Algeria's fundamentalists keep foreigners in their sights: Radicals' ruthless determination to target outsiders ignores family ties, writes Robert Fisk from Algiers

Click to follow
The Independent Online
SHEIKH Abdallah Djaballah's party headquarters stands high above Algiers, a four-storey colonial villa between twin towers plastered with patterned blue tiles. It seemed a suitable place to call for a theological explanation of the death of a journalist. Olivier Quemener had been shot less than three hours earlier and Sheikh Djaballah, black- robed and white-capped, listened without comment as I told him of our friend's murder in the old Casbah. Had he, perhaps, any observation on the matter?

There was much quiet muttering between the sheikh and two secular assistants. 'God gives us to the world,' he replied. 'And God calls us back.' There was a long silence in which he perhaps contemplated the inadequacy of this response. It was not God, of course, who had 'called back' Olivier Quemener from this world as he filmed the Casbah for Australian television. A young man took his life by firing a pistol into Quemener's chest. Yet the sheikh and his two acolytes were smiling now, not quite humorously but certainly not with compassion.

Sheikh Djaballah, it should be said at once, is no radical. Although many members of the now-banned Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) could once be numbered among his comrades, his own minuscule Islamic Renaissance Party is still legal, abiding by the principles of democracy, insisting - publicly at least - that Algeria can only become an Islamic republic slowly and by popular vote. Needless to say, in all such conversations some sleight of hand must be employed to obscure (or forget) that the FIS was banned because it won the first round of Algerian parliamentary elections two years ago.

So how about an explanation of legitimate killing? When is it permissible for a Muslim to kill? His party condemned violence 'on both sides, whether it be the opposition or the government', the sheikh said. 'A Muslim who kills goes to hell unless he has killed for a just cause.' And what is a just cause? 'There are three conditions in which it is just to kill a man. The first is a person who has killed another without reason. Secondly, a Muslim who changes his religion and who refuses to come back (to Islam). And third, a man or woman who commits adultery, but with all the conditions that apply from the Koran. But I stress this is not an individual decision - an individual cannot take it upon himself to judge these things. It is the justice system that must decide.' Islam, the sheikh insisted, believed in the state as the prime source of legislation. And he went on to talk about justice, the sovereignty of divine law, independence, pluralism.

This was not quite the view of the FIS, least of all that of the 'Armed Islamic Group' (GIA) which is generally blamed for the armed uprising against the military-controlled Algerian government. Last Wednesday, it transpires, a statement signed by the GIA was issued in Germany in which the militants repeated their demand that all foreigners in Algeria, without exception, should be killed. Westerners paid little heed to this news; few of them knew about it. But by Saturday, the contents of this strange little communique were common knowledge on the streets of Algiers.

How would the angriest of the Islamists in the city respond? Olivier Quemener knew nothing of such questions. He was married to an Algerian woman, a Kabyle whose family still lived in the Casbah. And Quemener entered the Casbah, it now turns out, with his brother-in-law. He and his Australian journalist colleague, Scott White - who was seriously wounded in the attack - clearly thought they were safe with family and friends. But the religious revival in Algeria now matters more than family.

A day before Quemener's murder, a colleague had commented that 'it's two weeks since they killed Monique Afri (a French consular official married to an Algerian) - they will want to kill another foreigner again soon.' And of course, they did.