Seven monks were beheaded…

Seven monks were beheaded. Now the whistleblower has paid with his life

John Sweeney, The Observer, June 14, 1998

The Abbot-General of the Trappist Order was insistent: he wanted to see the bodies of his seven monks, killed, he had been assured, by Algeria’s crazed Islamists in an atrocity that had shocked all of France.

The abbot, Bernardo Olivera, and his assistant, Armand Veilleux, had travelled from Rome to Algiers and wanted to go to Tibehrine, the monastery from where the monks had been abducted. The first surprise was that the bodies were not at the monastery, but in a mortuary of a military hospital in the Algiers suburbs.

The abbot had been told the throats of the monks had been slit – they call it ‘the Big Smile’ in Algeria – on 23 May 1996. The Algerians relented under pressure and finally opened the coffins. The abbot was prepared for the worst, but he was stupefied when he saw what was in the coffins.

Not seven corpses, but only seven severed heads.

Where were the rest of the bodies? How had the monks been killed? The three-year-old mystery was given a sinister turn last week when it emerged that the Algerian officer who first accused his own government of staging the massacre of the monks, to blacken the name of Islamic fundamentalists, has himself been killed.

Last November ‘Hakim’ contacted the French newspaper Le Monde, after revelations in The Observer by one ‘Joseph’ that the Algerian junta was playing a ‘black’ war against the Islamists, staging massacres and bombings to discredit them.

Hakim claimed last year that the murder of the seven monks had been a hit staged by the secret police. He also said two bombs that killed eight and wounded 143 in Paris in 1995 were planted at the instigation of the Algerian junta. Last week it emerged that Hakim had been killed this spring – and his death took place in extremely suspicious circumstances.

The phone rang in the home of Jean-Pierre Tuquoi, the Le Monde reporter who was contacted by Hakim last November. The caller said « Hakim is dead », then rang off. A few days later news broke that there had been a helicopter accident in the Sahara desert, in the empty south of Algeria. Officially, it was in that accident that Hakim was killed. It is extremely difficult to establish the cause of any death in Algeria’s ‘dirty war’, in which 80,000 have been killed since the junta, headed by General Liamine Zeroual, cancelled elections in 1991 that would have seen the Islamic Salvation Front sweep to power. But an Observer investigation has established some of the facts surrounding Hakim’s death, which cast a disturbing light on Algeria’s pretensions to being a country where the rule of law is respected.

Hakim was tracked down by the Algerian secret police shortly after he contacted Le Monde. They took away his diplomatic passport and sent him to the south – to the Sahara. His family were placed under close watch and were very frightened. (At no time have Hakim’s family been in touch with The Observer.) Then they heard he had been killed in a helicopter accident.

Last November, when Hakim got in touch with Le Monde, he was a serving officer with the Algerian military. He was working abroad, and felt secure enough in his position to tell a leading French newspaper the feelings of a group of officers who were sickened by their work. « We have become assassins, working for a caste of crooks who infest the military. They want everything: oil, control of imports, property… We, the army, are not barbarians. Our role is to defend the country, not to help those who line their pockets. »

But it was Hakim’s detailed exposition of the killing of the Trappists and outrages that were blamed on the Islamists that would have enraged the Algerian junta. Hakim told Le Monde: ‘I confirm that the outrages of St Michel (in which eight were killed and more than 130 people wounded on 25 July 1995) and that of Maison Blanche (when 13 were wounded on 6 October 1995) were committed at the instigation of the Infiltration and Manipulation Directorate (DIM) of the Directorate of the Intelligence Service (DRS), controlled by Mohammed Mediene, better known under the name « Toufik » and General Smain Lamari.’

The thinking behind the operation, which united much of France in a visceral hatred of the Islamists, Hakim said, was to « win over public opinion in discrediting the Islamists ».

He highlighted the case of Djamel Zitouni, the head of the most extreme and dangerous guerrilla group in the Middle East, the GIA (Armed Islamic Group). Hakim said that, though Djamel was presented as a « public enemy number one », he was a creature of the junta’s military security. « He was recruited in 1991 in an internment camp in the south of Algeria, where thousands of Islamists had been imprisoned. »

Conditions inside the camps, the Algerian gulag, are reportedly appalling: lack of water and proper medical treatment are matched by Saharan temperatures that can top 49C (120F) in the shade.

Hakim said that the Algerian junta had used Djamel, helping him to win control over the GIA in 1994: Djamel « had been under our control until the Tibehrine affair. The monks were to have been found in the village of an Islamic chief, who would be blamed. For reasons I do not know, he did not respect the contract. So he was liquidated. »

A few months later, it was Hakim’s turn to be liquidated.