Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Algeria: Precursor to Iraq

Intelligence is recognizing patterns where others see chaos, and then taking appropriate action in response to those patterns. This article provides insights into the patterns in the global Islamic insurgency.

From "Arab News": The Middle East's Leading English Language Daily
Saturday, 15, January, 2005 (04, Dhul Hijjah, 1425)
Algerian Lessons for Iraq by Amir Taheri
Earlier this month Algerian security forces tracked down and captured Nureddin Boudiafi after a nine-week hunt and five days of intense fire-fights in the woods near the capital Algiers.
Wonder who Boudiafi is and why his capture merits attention?
Well, the man was the leader of the Islamic Armed Group (GIA), the deadliest of terrorist gangs that have shed Algerian blood, killing over 150,000 people, since 1992.
Boudiafi described himself as Emir Al-Momeneen or “Prince of the Faithful”, and issued fatwas (religious edicts) sentencing anyone he didn’t like to death. He had seized control of the group last July after staging a coup against the then “emir”, a certain Rashid Abu-Turab, who had had an equally black record of mischief and murder. Both men had been graduates of the school of terror set up by the so-called “Arab Afghans” in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and belonged to the same movement that produced Osama Bin Laden and Abu-Mussab Al-Zarqawi, the “emir” of the Sunni terrorists in Iraq.
So, why is Boudiafi’s capture significant?
One reason, for starters, is that the capture establishes firmly that the terror groups are now on the run, pursued by the Algerians security.
This was not always the case.
For more than 10 years the terrorists held the initiative, attacking where and when they wished, forcing the government’s forces into a defensive posture.
The terrorists specialized in mass killings. In Bin Talha, a suburb of the capital Algiers, for example, they cut the throats of some 800 people, mostly women and children, in a single night. They also targeted the ordinary personnel of the army and the police, in the hope of discouraging young Algerians from enlisting in government forces.
The Algerian terrorists never came up with anything resembling a political program. They just killed people. They killed children on their way to school. They chopped the heads of Christian monks and Muslim muftis. They murdered trade unionists, political leaders, and journalists. They captured teenage girls and forced them into temporary marriages with “the holy warriors.” They seized hostages, burned schools and hospitals, blew up factories and shops, and did all they could to disrupt the economy. At times they pulled off spectacular coups, for example by murdering the country’s president, and its most prominent trade union leader.
The terrorist campaign had started in the mid-1980s with a bandit, named Mustafa Bu-Ali, wreaking havoc in the environs of the capital. By 1990, however, the terrorists and their political allies had established themselves as a force in national politics. In 1991 they came close to winning power with a mixture of violence and electoral fraud. By 1992, however, they had reverted to a strategy of murder and mayhem.
They pursued two objectives.
The first was to destroy the Algerian Army by killing as many recruits as they could in the hope that this would provoke masse desertions.
The second was to prevent the holding of any elections.
“Democracy means the rule of the people ,” Antar Zu’abri, one of the most notorious of the terrorist chiefs, killed in action in the 1990s, liked to say. “Those who want the rule of the people defy the rule of God, which is Islam.”
By 1994 the terrorists seemed to be close to victory. At least, Francois Mitterrand, France’s president at the time, thought so. In a statement he said Paris was prepared to work with an “Islamic” regime in Algiers.
At least four provinces and parts of the capital Algiers were deemed too dangerous for government forces to enter. On some occasions the terrorists demonstrated their strength by engaging government forces in big battles, including one in Jijel which involved both the Algerian Navy and Air Force. Visiting Algiers in March 1994 I was struck by the mood of doom and gloom at almost every level of government. European ambassadors confided their fear that the terrorists might seize power at any time.
A segment of the elite was urging negotiations with the terrorists, which meant discussing terms of surrender.
After a long moment of tergiversation in which the Algerian leaders did not know quite how to deal with the threat, they stumbled on a strategy almost by instinct.
They soon realized that the terrorists lacked a significant popular base. But it was also clear that a majority of Algerians had adopted a wait-and-see attitude, hating the terrorists in secret but too frightened of them to make a clear stand against them in public.
The key, therefore, was to mobilize the “silent majority” to demonstrate the isolation of the terrorists. The most effective way to do that was to hold elections.
Few people are prepared to die, and even fewer are willing to kill in support of their political opinions. But almost everyone is ready to vote.
The task of a civilized society is to render the expression of political opinions easy. The terrorists made it difficult because they demanded of the people to kill and die.
The Algerian leaders decided to make it easy by asking the people to vote.The turning point came in 1995 when Algeria organized its first ever pluralist and direct presidential election.
This is was not an ideal election. The candidates were little known figures that had appeared on the national political scene just a couple of years earlier. None presented a coherent political program.
To make matters worse the terrorists did all they could to prevent the election. They burned down voter registration bureaus and murdered election officers. Masked men visited people in their homes and shops to warn that going to the polls would mean death.
And, yet, when polling day came it quickly became clear that the terrorists, in the forlorn attempt at stopping democracy, were, as in so many other instances in history, facing certain defeat. Never in my many years of journalism had I seen such enthusiasm for an electoral exercise anywhere in the world.
The “silent majority” spoke by casting ballots, not because it particularly liked any of the candidates but because it wanted to send a message to the terrorists that they had no place in Algeria.
That one election did not make Algeria a democracy.
Since then Algeria has held three more presidential and a dozen local and parliamentary elections. None of these exercises have been perfect, and Algeria may need dozens more elections, which means many more years, before it can achieve the standards set by mature democracies.
But the Algerian exercise has made one fact clear: The only way to defeat terrorism is by involving the mass of the people through elections.
Algeria was the first major Arab country to be attacked by Islamist terrorists on a large scale. It is also the first to defeat them.
The Algerian experience holds many lessons for Iraq today. The terrorist insurgents operating in Iraq pursue the same strategy as their Algerian colleagues in the 1990s. Zarqawi and other terror chiefs are also trying to disrupt elections while, by killing recruits, preventing the formation of an Iraqi national army. Copy-catting their Algerian counterparts, the terrorists in Iraq have also assassinated many high profile officials and politicians.
But like the Algerians, they, too, will learn that in a democracy no individual is indispensable.
Iraq’s first ever free election, scheduled for Jan. 30, will confront the terrorists with the people’s power just as Algeria did in 1995.
This is why it is vital that the election be held on time and in as many parts of the country as possible. Using elections to defeat terrorism could become the key to the future of several other Arab countries.
Copyright: Arab News © 2003 All rights reserved.

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