Preface to « The Dirty War » by Habib Souaidïa

Preface to « The Dirty War » by Habib Souaidïa

By Ferdinando Imposimato

« The Dirty War » is a distressing account of the Algerian tragedy by one of its protagonists, Habib Souaïdia, a former officer of the special forces in charge of the struggle against Islamic terrorism, in which he relates his war years from 1992, and also the years he was forced to spend in prison.

For many years, as an examining magistrate, I dealt with terrorism cases. I worked on red, black, Italian and international terrorism, as well as the links between terrorists and the secret services of numerous countries. I read thousands of legal documents, official reports of parliamentary committees, articles by journalists and experts, and I spoke with hundreds of terrorists. Despite all this, I became aware of the immense gaps that exist in the knowledge of many aspects of the terrorist phenomenon – of its diversity in different regions of the world, and in particular in Algeria where for a long time we believed we knew everything.

The truth is not easy

Reading Habib Souaïdia’s book I discovered the considerable difference between the reality in Algeria and the way it has been represented by the media. For the majority of Europeans, the daily massacres of unarmed civilians, of women and children are uniquely the work of fanatical and bloodthirsty Islamic terrorists. For my part, I had never suspected that the institutional apparatus of prevention and repression, or at least a part of it, could be implicated in the slaughter to the extent to which it is demonstrated by the author. His effective and essential account shakes many certainties, and for the European civil conscience raises the question of why nothing was done to stop the massacres and what can be done today.

It is not only our moral duty, but also a political necessity to re-establish the truth about a phenomenon that sooner or later could reach Europe. With such a reflection, however, one must be cautious since it is necessary to avoid going from accepting one opportunist truth to another unproven truth, especially in cases concerning terrorist crimes for which responsibility has not clearly been claimed. However it is also important not to fall into the opposite trap of claiming that one cannot demonstrate a fact without absolute mathematical proof.

For historical truth is never simple and is not always logical – there are incredible truths that defy common sense, but this does not make them any less real. Truth itself is not easy because reality – men and their intentions – are not simple. To ignore the complexity of life only signifies a denial of the truth. Admittedly, we cannot be satisfied with points of view and opinions alone, but faced with a real-life story related by someone who, like this young officer, has experienced it in the flesh, we cannot close our eyes, even if we have to evaluate it critically. What I have tried to do here is to link this story with other historically proven events in order to assess its possible coherence or contradictions. Careful analysis of this story leads, if not with absolute certainty, which would be premature, but at least to a very probable truth about the complex nature of Algerian terrorism. A truth which avoids the traps of manipulation and the « omerta » which is often used as a smoke screen by the state, and in the name of which any means, both legal and illegal are justified in the name of conquering terrorism.

Habib Souaidia’s testimony appears to me to be highly credible for two main reasons. Firstly the precision with which he recounts the facts is such that it appears highly improbable that he could have invented them. For his part, the publisher carried out the all the necessary checks before deciding to publish the account, and became convinced that he was face to face with a sincere and strongly motivated witness. Secondly the account is absolutely consistent with what observers of the Algerian situation have been reporting for years (on one side the NGO’s that have investigated on the ground, such as Amnesty International and others; on the other experts on the Algerian question including sociologists, political scientists, historians and journalists, many of whom are Algerian).

The Origins of the Islamist Violence:

The book describes the ferocious actions of the islamist terrorists and the security forces charged with fighting them. However its great innovation is that it allows us to see for the first time, from the inside, the precise workings of the military apparatus and the Algerian security system that up to now have remained extremely opaque. Habib Souaidia does not omit either to place this in its historic and economic context. He tells of the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few groups, the end of the democratic parenthesis brought about by the cancellation of the elections and the military coup of January 1992, the army’s control of the composition of the government and of the justice system, the use of misinformation, the silence of the media and the inertia of the international community.

It also sheds light on the complex links between terrorism, corruption and a section of the politico-military power. Terrorism appears to be at the same time the means of struggle of the armed islamist groups against the ‘system’, but also an instrument used by an invisible power, not in order to defend democracy, but to remain in place. Alongside the bloody actions of the islamists, a number of terrorist acts that were attributed to them were in fact the work of this invisible power, whose aim, according to Souaidia was to eliminate its political adversaries.

I am reminded of the film, ‘The Battle of Algiers’ by Gillo Pontecorvo (1966). To our European eyes, far from the conflict of the ‘first Algerian war’, in two hours this film shattered the myth of the ‘heroic legionnaires’ and for the first time made us face the terrible reality of the military repression carried out by the French. In fact it is worth remembering at which point in the ‘dirty war’ that has been led since 1992 by the Algerian generals, and as Habib Souaidia testifies, the methods used between 1954 and 1962 by the French soldiers were taken up again (methods which were continued by the Americans in Vietnam and by the Latin American disciples of the ‘American School’ in Panama in the 1970’s): counter insurgency, manipulation, faux-maquis etc.

