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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