 1944, by everyone…except France. Even after admittance to the United Nations in 1945, France bombed the country in order to pressurise its leaders to grant them economic privileges after independence. Later that year, the French were forced by a U.N. resolution to withdraw and the country was finally and unambiguously independent. The numerous revolts against French rule, dating back to the 1920s, as well as the persistent attempts of France to treat Syria as a colony, even after it had been become clear that its independence was inevitable, left a legacy of bitterness towards the French in Syria, and an awareness of the unnecessary violence and death inflicted on the country. It is worth remembering in the context of French bombing of the country today that, while this legacy is little remembered by the French, Syrians are acutely conscious of it.

The towering figure of Syrian politics in its early years of independence was Shukri al-Quwatli, who had been a leader of the struggle against the French since the 1920s. He is a difficult politician to pin down on a left-right spectrum. He is best understood as a nationalist and anti-imperialist, for whom the fight for independence dominated his career. Here he is in 1943, looking grumpy after his election as president of the country:

Portrait of Shukri al-Quwatli in 1943.jpeg

While the Americans assisted in freeing Syria from French control, in the years after independence, Quwatli’s relations with the United States became increasingly strained, not least because of the Americans’ support for Israel. The Americans for their part, were concerned at Quwatli’s increasingly friendly relations with the Syrian Communist Party. The final straw was his blocking of American plans to build an oil pipeline through Syria, to transport oil from Saudi Arabia to the Mediterranean. Not for the first time, the American secret services helped organise a military coup to remove Quwatli from power and install rulers who would prove more amenable to their interests. Defeat in the Arab-Israeli war the previous year no doubt contributed to Quwatli’s deepening unpopularity and, in 1949, the army’s chief of staff, Husni al-Za’im, took power and the president was imprisoned. Needless to say, the passing of the Trans-Arabian Pipeline through Syrian territory was immediately given the go-ahead after the coup. The new military rulers of the country clamped down on leftists and communists into the bargain.

Husni al-Za’im, however, only lasted until August of the same year, before he was deposed and executed by his fellow officers. In December, the third military coup of 1949 was carried out, bringing Adib Shishakli to power, although in the following years he would use a number of civilian figures to front his government until openly assuming the title of president in 1953. In these years Shishakli essentially operated a dictatorship, in which all opposition was silenced and, although elections took place, their legitimacy can be gauged by the result of the 1953 presidential election, in which Shishakli was the only candidate permitted, and won 99.7% of the vote. This is Shiskali, in a portrait by the Time magazine cover artist, Boris Chaliapin.

Adib al-Shishakli by Boris Chaliapin

Although not a close ally (because of his opposition to Israel) Shishakli was nevertheless closer to the Americans than the Russians. If the Americans thought they had decisively brought Syria into their sphere of influence, however, they were mistaken. Events in the country did not follow the usual script, because Shishakli was deposed in 1954 by (yet another) military coup. While the army continued to exert a great influence on the direction of Syrian politics, free(ish) elections were held in the following years. Quwatli even returned as president in 1955.

The years following Shishakli’s removal saw Syria drift into the Soviet sphere of influence. One of the most decisive events to cause this was the assassination in 1956 of a leading army officer, Adnan al-Malki, who was known to be hostile to American and British plans for Syria, by a member of a nationalist party who was widely believed to be acting at the behest of the CIA. In addition to this, it was discovered that the former dictator Shishakli was actively plotting a return to power with American/British assistance. The plot was foiled and Shishakli was later murdered in Brazil by a fellow Syrian who tracked him down in his place of exile. Syria, meanwhile, began to receive arms and assistance from the Soviet Union, although it would be misleading to view the country at this point as a communist satellite. The Soviets were content at this stage to use Syria, as well as Egypt, as a bridgehead of influence in the region. Friendly relations were enough, and their attitude is indicated by their acceptance of Nasser’s refusal to legalise the communist party in Egypt. Speaking of Nasser, his popularity among Syrians skyrocketed after Suez, as did the attractiveness of union with Egypt which, as seen above, was declared in 1958, Quwatli stepping aside to allow Nasser to assume leadership of the United Arab Republic.


