Who killed the monks of Tibhirin?

Who killed the monks of Tibhirin?

Algeria-Watch, January 2003, infomappe 22

In the night from 26 March to the 27th 1996 seven monks of the Trappist Order – Christian de Chergé, Bruno Lemarchand, Paul Favre Favre-Miville, Christophe Lebreton, Luc Dochier Michel Fleury, had been kidnapped from the monastery Tibhirin in Médéa and were murdered on 21 May. Their remnants were found one week later. The Armed Islamic Groups (GIA: Groupes Islamiques Armés) claimed responsibility for the killing. Many questions, such like the circumstances of the abduction and the captivity of the hostages, the role of the French and Algerian secret services and finally the murder of the monks remain, however, unanswered until today. An investigation never took place. On 23 December 2002 the French newspaper Libération released a statement by Abdelkader Tigha, a member of the secret service, who said the operation was carried out by his office.

In the night from 26 March to the 27th 1996 a command of 20 men crossed the village of Tibhirin, kidnapped several young men, penetrated into the monastery and kidnapped seven monks. They left two other monks – Amédée and Jean Pierre – and a group of pensioners behind, who alarmed the security forces. [ 1 ] They came, however, not until the next morning. One of the Algerian hostages fled and was able to provide exact information on the whereabouts of the kidnappers and their victims. As a consequence the entire region was bombed, however; without saving the hostages.

According to the official version, the GIA kidnapped and finally murdered the hostages. Almost one month later, on 18 April 1996, the groups released a communique signed by Djamel Zitouni, in which they called for the release of GIA prisoners in exchange for the monks. In their second communique, dating from 23 May, the GIA announced the murder of the monks, justifying the killing with the « betrayal » of France: « the French President and his Minister of Foreign Affairs stated that they would not negotiate with the GIA. They cut off the dialogue. Now we cut off the necks of the seven monks. » What this exactly meant, remains unclear, in particular since negotiations between the French secret service and the kidnappers were not confirmed officially. On 30 April a GIA representative went into the French embassy and gave a video tape to a French secret service officer. The tape proved that the monks were still alive on 17 April. [ 2 ]. The GIA’s envoy was never seen again. It is to be assumed that the Algerian Military Security [ 3 ] arrested him after leaving the embassy. [ 4 ] Thus the contact between the GIA and the French embassy broke off. Has this breakdown in negotiations caused the kidnappers to murder the monks?

The abduction, which raises more questions than provides answers, led to innumerable speculations, in particular with regard to the role of the French and Algerian secret services. During the abduction the entire region was surrounded by military forces and got finally bombed. Some people close to the church suppose that the monks died during the bombing. Others assume that the French services took over from their Algerian colleagues because the latter did not make progress on the matter and/or were even involved in the operation. In case of involvement they had to get rid of the hostages in order to cover their tracks. Had the monks been kidnapped by the secret service?

Since neither the French government nor the church demanded an investigation of the crime, the affair sank into oblivion. However, due to Abdelkader Tigha’s uncoverings the question about the father of the abduction and the murder of the seven monks got under way again. Tigha, who served as commander of a brigade at the Territorial Centre of Research and Investigation (CTRI: Centre territorial de recherche et d’investigation) of Blida between 1993 and 1997 reports that his colleagues infiltrated and controlled armed groups. With regard to the abduction of the monks he says that Mouloud Azzout, a close confidant of Djamel Zitouni, stayed overnight at the CTRI on 24 March 1996 in order to talk to Smaien Lamari, head of the Directorate of the Intelligence Service (DCE: Direction du Contre-Espionnage) and number 2 of the secret service, the next morning. Five persons participated in the meeting, inter alia M’henna Djebbar, head of the CTRI. On this day the highest alert was proclaimed, permitting no one to leave his post. The watches were kept by sergeants. On the next day’s evening, Azzout and two CTRI members left in two cars, kidnapped the seven monks and returned to the center. Tigha points out: « we thought of an arrest of terrorists. Unfortunately it were the seven monks who had been kidnapped. They were questioned by Mouloud Azzout. Two days later he brought them to a place above Blida and finally to Djamel Zitouni’s control center, a place named Tala Acha. It consists of underground hideouts, a hospital and a school for new recruits. From this place Azzout keeps contact with the CTRI. » [ 5 ]

