Newsreal: How real terrorists do it

In Algeria, mix one part Tim McVeigh, two parts South Central gangbanger and a regime that will shoot you as soon as look at you.

Published June 9, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

blowing up the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City was the biggest single act of terrorism so far on American soil. For the anti-government radicals in Algeria, such actions are child's play. Apart from the almost daily dose of car bombs in the capital, Algiers, entire villages have been annihilated and its residents decapitated. Buses are found by the roadside, passengers' throats slit ear-to-ear. Intellectuals, journalists and foreigners are targeted. All told, in the past five years, 60,000 Algerians have died in a campaign of unprecedented ferocity.

Despite that, Algeria held an election last week, the first since 1992, when the government voided the victory of the now-banned Islamic Salvation Front. The pro-presidential party won, government spokesmen said Algeria was now headed for a better future -- and almost no one believed them. The pall of fear was evident when Salon called a former diplomat and a university professor in Algiers and both refused to be interviewed, citing concerns for their safety. Instead, Salon spoke with a Middle East and North Africa expert safely out of harm's way -- William Quandt, a former member of the National Security Council under President Carter and now a professor of international relations at the University of Virginia.

How did Islamic rebellion against the government get to be so incredibly savage?

After the cancellation of the elections in 1992, the Islamist movement called for an armed uprising against the military regime that had seized power. In the beginning, it targeted police, regime figures and so forth. As long as the Islamists felt there was a chance of winning the public to their side, they were very careful not go after random targets. But sometime in 1994, the regime began to gain the upper hand. They distributed arms to the old fighters from Algeria's war of independence and told them to defend their villages. These villagers are tough, they're defending their turf and they didn't like these young Islamists. So, they took the law into their own hands, and the Islamists hit back in kind.

So there's been brutality on both sides.

The regime has been very tough on anyone suspected of taking up arms. There have been extra-judicial killings. If they catch them with arms in their hands, they execute them on the spot. There was a prison uprising at one point and more than 100 people ended up dead when it was all over. The prison authorities just went in there and shot everyone. And those are excesses that most people in the regime acknowledge. This is not your friendly, liberal democracy.

There have been charges that the government and these village militias are actually behind the massacres that have been blamed on the Islamists.

I don't believe it. A lot of these killings are in fact vengeance killings against villages that have harbored defectors from the Islamists. One way of convincing people who are still in the movement not to defect is to tell them, "If you leave, your whole family and village are going to get killed." And they do it. Then there is their perverse reading of Islam that says the whole regime -- and anybody who supports it -- are non-believers and that this is a holy war in which any non-believer can be killed.

The main organization behind the killings seems to be the GIA -- the Armed Islamic Group. What do we know about it?

Actually, there are dozens of little grouplets under that heading, none of them larger than 30 or 40 people. They tend to know one another so they're hard to penetrate. Now, aside from their anti-government activities, they're into the rackets. They run drugs. They'll finance themselves by hitting people up. They'll hijack a bus, shake down people for money and then kill them. They control the truck traffic between Algiers and Constantine. People have to pay them a toll to get through. If they don't, the Islamists stop their truck and kill them too. It really is a strange mixture of politics and Mafia and South Central Los Angeles-style gang violence and killings.

Are the Islamists as young as the Los Angeles gangbangers?

Yes, it's very much a generational conflict. You have a lost generation of people 25 and under, some 60 percent of the population. The older people are more middle class, while the young are impoverished and alienated. And these young people are really desperate, and some of them are ready to do dreadful things. Sometimes, it's sons against fathers against sons, and sometimes it's sons against sons. You have a young man who needs a job, so he becomes a policeman and ends up confronting his own brother on the other side. They don't always end up killing each other. Sometimes they go home at the end of the day and have dinner at the same table.

Why are they so desperate?

They live in terrible conditions in a country that should be much better off than it is. Algeria has got oil. It had the prospect of becoming a relatively well-developed Arab country. But all that went up in smoke in the 1980s when oil prices collapsed and was fanned along further by corruption and an inefficient centralized economy. From 1986 to 1994, they had negative growth because of the oil price collapse, failing industries and huge debt payments.

Is there any sign of the economy turning around?

The government got its debts rescheduled, and there has been positive growth of 3 to 6 percent since 1994. Algeria is the hottest oil prospecting country around these days -- a little known fact. If they are prepared to go in, American oil companies and others can make very good deals in Algeria. There's a tremendous amount of natural gas. So the prospects are not so bad over the long haul if they can bring the violence under control. What they don't have is the kind of big investment that can generate real jobs a few years from now. And with Europe closing its doors to Algerian immigration, the remittance economy has dried up somewhat. But people are not starving in Algeria. People still find ways to make money, kids are going to school, shops are filled, there are traffic jams.

Thursday's election was the first since 1992, but the Islamic Front, which won the 1992 election, wasn't allowed to participate, and other opposition politicians said the whole thing was essentially a sham. What do you think?

The intellectuals in Algiers are alienated and have put a negative spin on this. The problem is that Algeria looks French, so intellectuals and others say this ought to be a European-style democracy. And it's not, so piss on it. But compared to other elections in the Arab world, in Egypt, Tunisia, the Algerian election wasn't so bad. Algerians are a pretty feisty bunch, and they feel they have to use every opportunity they can. And if that means elections, even limited elections, they say fine, we'll try that. I wouldn't dismiss the possibility that the parliament and the parties will begin to play more of a role. But if nothing changes much, then the people who invested their hopes in this will become even more cynical.

What's your prognosis?

Watch to see if any new government faces emerge. And look to see if the legal Islamic party, the Movement of a Peace Society, which came in second in the elections, joins in a government coalition and pursues a moderate Islamic agenda. Still, even if there are these signs of hope, I imagine that the violence will continue. That would be true even if the FIS (the Islamic Front) were legalized. The militants don't give a damn about the FIS anymore. I predict a lot more killing before things get any better.

By Jonathan Broder

Jonathan Broder is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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