The French connection

The French connection

by Gordon Campbell, New Zealand Listener, February 14-20 2004

Helen Clark has kept the Americans at arm’s length over Iraq. So why is she now embracing the French over Ahmed Zaoui? How reliable is that evidence? Gordon Campbell talks to a former top Algerian counter-intelligence officer who reveals that he was personally involved in the campaign to discredit Zaoui.
If the French Security Service has furnished the SIS with its classified evidence against Ahmed Zaoui, then SIS director Richard Woods was our man in Paris at just the right time. Woods was New Zealand Ambassador to Paris between 1995 and 1999 – at the height of the conflict between France’s client military regime in Algiers, and the Islamic opposition forces. The mid to late 1990s is also the key period in the SIS case against the Algerian refugee Ahmed Zaoui, over his alleged activities in Europe.

These coincidences raise unsettling questions. During his four-year stint in Paris, did Woods make contacts with the French secret service? Has the SIS perspective on Zaoui been skewed by the contacts made by Woods during his diplomatic posting? Once Zaoui arrived here, it is hard to believe that Woods would not have drawn on his formal and informal contacts in Paris for information. All in a day’s work perhaps – but in the process, has the government been captured by perceptions fed to them by the French secret service? In the name of an independent foreign policy, the Clark government has kept the Americans at arm’s length over Iraq – yet it seems more than willing to embrace the French over Algeria.

Relevant considerations, as we inch towards the review of the Zaoui case by SIS Inspector-General Laurie Greig. As Woods arrived in Paris in 1995, the most militant of the Islamic terrorist groups – the GIA – was rarely out of the headlines. Under its then-leader Djamel Zitouni, the GIA was responsible for several bloody massacres of Algerian citizens.

In addition, the GIA « kidnapped » a trio of French public servants in Algeria in 1993 – but this so-called « Thevenot affair » has since been revealed to be a fake kidnapping and rescue staged by the security services, designed to make the military regime look good and to inflame public opinion in France against the Islamists.

For similar reasons, the GIA hijacked an Air France plane in 1994, carried out a deadly series of bomb attacks within the Metro in Paris in 1995, and abducted and killed a group of seven French Trappist monks working in Algeria in 1996. All these incidents have since been found to have had either security services involvement or some degree of prior knowledge. Unfortunately for Zaoui, ever since he arrived in New Zealand he has been erroneously depicted by the police as a member of the GIA, and designated by the SIS as a threat to national security – and thus been kept in prison, for most of that time in solitary confinement.

Has the SIS the ability – or the sophistication – to adequately interpret the information it has been receiving from France? As the Refugee Status Appeals Authority patiently explained in its exhaustive decision last August, there was no evidence Zaoui had ever belonged to, or supported the GIA. In fact (see RSAA decision, p45), the GIA had effectively sentenced Zaoui to death in its « Burning Thunderbolts » communiqué of January 1996.

The details of French/Algerian collusion with the GIA are even more disturbing. It is not simply that Algerian death squads would impersonate the GIA and carry out massacres or create local militias – the so-called Patriotes – to do likewise. In recent years, firm evidence has begun to emerge from Algerian military sources and leading academics that the dreaded GIA has been – perhaps from the outset and certainly under Zitouni’s bloody leadership – a dummy, or « screen » organisation managed by French/Algerian counter-intelligence.

Where was the terrorist threat in fact coming from, Le Monde asked rhetorically in November 2002, during its preview of a 90-minute Canal+ television documentary on the Metro bombings, and then cited the right-wing MP and former French counter-intelligence chief Alain Marsaud in reply. « State terrorism uses screen organisations, » Marsaud said. « In this case [the GIA] a screen organisation in the hands of the Algerian security services … it was a screen to hold France hostage. »

Two recent books by former Algerian military officers have given chapter and verse about the « turning » of the GIA. Last year, the feared Algerian general Khaled Nezzar sued one of the authors (Habib Souaida) in a Paris court for libel – and lost, largely due to compelling testimony by the star witness, the former Algerian colonel Mohammed Samraoui.