Tigha continues to tell that the internal rivalries of the GIA changed the situation completely. Hocine Bessiou (alias Abu Moss’ab) led one GIA group into the region of Blida Bougara Sidi Moussa Baraki. He called upon Zitouni to release the monks. Since other GIA lieutenants supported the demand, Zitouni and Azzout had to accept. The monks were brought to Bougara, while Azzout had to justify his decision before the CTRI. Tigha explains that after « he [ Azzout ] had remained there for two weeks no one heard of him again ». The DRS called upon Djamel Zitouni to return the hostages. Since the conflict between the GIA and other groups intensified this venture caused his death. Tigha states that Zitouni died in an AIS ambush. « His and Azzout’s elimination deleted any evidence of our services’ entangling. Zitouni’s death was announced not before July. » [ 6 ]

In a communique, dating from 21 May 1996, the GIA announced the death of the hostages. On 30 May their heads were found. It remains unclear, however, how the monks were killed. Did they become victims of the bombing, as supposed above? Were they murdered by secret service agents since they knew by whom they had been kidnapped? Or were they murdered by the GIA since the negotiations with the French DGSE failed. The entangling of both secret services remain obscure. There is evidence that they worked against each other rather than together.

Ali Benhadjar, a former GIA member, reports.

Tigha’s statement corresponds with the explanations of Ali, a former commander of a GIA armed group. In July 1997, one year after Benhadjar left the GIA, he wrote about the abduction, revealing many details of the circumstances. He reports that the command which accomplished the abduction terrorized the village and destroyed dwellings. While it killed three men and kidnapped others, who were found murdered later, one person was able to flee. [ 7 ] He says the kidnappers walked their victims through the mountains. Since one Algerian hostage could flee, he alarmed the security forces. He wonders why the region was bombed while the monks were kept hostage there. He was also amazed about the fact that the newspapers reported that the hostages had been brought from the region of Tibhirin to Bougara, refering to « well informed sources ». How could the whereabout of the monks have been known, if not disclosed by the secret service? If so, why had the monks not been released? Was there no intention to rescue them? Benhadjar goes so far to even accuse the French secret service of complicity.

Benhadjar’s report also reveals internal details of the GIA group, which is held responsible for the abduction. Benhadjar explains that Djamel Zitouni’s group was manipulated and controlled by the secret service and took over the GIA command by means of an internal coup. This group carried out the abduction since his own group rejected to do it. The members of his group had promised the monks protection (Aman) at the end of 1993. He describes in detail how he and five other men of his group, inter alia Cheikh Attia, former chief of the group, visited the monks in the night from 24 December to the 25th 1993 in order to offer them the Aman. They required, however, that the monks’ physician would take care of their wounded. Benhadjar affirms that the monks agreed to this proposal. He explains: « When the GIA under command of Zitouni, who was manipulated by the security agencies through absurd Fatwsa and guidelines, began to deviate from their principle, the GIA cancelled our obligations by declaring legitimate the blood, the property and the money of those, who do not agree with it. » [ 8 ] In his statement Benhadjar provides evidence that the GIA, which was led by Djamel Zitouni and Antar Zouabri, was manipulated by the secret service.

Until today neither the Algerian nor the French government has responded to the explanations of Benhadjar and Tigha. Mr. Tessier, the archbishop of Algiers, told the press: « the person who provided the most useful information was Benhadjar of the AIS (Armée islamique du Salut). He was in contact with the different terroristic groups of the region. We do not have other information to confirm the Libération’s press article. » [ 9 ] Is this to be seen as a diplomatic confirmation of Benhadjar’s statement?

Hopefully, Abdelkader Tigha’s statement will finally prompt the church and the French government to demand an investigation.