Ever since the 1995 Paris tube bombing by the Algerian Armed Islamic Group (GIA) made France the first Western European country to suffer so-called radical Islamic terrorism, its politicians, secret services and ‘terror experts’ have consistently warned Britain of the dangers of welcoming Islamic political dissidents and radical preachers to her shores. France’s anger has been particularly acute over the British government’s failed attempts to extradite Belmarsh detainee Rachid Ramda, believed by French prosecutors to be the main financier of the 1995 attacks, which killed eight people and injured 200.
Gilles Kepel, one the French government’s favourite experts on Islam, recently described the UK’s strategy as a Faustian pact ‘whereby political asylum was given to radical Islamist ideologists in return for keeping Britain safe from violence’. Underpinning this perspective is a crude binary opposition between enlightened western democracies and the evil Islamist barbarians who take refuge within them, before exploiting their hosts as launch pads for Jihad.
The Juppé government’s response to the 1995 attacks was wide-ranging and brutal. It re-launched Vigipirate, a counter-terror offensive, mobilising 32,000 soldiers, riot police and intelligence services to control and monitor the population, in particular the deprived suburbs which were literally under siege. French police carried out violent and humiliating (yet almost always fruitless) raids on families and the neighbourhoods of suspects amid a public witch-hunt against Islamist networks. Uncorroborated police reports have sufficed for a long time in France to deport radial preachers to a country where they could face torture or ill treatment.
In the aftermath of the July attacks, commentators like Kepel were quick to argue that France’s ‘zero tolerance’ policy and campaign of so-called integration in the name of Republican values, embodied in the 2004 ban on the display of all religious symbols in schools, has spared the country terror attacks for a decade while Britain’s failure to follow Spain and Germany in adopting the French model has proved a spectacular own goal. However, as Tony Blair made clear in unveiling his government’s proposed legislation on 5 August, ‘the rules of the game have changed’. Suddenly, the French recipe for dealing with Islamic terror has been fêted by British politicians and media alike as the model to adopt in the war against domestic Islamic terror. It is no coincidence then that Blair’s August announcement set out almost identical measures to those introduced by France following the 1995 attacks.
But how would we regard the virtue of following the French model if, more than a decade after the first bombs ripped through the Paris Metro, enough conclusive evidence had been gathered to prove that the attacks carried out by Islamic militants were not fuelled by Islamic fundamentalism but were instead dreamt up and overseen by the Algerian secret service as part of a domestic political struggle that spilled over into Algeria’s former colonial master? The most comprehensive studies, including Lounis Aggoun and Jean-Baptiste Rivoire’s Françalgérie: States’ Crimes and Lies, the product of six years of research, including testimonies from former French government advisers and a number of ex-Algerian secret service agents turned whistleblowers, show that this is exactly what happened.
In 1991, Algeria’s main Islamic party, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), won a comprehensive first round victory in the country’s inaugural multiparty general elections. This threatened to strip away the power of Algeria’s military generals, who had long controlled the North African state from the shadows.
Exploiting Europe’s fear of an Islamic government running Algeria, and the uncomfortably close relationship between the Algerian and French political establishments, the Algerian army intervened in the elections, halting the second round of voting by privately forcing the president Chadli Bendjedid to step down. A temporary Commission was formed to rule the country in the ensuing ‘crisis’. Not only did the Islamic opposition movement have to be discredited and crushed, but the haunting spectre of a violent and radical Islamism taking root off the coast of continental Europe had to emerge, to help garner international support for indefinite military rule.
The notorious DRS – the Algerian secret service – systematically infiltrated insurrectionary Islamic groups like the GIA and from 1992 onwards launched its own fake guerrilla groups, including death squads disguised as Islamists. Bizarrely enough, these terrorised some highly militarised regions reputedly sympathetic to the Islamic FIS party. In 1994, the DRS eventually managed to place Jamel Zitouni, one the Islamists it controlled, at the head of the GIA, consequently renamed the ‘Islamic Group of the Army’ on the Algerian streets. ‘It henceforth became impossible to distinguish the genuine Islamists from those controlled by the regime,’ says Salima Mellah, spokesperson for the NGO Algeria Watch. ‘Each time the generals came under pressure from the international community, the terror intensified’.
By January 1995, however, Algeria’s ‘dirty war’ began to falter. Despite all of the actions taken to discredit the FIS, most notably the murder of seven Italian sailors in July 1994 in Algiers, the Italian government hosted an historic meeting of almost every Algerian political party, including the FIS. The participants agreed to a common platform of demands, calling for a national enquiry into the violence in Algeria, the end of the army’s involvement in political affairs, the ‘effective liberation of the leaders of the FIS’ and all political detainees, and the return of constitutional rule and popular sovereignty.
In a flash, the generals’ grip on power suddenly became untenable. Yet, in their desperation to cling on, they hatched, with the help of the DRS, a plot that would prevent French politicians from withdrawing support from the military junta ever again. As Aggoun and Rivoire explain, French-based Algerian spies initially tasked with infiltrating and monitoring Islamist networks in the early 1990s were transformed into agent provocateurs. In spring 1995, Ali Touchent – an Algerian agent, began to gather and incite a network of disaffected young men from North African backgrounds to commit terrorist attacks in France. The DRS’s infiltrators, led by Jamel Zitouni, also pushed the GIA to directly eliminate some of the FIS’s high profile leaders living in Europe on the pretext that the FIS’s willingness to talk with the Algerian government made it anti-Islamic.