Nasser was an authoritarian figure and immediately banned all other political parties in Syria. This did not necessarily dampen his immense popularity in Egypt, but in Syria, the relationship quickly soured. Even groups who agreed with Nasser’s pan-Arab vision, such as the Ba’ath party, were banned, and the overbearing attitude of Egyptian officials rankled Syrians, especially within the army. Realising it was not a union of equals, army personnel began to plot secession and in 1961, a section of the military (supported by Saudi Arabia and Jordan and a business community alienated by Nasser’s nationalisation programme) staged another coup in Damascus which detached Syria from the union and restored party politics in the country. In the elections that followed, the two largest parties were those who had dominated Syrian politics in the 1950s. In the long term, the third and fourth largest parties are more important: in third place, the Ba’athists won 20 seats, and the Muslim Brotherhood won 10. As noted above, Ba’athism shared many values in common with Nasser, but had become to view itself as a rival movement with common, pan-Arab goals. It was more overtly socialist in Syria than Egypt and, as will be later seen, will dominate the country from this point on until the present day. We will look at its ideology and roots later on.

The Muslim Brotherhood will come to represent the great rival of the Ba’athists in Syria. For a blog that purports to tell the story of political Islam’s development, it will seem strange that it has hardly been mentioned. This is because, within the period covered up to now, it was a relatively marginal presence, politically-speaking. It did, however, have its roots in the same anti-colonial struggle from which the Arab nationalists emerged. The difference was that, whereas nationalists wanted to resist European domination by the selective co-option of European administrative and technical methods, the Islamists sought their model for a future society in the Quran and a rejection of not just European domination over their countries, but western culture as a whole.

Revivalist or purificatory movements were nothing new in Islam (witness the Wahhabis in Arabia), but what distinguished the Islamists was a growing conviction that they should engage in the worldly business of politics, and that Quranic (Sharia) law represented a basis on which to organise the legal and political system of a country. Once again, because it’s often assumed the Islamists advocated violent means, it must be stressed that political Islam and Jihadism are not synonymous. Although it has flirted with violence, for much of its history, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has sought to achieve its ends through the peaceful propagation of its programme, charity work, offering social services and healthcare in a country where the state’s provision of these was sorely lacking. This distinguishes them from a group like Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya for example, which sought in the 1990s to overthrow the Egyptian government by violence and the often-indiscriminate killing of civilians.

One of the big problems with the view of Islam in the west is that very often, little account is taken of deep and significant fissures and rivalries within both Islam, and even within political Islam. The fact that Saudi Arabia once funded the Muslim Brotherhood, but now regards it as a terrorist organisation should alert us to the fact that the term ‘Islamist’ covers a range of political positions, often in deadly rivalry with one another. Another misconception is that the Islamists have always been in an antagonistic relationship to the west, which has sought to promote progressive values and secularism in the region. Nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, Saudi Arabia, the bastion of conservative Islam in the region, has been the most steadfast ally of the west in the region, excepting only Israel. As will be seen, a number of the most progressive modernising regimes in the Arab world have been undermined and even overthrown by western intrigues.


The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in Egypt in 1928. Its founder, Hassan al-Banna (above), initially intended the movement as a means of fostering Islamic identity amongst workers for the multinational companies operating the Suez canal. Over the years, the movement grew into a part of the anti-colonial struggle, and elements within it sanctioned violence as well as social work and preaching. As noted above, it was initially allied with Nasser’s campaign to dethrone the king, but was later suppressed by him when it became clear their objectives were incompatible. In the fifties and sixties, therefore, while no doubt an important political entity in the consciousness of Egyptians and other Arabs, Islam was effectively shut out of influence on politics.

Branches of the Brotherhood have of course existed in most Sunni Muslim countries. In Syria, it would come to form the main opposition after the takeover of power by the Ba’athists in 1963. This rise to power of the Ba’ath party in both Syria and Iraq, their conflict with the forces of political Islam in these countries as well as other secular states like Egypt, will form a major part of the next episode. But to place all these events in context, it is necessary to look more closely at an issue that, perhaps more than any other, has been a bone of contention between the west and the Muslim world. This is the creation and expansion of the state of Israel.

End of part 0ne.


Featured image: Ibn Saud and Winston Churchill, meeting in Egypt, 1945.

A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 1