Algerian Veterans the Nucleus for Mayhem
At a palm-fringed hamlet near the Tunisian frontier in the dead of night, the first blood in this nation’s Islamic uprising was spilled, with a veteran of the Afghan War giving the orders.
Inside the small barracks at Guemar in the El Oued district, a detachment of mostly conscript border guards was asleep. Within minutes, the Muslim insurgents were masters of the place.
Six of the guards, according to an official source, were hacked to death with knives and swords. Some soldiers were sadistically burned with blowtorches.
Pillaging the armory, the assailants seized 30 firearms and escaped into the desert.
But they were easily tracked down by Algerian army units and arrested. Their long-faced, bearded chief, Aissa Messoudi--known as Tayeb el Afghani (“Tayeb the Afghan”), a former member of the Islamic Salvation Front, Algeria’s leading fundamentalist party--was judged by a military tribunal in the Saharan town of Ouargla, sentenced to death and executed by firing squad.
For Algeria’s ruling class, which five years ago was in near-panic at the rising popularity of Muslim fundamentalists, “Guemar was a revelation,” said a judge who attended the Ouargla trial. For the first time since the 1987 liquidation of a band of Islamist rebels in the area around Algiers, a group of armed Muslim activists dared to challenge Algeria’s all-powerful military.
For some historians of this North African country, the butchery at Guemar on Nov. 29, 1991, marks the birth of the Armed Islamic Group, commonly known as the GIA from its French-language initials. The GIA is the most brutal and xenophobic of the Muslim bands battling the military-controlled government in Algiers.
In the forging of this loosely organized guerrilla force, Algerian veterans of the Afghan conflict, or compatriots who exercised administrative functions at the Afghan resistance’s headquarters-in-exile in Peshawar, Pakistan, played a key initial role.
“They were the very model of the true believers and the tough guys,” one government official said. “But they were not the leaders.”
In the last three years of the anti-Soviet uprising in Afghanistan, the Pakistani Embassy in Algiers issued 2,800 visas for Algerian nationals bound for Pakistan. According to one source close to the Algerian government, 600 to 900 Algerians with combat experience or training returned home, often furtively making their way over the desert or mountain borders with neighboring Morocco and Tunisia.
Other sources put the number of returnees from Afghanistan at only a fraction of that but agree that their impact has been far greater than mere numbers would indicate.
“The nucleus of the terrorist movement in Algeria had combat experience in Afghanistan,” said sociologist Mahfoud Bennoune, who is writing a book for Cambridge University Press on contemporary Algerian history.
In the initial phase of the uprising, the returnees were especially valuable as sources of military expertise. As early as 1985-86, fundamentalists were operating summer camps on the Mediterranean coast and in the remote mountains of Algeria’s interior where boys and young men could learn martial arts and a literalist interpretation of the Koran.
The “Afghans” added guerrilla tactics, ambushes and demolition by explosives to the curriculum. They were so lionized by a segment of Algeria’s restless, dissatisfied youth that some teenagers and young men began to dress like them. In June 1991, when anti-government riots exploded on the streets of Algiers, Afghan veterans and their disciples were in the vanguard, tossing gasoline bombs, chanting Islamic slogans and wearing black scarves.
“On their return, they had nothing of the Algerian about them,” said a former university student who had frequent contact with the moujahedeen. “They wore turbans, didn’t eat at the table but on the floor and with their hands. They used twigs instead of toothbrushes and put kohl [black makeup] around their eyes.”
In a country where the armed forces and other segments of the Frenchified political and economic elite have set the rules of the political game since independence from France in 1962, the “Afghans” argued inside the Islamic camp that it was futile to try to take power by peaceful means.
Significantly, the Guemar raid occurred even as the Islamic Salvation Front political party was preparing to contest legislative elections the following month in which it was the heavy favorite--elections it would win.
“People who had been in Afghanistan said: ‘Listen, it’s not your method that will give you power. The right way is what we did in Afghanistan, where we broke the Soviet Union into pieces,’ ” said Abdelaziz Belkhadem, former parliament speaker.
In the initial phases of this nation’s civil war, which has claimed an estimated 50,000 lives, many “Afghans” served as emirs, or district leaders, of the rebellion. But they were not in charge overall. An exception was Si Ahmed Mourad, 29, known as Djaffar el Afghani, whose fighters killed the first foreigners to die in the conflict--two French surveyors--and who tried to impose some order and hierarchy on the GIA.