On 11 July 1995, cheikh Abdelbaki Sahraoui, a high-profile leader of the FIS living as a political refugee in France, was assassinated in his Paris mosque. The GIA claimed responsibility. Exactly two weeks later the bombing of the Paris Metro kllled eight people. After a further attack in the weeks that followed, Zitouni called on French President, Jacques Chirac, to ‘convert to Islam to be saved’. The resulting public hysteria against Islam and Islamism saw the French government abandon overnight its support for the Rome accord.
So what happened to the perpetrators? While several people, mainly French from North African backgrounds,,were found guilty of ‘association with terrorism’, the masterminds of the main attack were never caught. Strangely, despite being publicly identified by the Algerian authorities as the European ringleader of the GIA, named by French investigators as the key organiser and known by them since 1993, Ali Touchent miraculously managed to evade capture and returned to Algeria where he settled, very publicly, in a highly secure police quarter of Algiers.
France’s apparent inability to drag to justice those genuine responsible for the 1995 attacks is now known to be more than an accident. According to a book by Mohamed Samraoui, a former colonel in the Algerian secret service: ‘the French intelligence knew that Ali Touchent was a DRS operative charged with infiltrating pro-Islamist cells in foreign countries.’ In return for supplying the French with valuable information Ali Touchent was granted protection by the DST (French Intelligence), ‘which explains why Ali Touchent was never worried on French soil.’
This is not the only explanation for French collaboration with the Algerian government. Algeria is one of the main supplier of gas and oil to France, and an importer of its products. According to François Gèze of La Decouverte, one of the first French publishers to expose the involvement of the Algerian secret services in the ‘dirty war’, at the heart of this strong economic relationship is a tale of unimaginable political corruption implicating part of France’s political establishment. ‘French exporters generally pay a 10 to 15 percent commission on their goods,’ explains Gèze. ‘Part of this revenue is then “repaid” by the Algerians as finance for the electoral campaigns of French political parties. As John Sweeney from the Observer put it indelicately in 1997 quoting a political analyst: “Le pouvoir [Algerian military junta] has the French government… by the balls. They have made secret donations to French parties and politicians, so that they can blackmail them.”‘
What the true story of France’s 1995 brush with ‘Islamic terror’ reveals is that the attacks, while probably executed by a small number of Muslim extremists, were conceived and manipulated by vested interests involved in a power struggle that has led to the death of 200,000 people since 1992, and six times more civilian ‘disappearances’ than under the Pinochet regime. British policy makers would do well to understand the specific political context and complex colonial legacy of French-Algerian relations before they go looking for direct comparisons. The 1995 case is also a warning against blaming ‘Islamists’ for terror, whilst turning a blind eye to repressive actions of governments in the Arab world when they suit a western government’s agenda.
An edited version of this article was first published in The Guardian
Hilary Wainwright argues against reclaiming populism for the left and for a leadership that supports people’s capacity for self-government
It may seem as though these apps are working for us, but we are also working for the apps, writes Kurt Iveson
It's over 100 years ago that domestic workers began to organise to demand the same rights as other workers. Yet with LSE cleaners on strike this week, historian Laura Schwartz asks: how much has really changed?
Omar Barghouti asks whether Donald Trump, in his recent break with America’s long-standing support for the two-state solution, has unwittingly revived the debate about the plausibility, indeed the necessity, of a single, democratic state in historic Palestine?
Glenn Greenwald was interviewed by Amandla Thomas-Johnson over the phone from Brazil. Here is what he had to say on the War on Terror, Trump, and the 'special relationship'
In 1972 David Widgery wrote about the bitter intensity of love in capitalism
Andrew Dolan on how the left must match the anti-establishment rhetoric of the right, but with a different politics
Emma Snaith speaks with directors Emer Mary Morris and Nina Scott about the power of theatre to encourage community resistance to estate demolitions.
In the first of a series of interviews with migrants' rights and racial justice activists from the US, Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Peter Pedemonti, co-founder and director of the New Sanctuary Movement in Philadelphia
Photos from The World Transformed festival in Liverpool, by David Walters
Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change
Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself
Secrets and spies of Scotland Yard
A new Espionage Act threatens whistleblowers and journalists, writes Sarah Kavanagh
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces
How progressive is the ‘progressive alliance’?
We need an anti-austerity alliance, not a vaguely progressive alliance, argues Michael Calderbank
The YPJ: Fighting Isis on the frontline
Rahila Gupta talks to Kimmie Taylor about life on the frontline in Rojava
Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond
On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network
Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter
#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement
Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.
Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees
Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides
The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari
Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next
Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace
Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill
Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility
Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports
From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices
How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed
In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design
Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform
Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out
Don’t delay – ditch coal
Take action this month with the Coal Action Network. By Anne Harris
Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen
Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant
Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’