Islamist violence is also a reality, and it is important to understand its origins or else it will be impossible to find an adequate solution. This factor makes the Algerian situation very different from that of those European countries that have experienced, or continue to experience terrorism. One is on the wrong track in thinking that those who take up weapons in the name of Islam are solely inspired by religious fanaticism. The religious component is obviously important in Algeria, but there is also a deeper social and political motivation to oppose radically a power that they judge to be impious and corrupt. It is this that has created a consensus among the poorest layers of the population, who understand the situation beyond mere appearances.

There has never been unanimity among the nebulous Algerian Islamist movement over the means it should employ to combat this power. After a lengthy internal debate the vast majority ended up adhering to the electoral route. It was only after the cancellation of the first round of legislative elections in December 1991 and the coup in January 1992 that the most radical minority fringe occupied centre stage after having estimated that it had no alternative. This power that had been exercised since independence in an undemocratic way by a handful of generals, with external support – notably from multinational oil companies – had to be beaten by armed struggle.

This is how Algeria has sunk into the spiral of terrorism and repression, into this ‘dirty war.’ As Habib Souaidia recounts: « Several armed islamist groups….were created in the weeks that followed the stopping of the electoral process » They added to the even more radical groups that had existed for a long time and who had already taken up armed struggle, such as « ‘El hijra oua takfir’ (Exile and Expiation), formed principally from the former ‘Afghans’ or Kataeb el Qods (Brigades of Jerusalem), a pro-Shiite movement reportedly financed by the Iranians and the Lebanese Hezbollah. » However Souaidia confirms « these groups were autonomous compared to the FIS » but « it was already being said at the time that they had been infiltrated or manipulated by the Securite Militaire (SM). » The extremely probable rumour that financial backing was being provided to the first armed islamist groups is not new. It is more interesting to stress what was asserted from the beginning of 1992, that these groups were being manipulated by the secret services of the army (SM). A manipulation of which Habib Souaidia provides many very precise examples during the later period. Since this period there has been an appalling escalation of violence to which there is still no end in sight.

The ‘Strategy of Tension’

The day after the coup d’etat of January 1992, the attacks against police officers and soldiers began. Government repression was brutal. However the soldiers and officers of the special forces of the army (the ANP) had little experience of anti terrorist combat and were therefore easily manipulated. Also the population had no confidence in these units which intervened without respect for the freedoms of the citizen. Arrests, round ups, and mass searches were carried out against ordinary citizens suspected of complicity with the terrorists, for which there was no proper evidence. From 1992 for the most part, the repression that was carried out in order to combat the armed groups only served to increase support for them. The authorities used the SM and the special units of the gendarmerie and the police to stop, torture, liquidate or send to internment camps in the south thousands of young militants or FIS sympathisers who had played no part in the armed struggle. Many of them were tried and condemned to death by military tribunal outside of the legal process, in direct violation of the principles of human rights and fair trial as defined by the United Nations and by the European Convention on human rights of 1950.

This unjust and large-scale criminalisation of the opposition had the opposite effect to what had been anticipated. For many young people there was no other choice but to join the maquis. Those who had lost their loved ones, or who had been subjected to unjust arrest or torture built up such a hatred that they joined the armed struggle. This why Habib Souaidia logically defines the army as the ‘principle recruitment agent’ for islamist terrorism.

This strategy was in fact an instrument that the military hierarchies and a small privileged elite used in order to conserve power. It resembles in particular the strategy adopted in Italy in the 1970’s by an ‘invisible’, but none-the-less real power. Whereas the Red Brigades were on the rampage, this ‘power’ had recourse to large-scale massacres (indiscriminate attacks carried out on the basis of dubious claims) in order to consolidate themselves thanks to the collective psychosis generated by a generalised insecurity, and to prevent change by diverting attention away from the country’s unresolved social problems.

As in the case of post-war Italian terrorism, the secret services of the armed forces were assured a central role in the development of Algerian terrorism, thereby reinforcing those in power: the need to handle the violence justified increasingly tough repressive measures. The technique of the Algerian military security services was to allow attacks by the extremist islamists to take place, or even to encourage them (as probably occurred in the attacks on the Houari-Boumedience airport and on the Sidi-Ali cemetery in the autumn of 1992). This is the ‘strategy of tension’. It was experimented with in Italy, where for many years the perpetrators of the massacres received help from certain sectors of the armed services in procuring arms and explosives, or finding refuge abroad.

