The most recent spate of killings in Algeria, coming as it does in the wake of the killing of a prominent moderate Islamist leader, Abdelkader Hachani, is clear evidence of the precarious nature of the civil concord negotiations currently underway in Algeria. In attacks on November 27 and 28, men impersonating civilian guards stopped cars and massacred some 28 people, including women and children, according to a November 28 BBC report. Witnesses cited by Agence France Press (AFP) on November 28 said Islamist extremists were responsible for the attack.
Since the Algerian military took over the government in 1992 and cancelled elections in which the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) was the anticipated winner, violence between the military junta and the FIS and related groups has resulted in some 100,000 killings. Throughout the seven-year conflict, most of the victims have been civilians. Although the identity of the killers responsible for brutal village massacres was often unclear, the military government and the rebels traded accusations. While the military government justified its ascendancy by the apparent irrational and terrorist nature of the rebels, the rebels themselves held that the military itself was behind the killings in an attempt to discredit them. The proximity of the attacks to military bases and the fact that most of the massacres occurred in areas loyal to the FIS were evidence, many analysts believed, of government complicity. When the FIS called for a cease-fire in 1997, the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) broke away from the FIS and continued fighting. With the return to civilian rule earlier this year and the apparent withdrawal of the military from politics, violence against civilians has largely been blamed on the GIA and factions that have subsequently broke off from it since 1997.
President Abdulaziz Bouteflika, widely believed to have been backed by the military in the recent elections in which all other candidates withdrew, protesting in part the military's involvement, has made national reconciliation his priority. The proposed civil concord is based on amnesty granted to those rebels not guilty of rape or murder who hand in their weapons by January 13, 2000. The reconciliation is no doubt aimed at the more "moderate" rebels, meaning those associated with FIS, rather than at what the press has termed the extremists or hard-line factions. The government has continued to try to eradicate groups engaged in what it calls terrorist activities.
But even if the government has been able to extend amnesty to a majority of rebels by differentiating between moderate and extremist elements, the negotiations have caused considerable consternation within the ranks of moderates themselves. Last month, the armed branch of the FIS, the Islamic Salvation Army (AIS), threatened to take up arms again, charging that Bouteflika's proposed amnesty was insufficient. And while prominent FIS leaders, such as the recently murdered Hachani, have remained committed to the ideal of peace, many have spoken critically of the government's alleged failure to move towards full reintegration of the FIS.
Hachani himself had remained critical of Bouteflika's failure to release members of the FIS still held in prison. He had reportedly called for an end to the ban against the FIS and its complete reconstitution and subsequent reintegration into Algerian politics and society. According to the North African Journal on November 24, Hachani had spoken against Bouteflika's civil concord proposal that had been approved by a September 16 referendum vote. Hachani said, "It changed nothing. There will be no lasting peace without a complete rehabilitation of the FIS party, the release of its leaders from jail, and a general amnesty." Hachani had also reportedly called for an international summit meeting to negotiate a bolder amnesty initiative.
But both the domestic government and foreign secular leaders have called Hachani a moderate who supported Bouteflika's reforms, and have said his killing on November 22 was an attempt to frustrate the ongoing peace process. The Algerian Presidency issued a statement blaming the killing on "the enemies of civil and national concord and reconciliation," according to the BBC on November 24. Bouteflika has vowed to find and prosecute the killer(s). This has resulted in the recent arrest of dozens of what the BBC, relying on government sources, terms "Muslim radicals."
Certainly the most recent killings, which bring the total number killed by such terrorist attacks to 150 during the month of November alone, reveal an ugly side of extremist elements within Algeria that would make them appear capable of killing Hachani for the sole reason of his advocating peace. According to the North Africa Journal, there is a fight going on between "Islamist" groups for overall control of the movement. GIA leaders have in the past been responsible for killing FIS leaders such as Abdelbaki Sahraoui, according to GIA communique issued after the Paris killing, and it is possible Hachani's death is likewise a result of competition between rebel groups. Extremist elements, already excluded from any amnesty accord, would perhaps benefit from an end to the peace negotiations and a general resumption of widespread chaos.
But a statement of the FIS Executive Committee Abroad carried in the El Ribat Newsletter, translated by BBC monitoring on November 24, blames hard-line anti-Islamist factions within the government, presumably the same who had been previously implicated in the village massacres before 1997. The statement charges that "the eradicationist circles are responsible for this crime," bent as they are on "executing the physical liquidation plan of the FIS leadership in order to shuffle the cards again and confront the Algerian people's aspirations for peace and national reconciliation."
If such circles do exist, as they often do in highly stratified former European colonies such as Algeria, it is clear they would have the most to benefit from an end to reconciliation. Any meaningful reconciliation would mean the full reintegration of the FIS into national politics, a force which would significantly undermine the ruling elite and its access to Algeria's resources. By "liquidating" one of the most rational and far-looking advocates of reconciliation, the "eradicationist circles" would achieve two objectives at once: causing the general public to doubt the possibility of reconciliation by depriving them of a voice of reason, and causing rebels to themselves second-guess the reconciliation process. With tensions still smoldering just below the surface despite the September 16 referendum, only a spark is needed to once again plunge Algeria into civil war; a war that is perhaps badly needed by the clandestine power operatives to do away with their challengers once and for all.
Regardless of who killed Hachani, it is evident from the brutal slayings this past weekend that any civil concord is seriously threatened. Algeria's recent history reveals that extremist elements, both linked to the government and opposed to it, are capable and willing to do whatever it takes to gain or to maintain power. Hachani's death is indeed deplorable and an occasion for mourning. But Hachani is not the first to be caught between Algeria's extremists -- thousands of innocent civilians have perished in similarly gruesome fashions.
It is clear there are certain elements in the government that refuse to accept any reconciliation with the rebels, even those who have laid down their arms. There are also rebel groups that refuse to accept anything less than absolute power. These two extreme positions play off each other in a vicious snowball-cycle that threatens to roll up the whole of Algerian society. It does not really matter which side killed Hachani -- in a way they are both responsible. What matters is that the bodies continue to pile up. It remains to be seen whether such attacks are simply last, desperate grabs for power by estranged elements in the face of increasing democratization or whether the killings signify an impending civil war.
Zakariya Wright is a regular contributor to iviews.com