On the night of All Saints, 1954, a young honeymooning couple of French school teachers, dedicated to their work among underprivileged children, were dragged off a bus in the Aurès Mountains of Algeria and shot down. Their murder by the newly created FLN (National Liberation Front) marked the beginning of organised revolt against the French colonial ‘occupiers’. The eight-year-long Algerian war was to bring down six French prime ministers, open the door to de Gaulle — and come close to destroying him too.
The war was the last of the grand-style colonial struggles, but, perhaps more to the point, it was also the first campaign in which poorly equipped Muslim mujahedin licked one of the top Western armies. The echoes of la guerre d’Algérie still reverberate across the Islamic world, especially in Iraq.
As in Iraq today, the struggle in Algeria was hydra-headed. In fact, there were several wars going on at the same time: the counter-insurgency; a civil war between Algerians; the external battle fought for public opinion in metropolitan France, and on the platforms of the UN; the struggle between the pieds noirs and Paris, culminating in army revolt, followed by open, white terrorism under the aegis of the brutal killers of the OAS (Organisation Armée Secrète).
The first year of the Algerian war ended in stalemate, with France’s forces, trained for war in Europe, unable to eradicate the FLN, and the FLN too weak to inflict serious damage on the French. Then, in a deadly move, the FLN switched to attacking the government’s Algerian auxiliaries: local caids or magistrates, administrators, and above all, the police and their families. This strategy paid off handsomely. The Muslim police suffered many casualties; they were demoralised by fear, and remained paralysed in their stations. They had to be protected by French army units that should have been deployed on offensive missions.
Next the FLN targeted villages friendly to the French, and outlying pied noir settlements. Using the bestial technique favoured by Islamicists to express contempt for the the infidel, they slit the throats of women and children. Result: on the one hand the French steadily lost support to the FLN for failing to protect the loyal, or uncommitted population; on the other, a terrorised civilian workforce left in droves.
In 1955 Premier Guy Mollet sent in French conscripts. Even against 500,000 troops, the FLN continued to prove elusive — but the conscripts brought back to France ugly stories of torture. These were snapped up by anti-war celebs like the Sartres, and journals like Servan-Schreiber’s L’Express. In 1958 General Massu’s tough paras broke the FLN hold on Algiers — through widespread use of torture. They won the Battle of Algiers; but they were to lose the war through the revulsion of French and foreign public opinion.
It got worse. In 1961 the army in Algeria revolted. The revolt was led by the elite paras under four dissident generals. In response General de Gaulle made one of his most impassioned speeches, heard by conscripts all over Algeria. The revolt collapsed; but the unreliability of the army now made it plain that France would have to negotiate an exit strategy from her proudest colony — once an integral part of France.
The end came in 1962 when de Gaulle surrendered unconditionally to the insurgents. All French oil assets in the Sahara went, and one million pieds noirs, families who had lived in Algeria for three generations, fled to France. An estimated one (out of ten) million Muslim Algerians had died, most killed by their own people.
A huge price had been paid but, as de Gaulle put it, France was now free, ‘to marry her age’, and she prospered. Independent Algeria, rich in oil reserves, should have prospered too. Instead — a typical Muslim failed state — she stagnated under one-party control (the old warlords of the FLN), rampant corruption and abysmal inefficiency.
In the late 1980s a new revolt broke out, this time led by the fundamentalist FIS (Islamic Salvation Front). Many of its leaders were the kind of young Algerians who joined the struggle against the French occupiers in the 1950s. Their grievances were similar — unemployment and overpopulation, and no say in politics. Elections were cancelled, and the FIS disfranchised. It took to the hills and the streets in much the same way as the FLN had in 1954. As in 1954, the principal victims were local policemen and regional administrators. An appalling civil war ensued, with the Algiers government proving as incapable of crushing the revolt as the French army had been in 1954–62.
The FIS was in turn thrust aside by a far more extreme and ruthless band of revolutionaries, the GIA (Armed Islamic Group). Its aim seemed to be a complete destruction of the existing order. Some of its killers had served with the Taleban in Afghanistan. The economy was targeted, and so at one point were foreigners: businessmen and journalists were massacred with the intent of driving out foreign capital. Even nuns were murdered, and fundamentalists threw acid in the faces of female students who refused the veil. Whole villages — including women and children — were slaughtered by unknown guerrillas, for unknown motives. In Algiers huge car bombs killed far more civilians than the combined terrorist acts had in the war against the French.
Beheading of victims became common, their heads stuck on road signs as a kind of gruesome sport. Algerians themselves spoke of the ‘blind war’, but in its prolonged, random senselessness it came almost more to resemble Europe’s Thirty Years War of the 17th century.
By the end of 2001, between 100,000 to 150,000 Algerians had died in the civil war, as well as 120 foreigners. The cost to the economy ran into billions of dollars. And all this in spite of a tough, 120,000-strong army backed by 80,000 police.
Following 9/11, intelligence indicated numerous links between al-Qa’eda and Algeria. It began to look as though the roots of jihad could be traced back to the war in Algeria that began 50 years ago.
This week in Iraq, on top of stepped-up killings of Iraqi police, we have the appalling massacre of 49 unarmed army recruits. (How could they have been left unprotected? It all points to the gross underdeployment of the US army, which has only 130,000 men as opposed to the 500,000 Guy Mollet had — and Colin Powell wanted.) This is just the kind of ruthless ferocity displayed during the Algerian war and its aftermath.
In many ways the horrors suffered in Algeria over the past 50 years read like a paradigm, a microcosm of Islam’s frustrated inability to meet the challenges of the modern world, which leads it to lash out against the rich, successful West. In the context of Iraq, Algeria’s ‘war of liberation’ acquires a new, sharper relevance.
If there is one glimmer of hope, it is that with the Americans having established a (very discreet) footprint in Algeria to help the Bouteflika regime combat terrorism, there does seem to have been a marked fall in the level of the atrocities there over the past three years. One small success for Bush’s war on terror? Or have all the Algerian killers just moved to Baghdad?
Alistair Horne’s Friend or Foe; an Anglo-Saxon History of France, is published by Orion this month, £25, and he is the author of Savage War of Peace (Papermac).