The point being, Zaoui has been accused by New Zealand authorities of being a member and supporter of the GIA – when, in fact, it seems the relevant classified information has been fed to the SIS by the same security organisations that enabled the GIA to commit its most bloody exploits. In the High Court in December, Woods revealed that two out of three countries providing the SIS with classified information against Zaoui – Belgium and Switzerland – had agreed to publicly release this material, but a third (unnamed) country had refused. In context, this can only have been France.

Over recent weeks, I have conducted phone and email interviews with Samraoui – in French, via a translator – at his refuge in Germany, where he has been periodically under police protection after several assassination attempts. In great detail in his 316-page book (Chronicle of the Years of Blood, Denoel, 2003) and during our interviews, Samraoui explained how the GIA reign of terror became a weapon for destroying those who voted for the FIS (the Islamic political party that won the aborted 1991 elections) and a tool for those seeking to discredit Islam as a viable alternative within Algeria – with the bonus effect of fostering sympathy and political support for the Algerian regime back in France.

What did this strategy also entail? As the Arab writer Elie Chalala has pointed out (the Humanist, March 1999), the massacres displaced entire communities, and enabled the regime to confiscate fertile farm lands near Algiers for minimal compensation, and to onsell them at great profit.

Zitouni, a government agent from 1994 onwards, also killed many of the genuine Islamists within the GIA, as well as several leading members and supporters of the FIS. In fact, the statistical evidence – see pages 65-75 of the book An Anatomy of the Massacres, published by the Hoggar Research Institute – suggests that the highest proportion of massacre victims lived in areas that voted most heavily for Islamic politicians. This would suggest that Islamists were more often the victims, not the perpetrators, of the carnage.

Samraoui does not claim that all of the massacres were carried out by French/Algerian agents. His perspective on the Algerian tragedy is nuanced, and very well informed. He is not a small fish. A member of the Algerian ruling administration after the 1991 coup and during the subsequent period of crisis, Samraoui was deputy chief of the deadly Algerian counter-intelligence (the DRS) until he clashed with the regime over its crimes and excesses. He was shifted offshore, and became the regime’s top counter-intelligence officer in Europe, operating out of the Algerian Embassy in Bonn.

Between 1992 and 1996, Samraoui was in charge of monitoring the activities of the entire FIS leadership (including Zaoui) in Europe – a crucial vantage point, given that the SIS has stated that its concerns about Zaoui relate exclusively to his activities during his exile in Europe.

To me, Samraoui listed the sort of activities he was engaged in during his posting: « Surveillance of the Algerian opposition outside Algeria, identifying and neutralising the channels used to supply arms to Algeria … disseminating propaganda to develop political support, and corrupting journalists, businessmen and politicians with the aim of creating pro-Algerian lobby groups outside Algeria … »

Algeria, he reminds me, was in crisis at the time. « We were in a civil war situation and, speaking personally, I sincerely believed that the foundations of the republican state were under threat from the Islamists. It was only over time that I became aware of the duplicity – and so, in order not to be an accomplice of the criminal generals … I made the decision to desert from the army, in accordance with the urgings of my conscience and my moral values. »

Ultimately – as he relates in his book – it was his fierce opposition to an assassination plot being mounted against the exiled FIS politicians Rabah Kebir and Sheikh Abdelbaki Sahraoui (who was killed) that led to his final split with the regime in 1996.

Did his surveillance indicate Zaoui was a terrorist, or that he harboured and abetted those committing terrorist acts? « No, » Samraoui replies vehemently, « Ahmed Zaoui has never been a member of the GIA, or any armed group whatsoever. Ahmed Zaoui is even innocent of the crimes of which he was accused in Belgium and France. » Later he explains that he was told this by a Belgian police officer whom he would be prepared to name when – as planned – he comes to New Zealand to testify before the Greig review.

