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Algeria and Nigeria: sharing the deadweight of human mindlessness

Wole Soyinka believed that one of the best ways to comprehend the kind of horror that is happening in Nigeria is to remember the experience of other nations in the region confronted with jihadist groups much like Boko Haram. Mahfoud Bennoune confronted the same questions in Algeria in the 1990s.

Some of the most common reactions to the mass kidnapping of school girls by the jihadist group Boko Haram in Nigeria are to ask questions like: how can this be happening? Why would anyone do something so terrible? 

Mahfoud Bennoune, an Algerian anthropologist, addressed the same questions back in the 1990s when jihadist groups much like Boko Haram waged a war against civilians in his country that would eventually lead to the deaths of as many as 200,000.  The fundamentalist tactics were often quite similar – direct targeting of education and all those involved in it, mass kidnapping and rape of women, and putative theological justification for the atrocities. 

After being forced from his home by fundamentalist death threats, Bennoune wrote a three-part series called How Fundamentalism Produced a Terrorism Without Precedent, trying to interpret the jihadist onslaught his country was facing and formulating a strategy to combat it. It was first published in the leading Algerian newspaper El Watan in 1994. 

Translated into English for the first time, by his daughter Karima Bennoune, this is the first part of the series documenting the 1991-94 fundamentalist atrocities in Algeria – which were often ignored internationally, just as many of Boko Haram’s earlier crimes have been.

 The nature of the crimes of Algerian fundamentalist terrorism

Recently, a fundamentalist terrorist who had been filmed during his interrogation recounted with graphic realism how he had cut the throat of an innocent fellow citizen: “We tied his hands.  We put dirt in his mouth to keep him from screaming.  The Emir gave me the “boussaâdi” (knife) and ordered me to slit his throat(!)”  The face of this fundamentalist executioner displayed no regret, no repentance, no pity.  He related the facts just like someone who had sacrificed a sheep for the Eïd.

We had the impression of being in the presence of Frankenstein’s monster, of being in the presence of a machine made to kill and to destroy.  Even so, our fundamentalist monster invoked the Holy War (“jihad”) against the tyrant (“taghout”) state and the citizens it had led astray to justify his transgressions.  For him, the aims of these odious crimes – the instauration of an Islamic state and the re-Islamization of Algerians – allowed for the use of any means to attain his objectives.  In other words, the ends justify the means.

Since the declaration of Holy War against Algerian society, inaugurated by the massacre of ten soldiers of the National Popular Army (APN) in Guemmar on 25 November [1991], one month before the legislative elections of 26 December of the same year, countless other throat-slittings, decapitations, and assassinations carried out with firearms and knives, have been perpetrated against Algerian civilians and against foreigners.  The slaughter of 12 Bosnians and Croats in Tamezguida on 14 December 1993 demonstrated the savagery of Algerian fundamentalist terrorism.  A journalist of the El Watan [The Nation] newspaper who visited the site of that mass murder described the carnage in these terms:  “Around 8:30 PM, an armed terrorist group, made up of 30-60 men occupied the site (where the citizens of the former Yugoslavia were in the process of digging a tunnel along with Algerian workers so as to facilitate communication between the North and the South of the country)… The hostages were taken about 100 metres downwards to a riverbed… Each one of them was tied up, their hands behind their backs, then taken one-by-one to a dark corner of the bank of the dried up riverbed… One-by-one, the 12 Bosnians and Croats had their throats cut.  Their screams were lost in the dark night in this lost corner of the Blidean range of the Atlas Mountains.”

Moreover, nine days before this carnage, on 5 December of the same year, seven citizens were found mutilated, with their heads chopped off.  On 24 December [1993], the security services discovered the head of Smaïn Ramdani, without his body, as well as a body that has not yet been identified from which the head was removed.  On the 25th, the head of Mazari Boualem was found on the sidewalk in the center of the city of Médéa.  On the 27th, the security services found an unidentified body from which the head had been cut.

