Algerian Civil War: A Retrospective (Part I)


January 11th marked the 25th anniversary of the military coup d’etat that sparked the Algerian Civil War, the defining event in Algeria’s recent history. The war pit a wide array of Islamist groups against the military regime, with both sides using brutal tactics that cost a still-contested number of lives and devastated communities throughout the country. After ten years of war, the government still stood, having witnessed a prototype of the Arab Spring, managed the first defeat of a full-scale Islamist rebellion, and ensured their hold of power for the next fifteen years. Yet the war, and its repercussions, have largely been ignored, despite birthing al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the sustained growth of terrorist groups that threaten the whole of the Sahel.


As so often happens within the arc of history, chance parallels raise their heads- only to be seen in hindsight- to shape their particular moment. In this case, just as Algeria’s Civil War lacks any defined end point, and its tendrils continue to make themselves felt in the present day, so too does the war lack any single moment of conception, with causes reaching back to Algeria’s colonial past and struggle for independence. 1988, however, serves for a departure point as well as any other. By 1988, Algeria’s nationalist-liberation party, the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) had consolidated power into a single-party state, helmed by President Chadli Bendjedid. The state-led economy had grown increasingly dependent on hydrocarbon production, and in 1988 the price of oil dropped. Alongside the loss of oil and gas revenue, the state began to make forays into liberal, market led economics. These two forces led to a hollowing-out of the public services and employment opportunities from the state, and young Algerians took to the streets in early October to protest. In order to retain a hold on the country, President Bendjedid opened up Algeria’s political system to hold multi-party elections. Bendjedid handily won the 1988 presidential election, but the 1991 Parliamentary Elections were dominated by the recently-legalized Front Islamique du Salut (FIS), a broad Islamic coalition. On December 26th, in the first round of voting, the FIS won 188 out of 232 seats, routing the FLN and an opposing socialist party.

On January 11th, the military moved in, removed Bendjedid, and nullified the elections. After taking control of the Government, the military began rounding up FIS leaders and on February 9th, declared a year-long state of emergency. A number of Islamists militarized, and began to wage a war against the Government through assassinations and sabotage, focusing primarily on government infrastructure and political elites, including FLN President Mohamed Boudiaf.


The conflict continued to unfold throughout 1992, which was marked by conflicts between Islamists and Government security forces and the August bombing of the Algiers airport. Islamist militants, after the decimation of the FIS leadership, organized into a number of smaller groups, including the Groupe Islamique Armé (GIA) and the Armée Islamique du Salut (AIS), a moderate armed group that served as the military wing for what remained of the FIS. The Islamists, while still constrained by numbers and choice to a relatively limited field of action, drew upon the elements of political Islam that the FLN had touched on but then abandoned during the revolution, building an ever greater number of supporters.

By 1993, though, the ember of the conflict had yet to come to full flame, to the point that the Atlantic’s cloyingly exoticised November travel column, “Vacations in the Sahara,” included the war as an only minor sidenote:

Still, I cannot recommend a vacation there without admitting that Algeria is troubled. After the near victory of the Islamic party in national elections, and a subsequent military crackdown, last year a low-grade civil war broke out that so far has claimed more than a thousand lives. The struggle is limited to the north, mostly to savagery between authorities and rebels in the capital, Algiers. To date foreigners have not been attacked.


1994 began with initially promising signs. The FIS indicated its willingness to come to the table and begin negotiations, and Liamine Zéroual, FLN commander and former revolutionary, ascended to head of the military junta. The GIA, however, pushed back against this perceived surrender and drew in the harder-line Islamists, declaring itself against political compromise, and fractures similar to these began to deepen throughout the Islamist groups.

In 1995, the Algerian Government held elections, which Zéroual and the military won handily, and the FIS, FLN, and a number of minor parties met in Rome and agreed upon the Sant’Egidio Accords, paving a path forward for reconciliation. Yet again, the events of war shattered these apparent notes of progress. A little more than a month after these accords, at least 96 prisoners were killed by Government security forces in the Serkadji Prison Massacre, and news that Government agents had infiltrated not only the FIS but the GIA led the more radical GIA to purge all former FIS leaders that had joined its ranks. Not limiting itself to internal purges, the GIA began to target AIS fighters in the field. The infighting caused by Government infiltration proved to be an ultimately successful method of combatting the Islamists, but it also led to an escalation that would cost thousands of lives over the next several years.


The period of 1996-1998 came to be the most violent period of the war, with thousands of civilians killed or disappeared over the three years, and many of the survivors’ accounts detailing cold-blooded atrocities. During this period, both the Islamists and the Government began to bring the civilian populace into the fold. In 1996 the security forces began distributing arms among local communities to serve as militias, while the Islamists escalated their targeting of the same communities, particularly their women and children, to create a zero-sum logic of being either pro-Government or pro-Islamist. The majority of those killed in this period were not activists or political elites, but rather the poor villagers that were caught on a shifting front line. Both governmental and Islamist forces would move in, demand allegiance, and then when the front line shifted and the other force held the town, any traitors would be executed en masse. Indeed, most of the casualties during this period, and most of the 1.5 million displaced, were from the areas that originally supported the FIS in the elections. The debate over whether the Government’s security forces committed these atrocities continues to attract controversy, yet multiple massacres took place, and continued unabated, for hours near military bases. Most of the atrocities, however, were claimed or attributed to Islamist forces, taking an increasingly extreme line during this period. Still, a 1996 Amnesty International report condemns the Government for “gross human rights violations,” and in 1998 the New York Times Editorial Board exhorted the international community to investigate whether Government agents had infiltrated the groups behind the killings, especially if they had enabled or allowed the atrocities.
As the violence of the Islamists and the security forces escalated throughout this period, September 1997 had two brief moments of promise. Following one of the largest massacres of the war, United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan broke his silence on the conflict and urged mediation, indicating that the Civil War would finally become a priority for the international community and garner outside efforts to negotiate a peace. Alongside this, the military wing of the FIS, the AIS, declared a unilateral ceasefire, with other groups soon joining in. Yet despite the declaration of a ceasefire, the levels of violence remained the same, including attacks targeting civilians. The Government also roundly rejected outside efforts to broker a peace, including Annan’s offer; the memory of the protracted War of Independence from French colonialism led to a distrust of any foreign intervention. This apprehension effected a further drawing out of the Civil War, but it also ensured that the peace that eventually did emerge was a domestic and not beholden to the attention and patience of outside powers.

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