Samraoui continues: « I am sure of this [Zaoui’s innocence] because I was personally involved in the campaign launched against the Islamist leaders in Europe, of which Zaoui was one, in order to discredit them, and to obtain their extradition to Algeria. » Not all of the FIS were so peaceable, he says. « There were leaders and sympathisers of the FIS who did encourage armed action and we know exactly who they are. Besides, it was in 1994 that the FIS set up a military branch, the AIS … but I can assure you that Zaoui had nothing to do with this, because he was in the political wing. »

So should New Zealand be healthily sceptical about information from France about Zaoui? Yes, Samraoui replies. « The New Zealand Government would be making a serious mistake if it bases its decision solely on the ‘proof’ supplied by the French. » After all, he adds, the French have no capacity to gather intelligence of their own on the ground inside Algeria. « All their intelligence, all their information, all their evidence, has been supplied by the Algerian services [that] label all the opposition people ‘terrorists’ so as to eliminate the opposition and obtain their expulsion back to Algeria. » Only days after the September 11 attacks, he adds, the Algerians supplied the Bush administration with 1000 names of its opponents overseas, accusing them of links to al-Qaeda.

But why target Zaoui? « What caused concern to the military regime in Algeria was that Ahmed Zaoui was politically active in Belgium, and that he was successful in mobilising sympathisers, and was able to increase international awareness of the dramatic situation in Algeria. The despotic generals did not like this. In addition Zaoui, who is deeply respected in Islamic circles for his wisdom, had taken an active part in the Sant Egidio negotiations [a peace conference held in Rome in late 1994] at which the Algerian military rejected any idea of peace and negotiation. »

To date, the SIS has shown no awareness of the nuances of the Algerian situation. French neo-colonial self-interest extends well beyond the exploitation of Algeria’s vast oil reserves. Many of the regime’s leaders were trained by the French in the 1950s and fought the Al-gerian rebellion – with many joining the underground late in the game just before the independence victory was finally won in 1962. The subsequent bonds between the Francophone generals in Algiers and the security establishment in France are

the product of decades of collusion and corruption – with these relationships operating at a level below, and sometimes in direct conflict with, the expressed policies of the French Government.

Yet as the RSAA says in its demolition job on the shoddy unclassified file of evidence against Zaoui provided by the SIS, there is no sign that our security services know any of this: « There is no hint of any familiarity with the extensive material which considers the probable infiltration of the GIA by Algerian military security, particularly during the 1994-98 period. »

Like Zaoui, Samraoui knows what the Algerian regime has in mind for him. « I am a dead man, » he said simply to a reporter in Paris last July, at the end of the Nezzar libel case. « I don’t exist any more. I’ve sacrificed everything and my family lives very meagrely. But my conscience is clear … » Although fatalistic, Samraoui does not intend to go meekly. « I take all the precautions, » he told me, « to prevent the killer generals from finishing their dirty work. When you have survived several assassination attempts, there comes a time when you no longer fear death. And that’s why I am fighting today for truth and justice, but also for peace in Algeria. »

In itself, the Zaoui case is a personal tragedy – his treatment by New Zealand has been an added injustice to a man who has been persecuted for nigh on a decade. « He is not the only one in this position, » Samraoui says. « There are hundreds of FIS activists who have had to flee from oppression, prison and death. The only thing they have done wrong is to have been democratically elected in December 1991. »

In the wider context, the hapless Algerian has been the laboratory animal on which New Zealand has tested its system of national security – and so far the experiment has failed spectacularly. The tale of the police interrogator at Auckland airport who asked Zaoui if he was a GIA member and misheard his correction « FIS » (ef-ee-ess) as « yes » bears repetition. As the RSAA noted, Zaoui had arrived at noon after travelling for 48 hours, been kept waiting until after midnight and was then interviewed without an interpreter in a noisy arrival hall by an untrained officer who wrote down only Zaoui’s « Yes » answers and not his « No » answers – and who then further misreported Zaoui’s reply that he had fired « 10 shots » of a Kalashnikov rifle in his life (during his military service when young) as a confession to having had « 10 lessons » with the weapon.

Having royally screwed up this initial interrogation, the New Zealand authorities then included this GIA « confession » in its Interpol reports to 12 foreign countries, and included it in material supplied to the Refugee Status Board, which duly rejected his initial appeal for asylum. The same misinformation became the rationale for placing Zaoui in solitary confinement for 10 months in a maximum security prison. This occurred without anyone ever questioning why someone who had denied this alleged GIA link for over a decade in four different countries should suddenly « confess » the opposite.

