INSIDE ALGERIA : Cutting throats to create a Muslim state

A smartly dressed man discusses a secret war
Algiers - He was young, well dressed, an expensive leather jacket over his shoulders. I had already received a telephone call from the Algerian opposition in Europe but never expected a representative of Algeria's "Islamist" guerrilla force to turn up in my hotel with its heavy security guard, its armed cops in the front hall, its militiamen at the gates.

"You can call me Abu Mohamed," the young man said as we sat on the terrace of the old Al-Djezair, the palm trees dipping in the wind behind us. And so it was that for more than two hours, he opened the door of Algeria's secret war - to the splits in the Islamic Armed Group (GIA), the new unity of the guerrilla armies, the killing of journalists, the throat-cutting of government informers, even the betrayal of a government security agent by his own wife.

Openly acknowledging his membership of the military wing of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) whose certain victory at the 1992 was annulled by the military-backed Algerian regime - the sequence of events that set off a war which has cost at least 60,000 lives - "Abu Mohamed" stated categorically that the two militant Muslim groups in Algeria, the GIA and his own Islamic Salvation Army (AIS), had united after months of internecine war. "The two met first in June, then in July and both sides argued about using their own titles," he said. "I was the mediator at the third meeting at Chlef at the beginning of October. Two of our leaders, Sheikh Ahmed Benaicha, the AIS leader in the west, and Madani Mirag, our leader in eastern Algeria, were there. They decided at this last meeting that they must strike together."

Abu Mohamed claimed, however, that the GIA, blamed for the most ferocious acts of the war, had been deeply infiltrated by the Algerian military intelligence service. He alleged that the worst atrocities of the war, including the massacre of women and children in mountain villages, were carried out at the instigation of government agents. There was no doubting the ruthlessness of his words.

When I asked him why the Muslim groups cut the throats of their enemies, he replied: "It's the best way to become closer to God, the best way to kill a taghout [enemy of God]. If you have someone who is capable of killing five-year-old children, what do you do with him? Kill him with bullets? Bullets are precious to us - they are very expensive. Take a 9mm Kalash[nikov] bullet - it's as if you are throwing it away. Anyone who tried to destroy Islam, to destroy the Good Lord, who takes the Lord's name in vain, is a devil. You can do anything to wipe out a devil."

At one point, Abu Mohamed handed me an Islamic tract and a key chain with "Khaled" written on the handle. Khaled, he added, was the name of his local military leader or "emir". He repeatedly referred to the need to "exterminate with God's help" the Algerian government in order to set up an Islamic state, justifying his remarks by quotating the Koran in a state of near ecstasy. It was the authentic voice of the Algerian regime's "Islamist" enemy and his statements left every reason to believe that the Algerian war is going to grow yet more deadly.

On Algerian journalists, 69 of whom have been assassinated: "There was a GIA communique saying that if a journalist can't tell the truth, he must stop work - and that if he doesn't stop, he must die. They have been warned. The AIS has not executed (sic) a single journalist. They haven't taken a decision on this."

On casualties: "I've lost 200 friends, but it doesn't matter because I know that one day we'll see each other again. For the 200 who were killed, another 600 or 700 have become mudjahedin." He described how he had been arrested in January last year and tortured by security men with electricity. "I thank God I gave no information," he added. "The moment you give one piece of information, you are finished because they will torture you for more information until you die."

On women: "There have been many women who have secretly worked for the Islamists...Sometimes they contact the mudjahidin and tell them that their husbands work for the state. This happened to me, a woman came to me a year ago and denounced her husband and said he worked for military security. We had to follow it up to find the proof. The GIA killed him, the real GIA which is not infiltrated. The military security have captured women and tortured and raped them and thrown them in prison. Do you know what they are asking us? They're asking us to put a bomb in their prisons. Do you know why? Because they have suffered too much. They are living a nightmare. They are all pregnant." There have been consistent reports, gathered by The Independent as well as human rights groups, of the rape of women prisoners in Algeria.

On other Arab states: "Muslims are everywhere, but all their presidents are devils. All Muslims are at war with the state - in Egypt, in Tunisia, in Libya. They say Sudan is a Muslim country but there are mistakes there. Iran is Shiite - they're not really Muslim." Abu Mohamed did not know about the bomb on the Paris metro until I told him. But his response was immediate: "It's legitimate. France is the cause of everything that's going on in Algeria. It helps the Algerian state. Muslims are everywhere in the world. So why do you think they specifically choose France? You have to ask yourself that question."

"Martyrdom" was much on Abu Mohamed's mind. "The Koran promises us victory or martydom. It says real martyrs don't bleed very much. When they die, they smell of musk perfume. This is true. The security forces have noticed that sometimes our dead smell of musk. When a martyr dies, he is met in paradise by 72 beautiful women."

Sometimes, it seemed as though Abu Mohamed's war would be forever beyond our comprehension.