In Algeria this strategy which could implicate certain unscrupulous generals acting in close collaboration with the security services, struck not only innocent citizens, but also brave and honest soldiers, whose wish was to act as guarantors of democratic freedoms. Many of them were nameless victims of abuse, who were deprived of liberty or executed. The ferocity of certain elements of the special units charged with applying the strategy of tension and with licence to kill, knew no limits, especially against the young. This strategy was held up by deadly legislation – the age of penal responsibility for terrorist actions was lowered from eighteen to sixteen, simply being suspected of having links with a terrorist act or actor, or of not having informed on a terrorist crime about which one knew, became a crime. These laws, contrary to all principles of human rights, did not clarify the criminal behaviour that was going to be punished, but rather criminalised simple suspicion. They also resulted in increasing numbers of attacks and abuses of power.

In Italy the indiscriminate political repression carried out by the authorities was constantly, but unsuccessfully targeted by the Red Brigades. In denouncing it they sought to rally public opinion and to push the country off the path of democracy and respect for human rights. But this spiral of repression and terror was broken by the country’s democratic forces and above all the magistrates. The latter, although distressed by the assassinations of dozens of judges, carabinieri, and police officers assured the defence of the rule of law, believing that the existing legislation had to be strictly enforced rather than making recourse to exceptional legislation. They were also opposed to the death penalty.

In Algeria however laws were created in order to criminalise the islamic opposition, that is to say more than three million citizens – a quarter of the electorate – who had voted for the Islamist party.

The ‘Invisible Power’

Habib Souaidia’s passage into the world of the special troops made him definitively aware of the truth. He wanted to fight the islamist terrorists, but was unaware that he would be forced to act like them. A number of shameful crimes that he recounts were until now not known to European citizens. As I have already said, there was no objective analysis of the situation either in the media coverage, or in the search for the truth.

In Italy, there was a general lack of understanding about the origin and the aim of these attacks on the civilian population and institutions in Algeria. No other Mediterranean country had known such a situation of subversive violence during this time. However, reading this book one sees that the endemic nature of this violence is not self-evident, the main reason being that certain protagonists wished to impose a different political system. To the contrary it was upheld by those in power in order to maintain itself, whilst stifling any initiatives by civil society in the name of security imperatives.

In Algeria there has always existed a hidden centre of power that has acted with extreme cynicism in order to shape the course of events. It strangled society and liquidated its opponents, both inside and outside of the system, but it did not succeed in stopping the course of history. This raises an essential question: who makes history? Historians have taught us that great history is born out of great ideological, religious, political and unionist movements, by the evolution of social classes, of societies and states, by struggles of which they are at the same time the protagonists and the expression. History is not the work of small plots or large conspiracies – the theory of universal conspiracy is a reductive and unacceptable vision of history.

Even so the world has changed radically during the last half century. Behind the scenes, the hidden powers, with their international connections, have played a crucial role. Being aware of this does not mean returning to a reductionist vision of the evolution of society, but simply one must take into consideration, in the reading of these events, this historical variable of invisible power. For this power does not hesitate to use terrorism, both that of the opposition which it allows to develop, indeed manipulates, and that of the state so often disguised in order for it to be attributed to the subversive forces of opposition.

It is often also the case that the actors of the different forms of invisible power penetrate each other. Subversive movements get tangled up with the state secret services and the circles of politico-military power and in corruption or organised criminal mafia groups. As Habib Souaidia’s account shows, the history of these last years in Algeria is full of episodes that demonstrate this overlap of underground channels, which always end up as some sort of transportation route between the groups. At certain moments opposing interests happen to coincide. At the end of the book one discovers that a number of the protagonists from both camps of the ‘dirty war’, who hold the greatest responsibility for the strategy of tension, became wealthy untouchable oligarchies.

Although there are important differences, from this point of view the Italian example can be enlightening. In 1981 a parliamentary commission called upon to reach a decision on the P2 masonic lodge spoke explicitly of ‘invisible power’. In describing the power structure, the commission outlined the existence of two symmetrical pyramids, one lower pyramid with which we are familiar, and another higher pyramid of which we are unaware. This is the secret power, constituted of those very same actors who manage power not only outside of the institutions, but also by means of the institutions. The logic of the world which pivots around this secret power – I always cite the commission of 1981 – is located beyond the threshold of the comprehension of common mortals.

In this troubled world there coexists a legal level, composed of politicians, bankers, media bosses, entrepreneurs, usurers, service providers, civil servants, and an illegal militarised level, where one finds mafias, terrorists and mercenaries. The latter constitute the armed wing of the first level.

For a long time in Italy the ‘invisible power’ was the synthesis of different hidden powers: in addition to the mafias, there were also certain sectors of official power, secret services and economic power that were involved. This invisible power was not a counter-power, it was the legal power itself which, in order to defend its interests and achieve its goals, made use of illegal methods that were forbidden under the legitimate exercise of power. Each time the legal power wanted to eliminate an adversary, it could employ killers from the hidden powers, institutional or otherwise, to assassinate him. The declared goal was always freedom and justice, but the means of achieving it were criminal.

