Under Algerian Shadows

By Philip Jenkins

Western governments are increasingly alarmed about Islamist movements operating in the vast territories of North-West Africa, in countries like Mali and Algeria. Just last month, we saw the massacre at the In Amenas gas plant, led by jihadi chieftain Mokhtar Belmokhtar. Rather than seeing such outbreaks as anything new, though, we should acknowledge wearily that this is just the latest phase in a very long story. The modern history of terrorism and political violence, of revolutionary warfare and counter-insurgency, begins in Algeria.

Let me begin with a personal note. In 1966, I watched a not-very-good action film called Lost Command, with Anthony Quinn playing a leader of the French paras in the Algerian War of 1954-62. Shortly afterwards, I bought what I thought was a novel-of-the-film, which turned out to be a translation of The Centurions, by the popular French novelist and journalist Jean Lartéguy (Jean Pierre Lucien Osty, 1920-2011).

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It was a transforming moment of my life. I began reading everything Lartéguy ever wrote, and followed up as best I could on the situations he described. The Centurions was mainly about the 1956-57 urban guerrilla campaign in Algiers, led by the National Liberation Front, the FLN. The Praetorians told the story of the French officers' resistance to Algerian independence and the plots against General De Gaulle, which peaked in 1961. The Bronze Drums was set in 1960s Cambodia. Sauveterre traced the French experience from the World War II Resistance through the later colonial wars. Les Chimères Noires (set in the Congo and Katanga) was the first full-length novel I ever read in French.

Suddenly -- almost by accident -- I was laying the foundations of a lifetime interest in terrorism and intelligence. This was my exposure to the complexities of those worlds, in which the responsibility for given actions is often hard to determine with any accuracy. I was also exposed to the Algeria-based French military theories of that era, especially the work of such critical counter-insurgency pioneers as Roger Trinquier.

I owe a lot to Lartéguy, and I am not the only fan. Recently, The Centurions has been in the news as a favorite book of U.S. generals David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal. Both love it for its exploration of the agonies of counter-insurgency, especially in an urban setting. Journalists now cite the book for its depiction for the "ticking time bomb" scenario, and the morality for torturing suspects in situations of clear and immediate danger.

Actually, if you read Centurions and its sequel Praetorians, the ethical and political dilemmas you encounter are far more abundant, and more sinister than this Jack Bauer scenario might suggest. In practice, Lartéguy's officer heroes spent little time wringing their hands over the torture of a couple of terrorist suspects. They were more immediately concerned with the potential need to overthrow their democratic government in order to save Western civilization. Let's hope modern-day U.S. generals have been skipping over these sections.

The Algerian War cast a very long shadow, partly through another enormously significant fictional version, in Gilles Pontecorvo's 1966 film The Battle of Algiers. Astonishingly, this film has served as the inspiration and training manual for insurgents and counter-insurgents alike. Through such treatments, and through Trinquier's writings, the war's experience has inspired generations of soldiers and spooks confronting urban terror campaigns, from Buenos Aires and Milan to Belfast and Johannesburg, and most recently in Baghdad.

But Algeria was also the primary motivation for guerrillas themselves. Especially in the urban Battle of Algiers, revolutionaries of the 1960s and 1970s saw practical ways in which small groups of ruthless dedicated militants plausibly could defeat much larger and better-armed conventional forces. While the revolutionaries could never win outright military victories, they could reveal the weakness of the state, and expose its innate fascism. Ultimately, their suicidal sacrifice would inspire the masses to throw off the fears, the inner repressions and restraints, which prevented their progress to a revolutionary socialist utopia. Revolutionary suicide could detonate a social transformation.

Far more than the writings of any one person, even of Mao or Guevara, memories of Algiers drove the revolutionaries of the 1960s -- Latin American Tupamaros and South African ANC guerrilla fighters, European Red Brigades and RAF, U.S. Black Panthers and Weatherman. Yasser Arafat's Palestinian guerrilla group al-Fatah grew directly out of the Algerian struggle in the late 1950s.

The FLN had many admirers and imitators. Ironically, of course, shortly after winning Algerian independence in 1962, the movement itself soon morphed into a corrupt and dictatorial regime. By the 1990s, the FLN establishment itself became the target of a new wave of Algerian revolutionaries. The new generation was motivated explicitly by jihadi ideology, but again used the tactics popularized during the original 1950s struggles. A civil war that began in 1991 claimed perhaps 150,000 lives.

Although the government and military claimed victory, exiles from the defeated Islamist groups scattered widely, spreading their revolutionary views and tactics, and allying with al-Qaeda. Some of those exiles wandered across Algeria's national borders into neighboring states like Mali, Mauritania and Niger, and it is largely to that infection that we owe the present crisis in the region.

When Western analysts chart the lethal Islamist militias now emerging in the region, they are looking at the after-effects of that Algerian civil war of the 1990s. The guerrilla group Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) grew directly out of the struggle, and AQIM in turn spawned the breakaway group Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa. Belmokhtar himself is a veteran of the 1990s Algerian war, and a former commander in AQIM.

The horror we feel at the escalating violence in Algeria and its neighbors has to be mixed with a powerful sense of déjà vu.

Philip Jenkins is a Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University and author of Laying Down the Sword.

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