The Ugly Truth about Algeria

State terrorism. Human-rights abuses. Mass repression. How much do we really understand about what happened when Algeria plunged into civil war?

Simply put, GIA was the creation of the DRS; using proven Soviet methods of penetration and provocation, the agency assembled it to discredit the extremists. Much of GIA’s leadership consisted of DRS agents, who drove the group into the dead end of mass murder, a ruthless tactic that thoroughly discredited GIA Islamists among nearly all Algerians. Most of its major operations were the handiwork of the DRS, including the 1995 wave of bombings in France. Some of the most notorious massacres of civilians were perpetrated by military special units masquerading as mujahidin, or by GIA squads under DRS control. Having driven GIA into the ground by the late 1990s, DRS has continued to infiltrate and influence Islamist groups in the country. To what extent the local Al Qaeda affiliate is secretly controlled by the military—as GIA and GSPC were—is an open question, but its recent record suggests that DRS influence over any Algerian extremist group is considerable.

U.S. Intel Failure?

These realities, understood by Algerians, are little known in the West, particularly in the United States. While French senior officials have hinted they have been wise to DRS games for many years, a similar understanding seems altogether lacking in the Pentagon or the U.S. intelligence community, which have partnered with Algeria in the fight against Al Qaeda since the 1990s. Whether they really are ignorant or simply do not want to know the sordid details is an open and important question.

To be fair to those inside the Beltway, outside “terrorism experts” are just as credulous about Algeria’s “official story,” and an entire subindustry has arisen in recent years that seeks to explain Algeria and its violent homegrown jihad without any reference to basic realities inside the country.

Yet Algeria’s neighbors, who fear the country’s outsized influence in Northwest Africa, are appropriately skeptical of the Algiers-created narrative that portrays AQIM as a major threat to regional stability. They reject the idea that extremists can be combated only by greater Algerian involvement in regional affairs that is implicitly supported by the United States. African officials are known to drop unsubtle hints that AQIM is not quite what it seems to be and ought to be viewed within the broader context of Algerian foreign policy. In one of the rare cases where such doubts were aired openly, Mali’s head of state security, who is charged with keeping Algerian mujahidin out of his country, told the press in June 2009 that “at the heart of AQIM is the DRS.” Shortly thereafter, he was shot dead at home by “unknown gunmen.”

U.S. interest in the Sahel has only grown in recent years, roughly in tandem with the alleged rise of AQIM in the region. It is no coincidence that the U.S. Army is aligning a combat brigade with U.S. Africa Command—which heretofore has had no combat units permanently assigned to it—and the Pentagon’s interest in the region is rising fast. “Terrorist elements around the world go to the areas they think has the least resistance,” explained army chief of staff General Ray Odierno, “and right now, you could argue that’s Africa.”

While Al Qaeda unquestionably has a great deal of interest in the Maghreb, and would surely like to see the Algerian junta fall and be replaced by a Salafi regime bent on rebuilding the imaginary caliphate, the chances of this outcome are virtually nil. DRS methods, plus the usual extremist tone-deafness, have successfully soured the vast majority of Algerians on the jihadist message. While most Algerians want an end to what they simply call le pouvoir (“the power”), the corrupt military elite that has run the country since France left in 1962, few pine for any sort of Islamist dictatorship.

Unsolved Mystery