I have recently read La Sale Guerre (The Dirty War) written by Habib Souaïdia and published in 2001. The book is one man’s memoirs of the Algerian Civil War of the 1990s. Souaïdia received a commission in the Algerian army in the 1992 and became a paratrooper. Before falling afoul of the authorities in 1995, he was involved in numerous operations against the Islamists: the FIS (Islamic Salvation Front) and their even more radical splinter group, the GIA (Armed Islamic Group, a Salafi Jihadist group).
Souaïdia recounts numerous horrifying stories of torture and abuse carried out against people suspected of being “tangos” (terrorists) or even against Algerians who should not have been suspects by any reasonable standard. He also writes that numerous killings (often of prisoners) that were publicly attributed to the Islamists were, in fact, carried out by the Algerian security forces, either the military itself, or the intelligence service, the Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité or DRS, more commonly known as the SM for Securité Militaire. In some cases, the military, he says, would kill Algerians and dump their bodies where they would easily be found. Then, they would never say anything when the media attributed the deaths to the Islamists. In other cases, the special services would actually operate in disguise as Islamists. Finally, he says, in some cases the SM infiltrated genuine terrorist groups and were able to control them.
There is no doubt that Souaïdia is sincere in what he wrote, and it is all very plausible. The problem is that while he himself witnessed torture and some extrajudicial killings of suspects, his other allegations really boil down to hearsay. As a lieutenant, of course, he was not privy to the counsels of the Algerian leadership. Though as a paratrooper, he served in a fairly a high-status community, he did not serve in the most elite units that allegedly did the bulk of the dirty work. In fact, while reading this book I was often reminded of the U.S. Army Rangers in Blackhawk Down. You may recall that the Rangers were an elite group and were involved in some special high-speed stuff but all the really difficult or spooky stuff was left to Delta Force while the Rangers were left watching and wondering from the sidelines.
What Souaïdia did have, however, was a widespread network of other lieutenants who had been in his class at the Algerian military academy. Many of his horror stories, including most if not all of the claims of the security services operating disguised as Islamist terrorists come from “a friend from my class” or other such sources. Furthermore, he sometimes he recounts stories that he heard later from fellow prisoners who had been in the army. All he is able to provide by way of personal corroborating evidence is the fact that his and other Army units were sometimes ordered to desist when they made contact with a band of terrorists. He explains these events by saying that the terrorists who were allowed to slip away must actually have been government agents or fellow soldiers. Other times, all Army units out in the field would be ordered to stay in place and not move until further notice. This must have happened, he concluded because the more secret parts of the security apparatus did not want to be interrupted carrying out particularly dirty work.
Despite Souaïdia’s general lack of direct evidence, the story should certainly not be dismissed out of hand. In fact, there is a great deal of evidence to suggest that
First, and most importantly, veterans of the so-called jihad in Algeria have long made similar claims in their own literature. For instance, Abu Musab al-Suri, in his Call to Global Islamic Resistance, argues precisely this. It is a convenient claim for the jihadists to make as the operations of the GIA were (or appeared to be) so radical and so profoundly unattractive to the population of Algeria that the movement was an utter failure. Just because it is a convenient claim does not mean that it’s untrue, however. I cannot immediately think of another group within the Jihadist world that is accused of being under the control of the “apostate” security services. The jihadists usually reserve this sort of accusations for groups with whom they have religious differences. Even the Taliban, whose links with the Pakistani ISI are well-documented, does not come in for accusations of being under the control of the ISI, despite the fact that the ISI is not well-loved in the jihadist community.
Second, the former Algerian defense minister, Khaled Nezzar, brought suit in French court against Souaïdia and lost. Le Procès de “la sale guerre” (The ‘Dirty War’ Trial) recounts this trial in some detail. I hope to lay hands on it and have a look.
Third, in 2003, two years after Souaïdia’s book came out, former Algerian colonel Mohamed Samraoui wrote his own book, Chronique des années de sang (Chronicle of the Years of Blood) making similar charges. In fact, he claims that the GIA was actually a creation of the SM. (Note that even if true, this does not mean that every act of the GIA happened at the behest of the Algerian government.) The problem is that it’s my understanding that Samraoui was serving as Algerian military attaché in Germany at the time. If this is true, then again, there might be questions as to the access of our source. This book is also on my to-do list.
Fourth, a memoir published in 2008 by an Algerian sergeant named Abdelkader Tigha again makes similar allegations. See his Contre-Espoinnage Algérien: Notre Guerre Contre les Islamistes for discussions of “faux groupes Islamistes.” I have not read this book (yet), but the blurbs about it cause some raising of eyebrows. The story apparently involves him being chased around the world by his former employers after he flees the horror. Jason Bourne may make good fiction, but I’m always skeptical about such stories in the real world unless the involve the Iranians or Stalin’s KGB. I actually have a copy of this book in hand. In my copious free time, I’m sure I’ll read it and post about it.
Fifth, The Observer in Britain reported in 1997 on a defector from the Algerian service who made similar allegations. Here, too, there is a slight problem. The officer also said that Algeria was helping the Iraqis with their WMD program, and we know how that worked out.
Sixth, the sorts of activities which Souaïdia and Samraoui allege have long pedigrees. Many countries and groups have conducted “pseudo-operations,” using friendly groups which pretended to belong to the enemy camp. The most famous, of course, were the Selous Scouts of Rhodesia, but the British, French, Portuguese and, of course, the Soviets in Afghanistan (see pp. 137 and 115fn) have all been known to do it, too. Readers interested in a careful study of the topic, should look here.
Let us assume that the Algerian government actually did what it is purported to have done. Obviously, there was an appalling moral and humanitarian cost. On the other hand, the government appears to have inflicted a very serious defeat on the jihadists. The GIA became so utterly alienated from its base, the people, that it was unable to survive. Furthermore, the stories of penetration can only have engendered suspicion within the GIA, given the generally conspiracy-prone nature of the jihadist world. The question, then, is whether there are other less appalling ways of making our present jihadists adversaries appear odious to their target population and whether there are other ways of making the members of the movement not trust each other.
It seems to me that a good start in understanding the history and its implications for the future would be for someone to pull together a sober, comprehensive analytic piece bringing together all these strands. Who wants to write this journal article?