Benhadjar sets record straight on internecine GIA
Amnestied Islamist guerrilla, Ali Benhadjar, blames now-dead GIA commander Djamel Zitouni for mid-90s killings.
Medea, 27/12/01 – Former Islamist guerrilla commander, Ali Benhadjar, who once headed the Islamic League for Preaching and Combat (LIDD) has shed new light on infighting that splintered the Armed Islamic Groups (GIA) and on the abduction and murder of Trappist monks from Tibhirine Monastery in the Medea region in 1996.
He told Algeria Interface that the statements by a former GIA fighter, Djelloul Bouhamdi, aka Abou Oubeïda, on his arrest in November 2001, were at least partially false.
Abou Oubeïda had claimed that his commander Antar Zouabri was behind the assassination of Mohamed Saïd and Abderrezak Redjam, former FIS militants who had joined the GIA, as well as that of Djamel Zitouni, the GIA’s national emir, or commander. He had also engineered the monks’ abduction.
Ali Benhadjar, amnestied under the Civil Harmony Act and living in Medea, bases his counterclaims on the fact that he had firsthand knowledge of all three sets of killings, with two of them being committed on his own territory around the Jebel Tamesguisda mountain when he was a GIA member and chief of the Medea katiba (combat unit). In 1997 he broke away to set up the LIDD that was to lay down arms under the terms of a deal the AIS struck with the Algerian army.
The deaths of Mohamed Saïd and Abderrezak Redjam
« Mohamed Saïd and Abderrezak Redjam were on a mission in the west of the country in the spring of 1995 to try to persuade the Islamic Salvation Army [AIS] to swear allegiance to the GIA regional command, » said Benhadjar.
« They met Kada Benchiha, GIA regional emir for the West, Amor Habchi, emir for Central Algeria, and the AIS’s Ahmed Benaïcha. It emerged from the meeting that they had misgivings about Djamel Zitouni and how he had come to succeed Chérif Gousmi as the GIA’s national emir.
« On their return Mohamed Saïd and Abderrezak Redjam were summoned to the GIA headquarters at Bougara in the province of Blida. « On their way they stopped off with us in Tamesguisda, from 20 to 22 July 1995, » recounted Benhadjar.
He added that Zitouni suspected them of plotting against him. « I did all I could to persuade them not to go on. We had clues to the intentions of Djamel Zitouni’s djamâa [group]. Amor Habchi had already been sentenced to death and executed on his return from the West. But Mohamed Saïd wouldn’t listen, he said he wouldn’t be the cause of division between Muslims. »
The following autumn, the GIA national emirate (command) issued a statement saying that Mohamed Saïd had fallen in combat during a skirmish with the army on his way to visit his parents. Said Benhadjar: « We knew they had killed him, Abderrezak Redjam, and other brothers in Djaz’ara [a wing of the FIS headed by Mohamed Saïd that advocated an Algerian brand of Islamism]. »
Mistrust and suspicion reached such a pitch in 1995 that when Ali Benhadjar and three of his fellow fighters received a summons to GIA central command in Bougara, they knew what Zitouni had in store for them. They refused to go.
GIA central command sent a committee of mousalaha (reconciliation) to Tamesguida, which spent two weeks palavering with Benhadjar and his men. « The committee found that our differences were not insurmountable, » recalled Benhadjar. « It asked us to send a delegation to resolve matters once and for all with the majliss eshura [consultative committee]. » It soon became plain, however, that a trap was in the offing.
« We saw the signs of treachery, » said Benhadjar. « They proposed a list with the names of all those who should be in the delegation going to meet them. They included the four of us who had already been summoned. I refused to go. »
Others agreed, however, and on November 16th, 1995, the day of the presidential election, a five-man delegation left for Bougara. Of the five but one lived to tell the tale.From then on the Benhadjar’s Medea katiba and the GIA national emirate were at daggers drawn. « They even launched raids on us in Tamesguida, » said Benhadjar.
The Medea katiba hit back, scoring quite by chance a spectacular hit when on July 16th, 1996, Djamel Zitouni, Algeria’s public enemy number one, was killed in an ambush it had laid. Ali Benhadjar recalls.
« We knew the route the GIA fighters took to Medea. That day some of our men went out with weapons, ammunition and supplies to keep watch. At nightfall a 4WD vehicle appeared. It was all over in maybe three minutes. We seized weapons and documents and on reading them we realised one of three men in the car was a big fish. One of our men knew Djamel Zitouni, but he didn’t have time to identify him. We only found a few days later that we had killed him. »
Djamel Zitouni was behind the seven Trappist monks abducted and killed in March 1996, affirmed Benhadjar, saying that Zitouni had ordered the Medea Katiba to do the deed.
« We told him we had given them [the monks] our word as believers and that we meant to keep it. We planned to warn the monks of the danger they were in, » rued Benhadjar, « but the GIA acted swiftly with help of fighters from Medea. »
Ali Benhadjar said the fault line dividing the GIA from the AIS and LIDD hinged on the armed struggle. « We would have preferred political means if our rights had been respected. Our armed struggle was in self-defence. For the GIA, the only true struggle was the armed struggle. Anything else was haram [illicit]. They bumped off some fighters just because they were listening to a cassette of Abassi Madani or Ali Benhadj speaking. »
El Kadi Ihsane