This cruelty was justified by a fatwa issued by a fundamentalist who was a self-proclaimed sheikh [religious scholar].  According to one of the perpetrators of these brutal atrocities “the more the victim screams with cries of despair, the wider God opens the door of paradise to him.”  This may explain, in part, why the number of victims does not stop growing, day by day, and why the level of brutality of Algerian fundamentalist terrorism continues to increase.  In addition to the 70 billion dinars worth of property damage caused, the number of victims of terrorism has reached more than 6000 persons who have been assassinated - treacherously stabbed in the back, decapitated, or who have had their throats cut, often in front of their own families!  As of July 1994, the wounded are estimated at 4000.

The nature of this kind of fundamentalist terrorism has greatly concerned me both in my capacity as an anthropologist, and as a citizen.  A member of our family, a second lieutenant of the APN, who was of peasant origin and non-literate, and had served for more than 32 years, a father of 9 children - who ranged in age from 5 to 24 years-old - was killed on the eve of Eïd El-Kebir (1994) in Haouch El-Mékhfi, near Algiers, in front of his entire family.  Once he was on the ground, riddled with bullets and lying in a pool of his own blood, the fundamentalist terrorist hordes finished him off by disfiguring him with blows from large stones and cinder blocks.  His 7 year-old daughter, her young body trembling with anger, threw herself on his corpse, and was covered in the blood of her own massacred father.  This scene traumatized her profoundly, and gave her a psychological shock from which she may never recover.

A neighbor who courageously came to offer assistance and called for help was shot on the spot even before the targeted victim had himself been executed.  The second lieutenant was buried without honors, and in the absence of any representatives of the state.  The National Popular Army was only represented by four officers in civilian clothes, two captains and two lieutenants who attended solely in their personal capacity as friends. 

This is but one case among countless others, many even more horrific than this one. This tragic event, which affected those very near to me, demonstrates the dramatic consequences of the reign of warlords.  They have induced a part of the popular classes to think that the Algerian state, which was created after an 8 year war of national liberation, is impious, and its head-of-state is a taghout (tyrant) and the majority of its citizens are infidels who must be re-Islamized by terror.  The partisans of re-Islamization by force - who believe in terror as a justified means to take power and keep it indefinitely – interpret and perceive every concession or peaceful opening as a sign of weakness, and thus as a sign of encouragement.  This explains why all the overtures made by the government toward them, under external pressure, seem to achieve the opposite result to that which is sought:  an increase in terrorism.

Unilateral concessions to fundamentalist gurus: terrorist escalation

Because they were not neutralized in time, that is to say before they had brought fire and blood to the country, the terrorist gangs of the GIA (Armed Islamic Group) decided a few weeks before the start of the 1994-95 academic year and the resumption of the dialogue between the government and five political parties (among them two “moderate” Islamist parties) to radicalize even further their war against Algerian society.

Their self-proclaimed emirs threatened to kill “all students or teachers who continue to go to schools or universities in Algeria.”  The intensification of their jihad against nearly 7.5 million university students, pupils and trainee teachers, and about 360,000 teachers and trainers - roughly one quarter of the Algerian population - started with the assassination of Professor Stambouli (a professor of Sociology and Islamic Studies) and the burning of innumerable schools in the space of just a few days.  This brought the number of assassinated teachers to more than 50 and the number of destroyed schools to more than 538 (40% of them destroyed completely) since the carnage of Guemmar in November 1991.

The number of assassinated teachers – female and male – and of burned schools has increased infinitely, each and every day from the start of the school year until now.  This terror against the academy has forced many of the best university professors to flee Algeria.  In fact, by the summer of 1994, 1400 professors and lecturers who provided the best training available in our universities - representing 10% of all teachers and academics – had already fled Algeria.  They were hunted and chased away by fundamentalist terrorism.

Given the attempt to put to death the intelligentsia of an entire society (which is located in less than a three hour flight from Paris, London, Rome and Madrid…)  denunciations alone have become entirely insufficient.  How can one be merely a passive witness, or even indifferent, faced with the demolition of schools where children first learn how to read and write?

Must we remind the perpetrators of these crimes that are committed in the name of Islam, that the first verse of the Qur’an enjoins Muslims to read?