Djaffar’s savagery, and his decision to target intellectuals, civilians, women and even children for death, caused a schism inside the insurgency. Acting on a tip, presumed to have come from his rivals, authorities surrounded Djaffar and nine members of his entourage one evening in 1994 at a villa in the hills above Algiers as they broke the Islamic Ramadan fast. The GIA chief and his entourage were killed.
According to Algerian sources, the fundamentalist combatants benefited from the networks that sprang up during and after the holy war waged against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Bounoua Boudjema, known as Abou Anes, who once taught a hard-line version of Islam in an underground prayer room near Oran, in western Algeria, ended up marrying the daughter of Abdullah Azzam, a radical Palestinian cleric who was the spiritual guide of Arab combatants in Afghanistan.
While in Peshawar, Abou Anes got the idea of sending an “Afghan legion” of Algerian commandos back to his homeland, sources say. Funds were reportedly available from several sources, including the International Islamic Rescue Organization, the Iranians and the Saudi-born Islamist financier Osama bin Ladin.
After Kamreddine Kherbane, a former Algerian air force mechanic turned Afghan fighter, attended a conference of Islamic organizations near Tehran, the first Uzi and Scorpio submachine guns began to turn up in rebel hands. These days, French intelligence officials say, weapons, ammunition and pharmaceuticals flow to the insurgents from Bosnia-Herzegovina via GIA members and sympathizers in France and Spain.
The government of President Liamine Zeroual is mum about how many “Afghans” have taken part in the insurrection, how many have been caught and killed and how many are still alive. But Liesse Djeraoud, editor in chief of the Horizons daily newspaper, cautions against mythicizing the Afghans’ role.
“Maybe they were effective in the bush, but not in the cities,” Djeraoud said.
Algeria has its own fundamentalist tendencies--a movement in favor of Arabic over French, with strong religious overtones, boomed in the 1970s--and its own guerrilla traditions stemming from the traumatic “war of national liberation” from France. Survivors from the homebred band of Islamic fighters liquidated in 1987 also transmitted their know-how to others in prison, sources say.
For all these reasons, there is little to connect Afghan veterans to some of the more spectacular operations of the insurrection.
The French blame GIA fighters from Afghanistan, or their trainees, for the 1994 Christmas Eve hijacking of an Air France Airbus, in which three passengers were killed in the initial standoff in Algiers. The incident ended in Marseilles when French commandos stormed the plane and killed the four air pirates, also leaving 25 injured passengers, crew and police. But skeptics point out that nothing similar happened during the Afghan War.
That said, there is no doubt that the impact of the “Afghans” has been great, especially in transmitting the lessons--military and religious--they learned in Afghanistan.
The moujahedeen are even widely blamed by Algerians for bringing back the institution of “marriages of convenience”--the self-awarded license to kidnap and rape women as the supposed privilege due holy warriors.
“The most abominable crimes have been committed by the returnees from Afghanistan,” said the Algerian judge. “I’ve had 40 ‘Afghans’ in front of me, and only two, I think, actually took part in the fighting. But a certain number were trained by our Pakistani friends to handle explosives. Whether that was for operations in Afghanistan or elsewhere is an open question.
“They say, ‘We believe that God told us to kill.’ ”
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Algeria was conquered by France in 1830 amd annexed as a French colony in 1848. In 1962, a bloody, eight-year revolt ended with its independence. But economic and cultural ties to France remain strong.
In the late 1980s, harsh economic conditions and government-imposed austerity measures led to violent riots and subsequent democratic reforms by the government.
In 1991, the initial round of the nation’s first parliamentary elections resulted in victory for a militant Islamic fundamentalist party. The government canceled the voting and nullified the first-round results, igniting a civil war that has claimed an estimated 60,000 lives.
* Land: Second-largest country in Africa; nearly six times the size of California.
* Capital: Algiers
* Government: Republic
* Population: 29 million
* Ethnic composition: Mostly Arab and Muslim, with significant Berber minority
* Languages: Arabic (official), French, Berber dialects
* Infant mortality rate: 55 deaths per 1,000 live births
* Life expectancy: 67 years
* Economy: Has fifth-largest reserves of natural gas in the world and ranks 14th in oil reserves
* Gross national product: $1,690 per capita in 1994
* Literacy (age 15 and over who can read and write): 57%
Nations in which terrorist activities or insurgencies tied to Afghan-trained Muslim radicals have occurred
Source: CIA World Factbook 1995, Kaleideoscope Current World Data; Population Reference Bureau
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