Last week, we discussed Algeria’s war of independence from France in the 1950s. We will now turn our attention to another conflict in that beautiful but unfortunate country: the civil war between the government and Islamist insurgents which took place between 1990 to 1998. The civil war ended in a victory for the Algerian government.

Since the government was essentially of the same political party (the FLN) that had successfully fought for independence, Algeria’s FLN offers that rarest of examples in the history of modern conflict: an organization that both waged a successful insurgency, and suppressed an insurgency. It is critical that these conflicts be thoroughly understood. It is unfortunate that, for the most part, they are almost completely unknown in the West.

I happened to discuss the origins of the war with an Arabic-speaking Algerian laborer in Croatia in 2000. In the most basic terms, the war’s genesis can be traced to social and economic conditions that had been simmering in the country since the 1970s. Algeria had seen a population explosion in the decades after independence in 1962, but the government had failed to provide infrastructure and employment opportunities on a sufficient scale. Massive unemployment left large numbers of marginalized, angry youths with nothing to do but attend sermons by radicalized clerics.

Petroleum and gas prices had stagnated or collapsed in the 1980s and 1990s, depriving the country of significant revenue. Deep social fissures also existed in the cities: wealthy, foreign-educated youth were perceived as receiving special employment benefits to the detriment of poorer Algerians from the countryside. Widespread corruption added to public resentment of the government.

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Military vehicle on the streets of Algiers after the 1991 coup.

These conditions provided the tinder which would soon kindled into flames. In 1988, in an incident called the “Black October Riots,” government security forces killed an estimated 500 protesters in Algiers. It was the worst example of violence in the country since independence, and was a harbinger of things to come.

The immediate cause of armed conflict was the national parliamentary election campaign of 1991. The Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), an opposition party, was about to defeat the ruling party (FLN). Rather than see this happen, the military cancelled the elections after the first round, seized power, and removed reformist president Chadli Benjedid from office. The government then banned the FIS and jailed thousands of its members.

It was a shocking reversal, and one which passed nearly without comment in Western Europe and America. None of the Western powers wanted to see an Islamist government on the shores of the western Mediterranean, possibly stirring up trouble and exporting its ideology to European shores.

The Islamist opposition went underground and organized itself into armed groups. The Armed Islamic Movement (MIA), the Islamic Salvation Army (AIS), and the extremely hard-line Armed Islamic Group (GIA) were the major belligerents on the insurgent side.

The insurgent tactics were to attack symbols of the government: police officers, police stations, government buildings, and anyone who voiced support for the government. The mountainous regions of Algeria provided a secure base of operations for the MIA and the AIS.

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One of the most disturbing features of the conflict was the indiscriminate targeting of civilians and foreigners. The GIA was largely responsible for this “innovation”, and it sprang from its idea that civilians would be forced to choose sides in the conflict. There were grisly examples of whole villages being massacred by the mid-1990s, and in many cases it was not clear who was responsible.

Insurgent groups blamed the government, or government-supported militias; the government blamed the massacres on the fanaticism of the Islamic groups. The wholesale intelligence penetration by the government of some of the insurgent groups makes the question even murkier. Who was doing what to whom is not a simple question. What now seems clear, however, is that atrocities were committed by both sides, but the majority of it must be laid at the feet of Islamist groups.

Orthodox counter-insurgency doctrine would suggest that the government would try to “win over” the hearts and minds of the population, in order to deprive the insurgents of support. In one of the basic innovations of the war, however, the government chose not to go down this route. Instead, it employed three simple but direct methods:

1. Massive intelligence collection, and penetration of insurgent groups by spies and informers.
2. The creation of a pervasive climate of fear, in which no one would know who to trust.
3. Maximum violence in targeting and liquidating insurgents and their supporters.

In this regard, the Algerian government’s tactics more resembled the counter-insurgency efforts of El Salvador’s government in the 1980s, than it did the efforts of the Sri Lankan government against the Tamil rebels in the early 2000s.

The atmosphere of repression made the average citizen fearful of even being seen in public with a bearded man, who might be taken for an Islamist sympathizer. Random roadblocks, arrests and detentions, and various government “decoy” Islamist groups, all added to the perception that the government was winning. No one knew who to trust.

As related by one writer, a bitter but honest joke gives an idea of what it was like to be in Algeria during this time:

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.

According to some analysts, the government deliberately fostered the GIA violence against civilians in the hope that it would rally domestic and international support. Through the use of decoys, infiltrators, and agents-provocateurs, it supposedly fanned the flames of Islamist violence.

This is not an easy assertion to prove one way or another. Without doubt, the successful government intelligence penetration of the insurgents contributed to its victory. But the insurgents hardly needed anyone to encourage them to commit violence: they were perfectly capable of doing it themselves.

The government also was successful in winning the political war. Neither France, Spain, nor any other European country in the vicinity was excited about the prospect of an Islamist takeover of Algeria. Algeria’s government received financial, intelligence, and moral support from European nations, while the insurgents were forced to rely on the uncertain support of worldwide Islamist networks. Islamist guerrilla forces probably never numbered more than 40,000 men by the insurgency’s high point in 1994.

The atmosphere of repression and suspicion helped the government in other ways. The Islamist groups began to splinter off and fight amongst themselves. By 1995, the AIS and the GIA began openly to fight each other; the GIA refused to negotiate with the government, while the AIS favored a dialogue to end the conflict.

With the election of President President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in 1999, the government began to wind the war down. Bouteflika brilliantly passed an amnesty law which was largely successful in causing most of the remaining insurgents to give up armed struggle. At the same time, he took care to maintain an iron grip on the security situation. This combination of reconciliation and repression worked.

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Of course, some disaffected and marginalized cells of Islamists remain, which at this point are little more than terrorist branches of the Al Qaeda network. But the fact remains that the Algerian government’s strategy and tactics were successful in first containing, and then destroying, a dedicated and well-established armed insurgency.

The achievement is not an inconsiderable one, especially when we contrast it to the ineptitude of the governments of Syria and Iraq in dealing with their own insurgent problems (although it must be said in fairness that the challenges faced by Iraq and Syria are very different from what existed in Algeria).

Read More: The Algerian War Of Independence