Based on what I know as an anthropologist and historian, no matter how nihilistic it was nor how cruel, and whatever its ideological tendency was, no terrorist movement in modern times has systematically attacked the teaching profession or deliberately destroyed all schools and universities, which have been considered in all civilizations since the invention of writing, and even more so since the advent of formal education, to be sacred temples, sites of the acquisition and transmission… of knowledge.

It is this universally sacred regard for learning that inspired the celebrated verse from the prince of modern Arab poets: “Qoum lilmouallimi ouaffihi tabdjilah kada el moualimou anyakouna rassoulah.”  (Stand up and pay your respects to the teacher, for he is like a Prophet.) 

These murderous attacks focused on teachers and the educational infrastructure were accompanied by the assassinations of other categories of people such as doctors, journalists (22 killed and more than 170 in exile), writers, people of the theatre, heads of state companies, trade unionists, activists and leaders of political parties, members and heads of professional and athletic associations, lawyers, judges, foreign residents of Algeria, especially Europeans, artists and popular singers…

And still the terrorist escalation accelerates every single day. Its victims multiply ceaselessly in the face of a sort of indifference on the part of the Algerian government, of political parties like the FLN (National Liberation Front) of Mehri, the MDA (Mouvement pour la démocratie en Algérie) of Ben Bella, Ennahda of Djaballa, and, at the international level, of a certain sector of the press, of foreign governments, political parties and even academics.  Despite the death toll, many foreign journalists, specialists, Euro-American newspapers and journals continue to carry on campaigns of disinformation, even falsifying the facts, to the benefit of the “Islamists.”  While denouncing the violations committed by the security services, they maintain a complicit silence about the crimes against humanity committed by the Islamist terrorists, even as the latter intensify their terror campaign against innocent victims – both foreigners and citizens of Algeria. 

Determined to asphyxiate the national economy, and to humiliate and destroy the post-independence Algerian state, the fundamentalist terrorists decided last year to attack all citizens of foreign countries who live and work in Algeria, without distinction as to sex…

The 28 September 1994 assassination of the idol of young Algerians, Cheb Hasni, one of the major stars of Raï music, was due in part to the ineffectiveness, the carelessness and the lack of political strategy for rescuing the country from its current impasse.  This crime upset everyone, except for the fundamentalists who, in silencing forever the voice of the singer of love, wanted to kill love itself: “Cheb Hasni, the crowning jewel of a generation of singers who carried far and wide one aspect of the genius of our people, will never again thrill the thousands and thousands of youth, and the less young, of whose joys, sufferings, loves and hopes he sang.  This was decided by the proclaimed enemies of culture, of science and of progress.”

Thus, Oran, the second city of the country - that had only a few months before buried Abdelkader Alloula, one of the greatest playwrights of independent Algeria, who was assassinated by fundamentalists terrorists - lost two of its brilliant sons in one week alone: the star of Raï, Cheb Hasni, and Professor Fardeheb, an eminent economist.  “Culture,” concluded [the newspaper] Le Matin “is itself being assassinated in an official silence and met with the indifference of the political class which favors “dialogue”, and whose only worry is the “koursi” (power) and how to rehabilitate the Godfathers of organized crime as quickly as possible.”

As events continue to worsen, the Algerian fundamentalist terrorists recently dared try to exterminate the entire family of a retired gendarme whose wife was pregnant.  One of the children of this retired man, who was left for dead, in fact survived, with only one part of his throat mutilated.  He can recount this infernal tragedy to those who would listen.  During the month of September 1994, a terrorist group also invaded the home of a gendarme still in service.  Luckily for him, he was not with his family at the time.  But to extract their vengeance against him, the terrorist band killed his sister and her 14 month-old baby, in the name of the jihad carried out against Algerian society with the goal of re-Islamizing it!

50.50 will be publishing the second and third articles in this series in September. In the second part, Mahfoud Bennoune looks back to historical campaigns waged by Muslim fundamentalists against learning since the 12th century. In the third part, he explains in detail the ideological training of jihadists which leads them to consider themselves at war with Muslim majority societies, a dangerous notion which makes the unthinkable – such as mass kidnapping of schoolchildren – thinkable. 

 

 

 

 


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