I am convinced of one thing: one cannot combat terrorism with half-measures and with hesitation, and one has to expose those who exploit it under the pretext of fighting it. Europe and the United States should not delude themselves: sooner or later they will have to pay dearly for pretending not to see or understand anything. Today national and local visions of terrorism have been overtaken: international collaboration is essential, but this international community must know how to avoid propagandist traps and to understand the deep social malaise, which in different contexts are at the source of the islamic jihad.

What should we do?

Resolving the Algerian conflict will be a long and difficult task. In the face of the massacres of the civilian population, who are suffering from dramatically deteriorating economic and social conditions, as well as corruption and organised crime, it is unthinkable that President Bouteflika’s ‘civil concord’ policy, which does not take into account political problems, will bring an end to the bloodbath. An end is impossible as long as the families of the thousands of victims of terrorism and the thousands of disappeared continue to wait for justice.

It is clear that a long-term durable political solution to the Algerian problem can only come from Algeria itself. This entails a clear and firm social pact, founded on the categorical refusal of violence from whatever source, and on the recognition of all the political forces who accept the principle of the introduction of a state of law worthy of the name. I am convinced that the vast majority of Algerians are ready for this. But the forces of civil society which could carry this project forward are today weakened and dispersed. The spiral of terror and repression in fact provoked the weakening and exile of a part of these forces that are essential as much for the fight against terrorism as for the re-establishment of the democratic legality, whatever their political leanings. In normal circumstances, if truly representative and freely elected institutions existed in Algeria, Habib Souaidia’s revelations (and those of Nesroulah Yous on the massacre of Bethalla) would result in the immediate setting up of a commission of enquiry at the initiative of Algerian parliamentarians themselves to establish political liability for these grave facts. But this objective does not appear to be realistic in the short-term.

So what are the possibilities of identifying and prosecuting the perpetrators of the crimes committed by the terrorists and by the security forces today? Above everything else it is necessary to specify that they are without any ambiguity crimes against humanity according to the extremely precise definition in article seven of the statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC). One should remember that the Algerian situation was raised explicitly at the time of the United Nations conference in Rome that adopted this statute in July 1998. The ICC was specially conceived to protect populations from crimes committed outside of declared wars and will be an essential instrument in this goal. However it is not yet operational and will only be qualified to deal with crimes committed after it comes into force.

This does not mean however that there is nothing we can do. International public opinion is no longer disposed to tolerate that cruel and inhuman acts against unarmed civilian populations, carried out under the pretext of the antiterrorist struggle, continue to go unpunished. This culture is a gain for our era. It is at the base of the ICC – of which I have been a fervent supporter – and has permitted numerous penal actions against criminals, such as the international penal tribunals for Rwanda and Yugoslavia, or the ‘Pinochet jurisprudence’ created by the persistence of the Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon.

From this perspective Habib Souaidia’s account offers an invaluable set of ‘notifications of crimes’, with precise indications of names, places and dates, which can serve as a basis for criminal proceedings brought by victims or their families before the courts of European countries. In his conclusion moreover the author indicates that he is ready to ‘give all the details of the crimes – torture, assassinations, disappearances….which he witnessed, all the proof against those who committed them and on those who were the victims.’

One could equally well consider the rapid setting up of an international commission of enquiry, with the agreement of the Algerian government. The precedents already exist. In the case of Peru in 1993 the US State Department wanted to condition the granting of financial aid, and with the agreement of the Peruvian government, sent a commission made up of four independent experts to carry out an enquiry into the human rights situation as regards the anti terrorist struggle. I was part of this commission along with a Frenchman, an American and an Argentinean. The report was severe and we had established a number of cases of violent acts and of human rights abuses. As a consequence financial support promised to Peru by a number of countries was frozen with the aim of reinforcing its institutions. Time confirmed the validity of this procedure: the Peruvian people proved us right and later removed President Fujimori who was a villain.

The United Nations currently appears not to be capable of leading such a procedure for Algeria, however urgent. The European Union however can act. The importance of its economic, commercial and political relations with the Algerian State gives it a certain obligation in this regard. In view of its international engagements, which it has subscribed to in the name of the European people, it can and must condition its assistance to Algeria by respect for human rights in the anti terrorist struggle. It is therefore extremely regrettable that its awarding in January 2001 of an 8 million Euro assistance package to Algeria within the framework of international co-operation for the antiterrorist struggle was carried out without any conditions of this type attached. However other occasions will present themselves and as the US did in Peru, the European Union must ensure that aid given to the Algerian government is conditional upon its accepting an international independent commission of experts, who will given authority to establish the facts of the human rights violations and who committed them, whoever they may be. It will not be a question of ‘interference’, but will be an act of solidarity with the victims.

Rome 15 January 2001
Italian Anti-terrorist Judge