The police/SIS then conducted a seven-hour joint interview that they videotaped without his knowledge or consent. In similar vein, the notorious « Police Threat Assessment » report of December 11, 2002, then treated Zaoui’s human rights (to make his case for asylum) as a « risk » to be countered by decisive police action: « There is also a risk of him trying to instigate relationships in New Zealand to assist him in gaining legal residential status. There is also the political risk that he will try to gain some support by utilising the media. » To minimise the « political risk » of Zaoui exercising his rights, the police advocated keeping a « total media ban » in place.

In recent weeks, Progressive Party MP Matt Robson has instigated inquiries to the Ombudsman and via the police complaints process into the various departments (Corrections, Customs, the Police) responsible for the initial mishandling of Zaoui. The point of retracing this litany of errors is because the abuse continues. Zaoui, at time of writing, is still in prison and Immigration Minister Lianne Dalziel confirmed on February 2 that he will stay there – for the foreseeable future, it seems. If the government was acting in good faith, the exhaustive RSAA decision last August gave it a perfect rationale for exercising its discretion to release Zaoui into more humane conditions months ago.

Instead, the Clark government has sought to distance itself from any responsibility, or power to act. « I think it’s quite important to note, » Clark said in mid January, « that the government is in many ways not in the loop on this. » The sophistry here is quite incredible. Clark can hardly portray herself as a neutral bystander to the legal process now in train. She is, after all, the Minister of the SIS. It was her government’s Attorney-General who actively opposed the High Court proceedings in December that ultimately wound up respecting a modicum of Zaoui’s human rights and won him access to a summary of the classified evidence held against him. The government’s aggression has now been compounded by its decision to appeal and seek to overturn the High Court findings.

Other Cabinet ministers are also putting their shoulders to the wheel. On December 16, Dalziel was asked by Green MP Keith Locke whether Zaoui would be transferred from prison into more humane conditions. Dalziel replied that her legal advice was that « such a transfer is not possible under section 114(0) of the Immigration Act » and perhaps assumed that no one would bother to look up the section in question.

In fact, the discretion seems to be right there in black and white. Section 114(0) subclause three states that a person subject to a warrant of commitment who succeeds in an appeal to the SIS Inspector-General « or if for any other reason the person is released … » then the immigration authorities will notify the prison superintendent « or person in charge of the other premises in which the person is detained … » (Emphases added.)

How can anyone read this section as leaving them no discretion to shift Zaoui out of prison? At any time since last August – after the RSAA comprehensively demolished the case against Zaoui – the government could have, and should have, ordered Zaoui’s release from prison into the Mangere Accommodation Centre, while the Greig review ran its course. That would have been an utterly appropriate exercise of compassionate justice – and been some compensation for the added troubles heaped on Zaoui by a stream of bungling New Zealand officials. Given the performance to date, Nelson Mandela might have been unwise to have gone on the run from Robben Island, had he sought much help from the Clark government.

In the weeks ahead, the Crown Law Office intends to attack the High Court rulings on two fronts. Rather than ensure that Greig – an elderly retired judge operating with no staff – is given the research resources and help that he patently needs to do his job properly, the government has chosen to try to cut down his workload, at Zaoui’s expense.

How so? The government also plans to challenge the High Court ruling that Greig must consider Zaoui’s human rights in the course of his review, rather than leave that to ministerial discretion. In similar vein, the government will also be opposing the so-called « privative » aspects of the High Court decision, which gave Zaoui’s lawyers their standing to challenge Greig’s interim decision in the first place. If the Crown contests and wins on this privative point, it would void the entire High Court decision – and thus restore Greig’s interim decision. This would deny Zaoui’s right to a summary of the allegations against him, while not looking like a frontal attack on that point.

To many, the decision to play hardball indicates a government somewhat adrift from its moral bearings. At this rate, Samraoui will be lucky to get a visa to enter New Zealand to testify on Zaoui’s behalf. Reportedly, Zaoui is in poor psychological shape. The government’s decision to appeal the High Court decision only lends weight to the recent suggestion by Auckland University lecturer Paul Buchanan that a campaign of psychological pressure is being deliberately applied to Zaoui, in order to induce him to give up his quest for asylum here. That is torture. Even the French would know that.