It sounds like a replay of Algeria’s civil war. Don’t bet on a happy ending

The problem is that Algeria's vicious 1990-99 conflict never really ended

Share
Related Topics

No wonder the Algerians stubbornly refused to help the French in their Mali adventure.  No amount of French government pressure last year could persuade  President Abdulaziz Bouteflika – which means the Algerian army – to march into the deserts of its southern neighbour and engage in battle once more with its al-Qa’ida opponents and their allies.  But Algeria’s enemies – and, of course, France’s enemies – came to Algeria yesterday, turning the Algerian desert into another battleground.  Foreigners, two of them reported dead, 41 held hostage on the In Amenas gas field, Algerian troops surrounding both the prisoners and their captors;  it sounds like a replay of Algeria’s own 1990s civil war.  And if precedent is anything to go by, don’t bet on a happy ending.

The problem is that Algeria’s vicious 1990-99 conflict of torture, massacre and quickly-pardoned atrocities – between the ‘ pouvoir’ and the Islamists, between the authorities and the jihadist and al-Qaeda-style groupouscules – never really ended.  Their ferocious battles involved much slaughtering of western nationals, especially French men and women, but took place in the Algerian coastal cities and the ‘bled’, the plains to the south over which the French army itself fought vainly against Algerian nationalists between 1954 and 1962.  Rarely if ever in the desert.

Didn’t the Algerians realise that their soft underbelly would be this vast, largely ungoverned desert?  Repeatedly over the past 10 years, the Algerian government has claimed that victory was complete, that the Islamists – who were tortured and bribed into submission – had given up, that “al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb” was finished, at least as far as Algeria was concerned.  Not so.  Algiers suffered repeated bomb attacks and the vast deserts to the south were never safe. 

For several years, US Special Forces troops were based outside Tamanrasset to fight the very same Algerian-Malian  insurgents who have now  reappeared inside Algeria, 600 miles north of Mali, it is true, but – and here’s the rub – scarcely 60 miles from the Libyan border. Towards the end of Gaddafi’s crazed rule, many were those who feared that the old dictator’s guns would leach over the country’s borders to other, unconquered tribes and militias.  Never did anyone suggest that al-Qa’ida might use Libya – rather than Mali – as a crossing-point into Algeria.  The Algerian regime, protecting some of Gaddafi’s closest relatives, was even suspected of sending weapons to help Gaddafi is his last grim months of power.  Was this when the seeds were sewn.

The French, with an arrogance similar to that of the Americans and the Brits in their own hopeless wars against  “terror”, simply didn’t think – when they sent their soldiers to fight in Mali last week – about Algeria as a vault to swallow up more French and other foreign nationals. 

The Malian rebels had already threatened westerners in Algeria, but no one took them seriously

It’s easy to increase the guard at Charles de Gaulle Airport, far more difficult to remember  history and the vulnerability of Arab regimes which play the role of ally but have still not won their own internal “Islamist” wars.  The Malian rebels had already threatened westerners in Algeria – but no one, it seems, took them seriously.  Even after French aircraft flew through Algerian airspace.

Colonial frontiers, as we all know, mean more to the colonisers than the indigenous population.  Tribes cross our old borders because they do not believe in them.  If you are a Berber or a Touareg, you can be both a Malian or an Algerian or – more to the point – a Maghrebian.  And the Maghreb stretches from Morocco across Mauretania and Algeria to Tunisia and Libya and, to many inhabitants, all points south.

The Algerian army know this very well.  They spent nine years fighting their own Islamist insurgents, constantly claiming that “foreigners” were involved in the war.  And Algeria’s military legions dealt with their enemies cruelly and without quarter.  The French still suspect that Algerian troops killed French hostage priests during a failed attempt to liberate them – and then beheaded the corpses to suggest that Islamists murdered them. 

Precedent is an ominous thing.  But if the Algerians really have surrounded both the hostages and their captors – as we were told last night – it would be unwise to expect to see all the captives alive.  

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Cleaner

£15000 - £16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you've got first class custo...

Recruitment Genius: Mobile Applications Developer / Architect - iOS and Android

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity to join a medium s...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Account Executive - £40K OTE

£11830 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Working in a friendly, sales ta...

Recruitment Genius: Web Designer

£15000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's leading web des...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The Pentagon has suggested that, since the campaign started, some 10,000 Isis fighters in Iraq and Syria have been killed  

War with Isis: If the US wants to destroy the group, it will need to train Syrians and Iraqis

David Usborne
David Cameron gives a speech at a Tory party dinner  

In a time of austerity, should Tories be bidding £210,000 for a signed photo of the new Cabinet?

Simon Kelner
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
10 best statement lightbulbs

10 best statement lightbulbs

Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

Dustin Brown

Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
Tour de France 2015: Twins Simon and Adam Yates have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

Twins have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

Yates brothers will target the steepest sections in bid to win a stage in France
John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

Computerised cooking is coming

From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water
Jessie Cave interview: The Harry Potter star has published a feminist collection of cartoons

Jessie Cave's feminist cartoons

The Harry Potter star tells Alice Jones how a one-night stand changed her life