Uncovering Algeria’s civil war

A French investigation into the deaths of seven monks is challenging the war’s historical narrative.

Algerian dissidents allege security services used ‘Islamist’ groups to discredit political Islam  [GALLO/GETTY]

Challenging the dominant narrative on Algeria’s brutal civil war has never been an easy task. But an investigation into the killing of seven French monks in the midst of the conflict is providing a rare opportunity to dig further into the allegations that the country’s secret services deliberately fostered the descent into violence.

Brothers Christian, Luc, Christophe, Michel, Célestin, Paul and Bruno were kidnapped by a group of armed men from their Cistercian monastery in Tibéhirine, Algeria on the night of March 26-27, 1996. Two months later, they were dead. Only their heads were ever found.

There are three theories on the prickly question of who was behind the killings.

The line from both the French and Algerian authorities is that the Armed Islamist Group (GIA), a group behind many of the most violent acts of the 1990s, beheaded them in an act of reprisal against the French for not conceding to their demands.

A second theory gained traction in 2009, after François Buchwalter, a retired French general, went public with his damning version of events: that the Algerian military killed the Tibéhirine monks in error during a raid on the kidnappers’ camp.

They tried to make it look as if the GIA was responsible for the deaths by getting rid of the bodies, which were ridden with bullets of too high a calibre to have come from the insurgents. The French authorities, Buchwalter alleges, were complicit in covering this up.

The third theory is that while the GIA did indeed take the monks hostage and they were killed by the Algerian military, the GIA was a tool created by the Algerian secret services to turn opinion – both in Algeria and among its Western allies – against political Islam.

The GIA made two statements about the hostage taking, both written in the name of Djamel Zitouni, the then emir of the group. The second one claimed responsibility for the deaths.

But Buchwalter’s testimony that the monks were killed by an Algerian army M124 helicopter raises a troubling question: why would Zitouni have claimed responsibility for the killings if the military was behind them, unless he was really an agent for the secret services, as has previously been alleged?

Now this last theory is being investigated before France’s judicial authorities and the evidence being uncovered has implications that could change the historic narrative on Algeria’s civil war as a whole.

Questioning the ‘dirty war’

The Algerian civil war began in 1992 after the Algerian military staged a coup d’état to prevent the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) from winning the second round of what would have been the country’s first democratic elections. This “dirty war” left 200,000 Algerians dead and approximately 15,000 forcibly disappeared.

Several Algerian witnesses and human rights organisations have accused the Algerian military of deliberately escalating the violence with false flag operations, but their voices have long been drowned out.

In 1997, Sid Ali Benhadjar, a former GIA emir of the Médéa region and head of the Islamic League of Dawa and Jihad, accused the Algerian authorities of being behind the kidnapping of the monks.

“France was silent about these events to consolidate her relationship with the Algerian authorities and to keep a hand on her former colony, despite the fact that the French authorities were informed very early on that their Algerian counterparts were implicated in the murder of the monks,” Benhadjar wrote in his testimony.

Only the monks’ heads were ever recovered [EPA]

Mohammed Samraoui, the former second-in-charge of the counterinsurgency and internal security department of the Algerian secret services (DCE), came out with a book in 2003, Chronicles of the years of blood, which asserts that Smaïl Lamari (also known as Smaïn), his boss, was creating armed “Islamist” groups as early as 1991.

Samraoui quotes Lamari promising to essentially wage war on the Algerian people at a meeting at Chateauneuf in May 1992. “I am ready and resolved to eliminate three million Algerians if it’s necessary to maintain the order which the Islamists are threatening,” he was quoted as saying.

Central to the case is the testimony of Abdelkader Tigha, another defector who worked under Lamari in the region of Blida. He says that he witnessed the hostages being handed over to Zitouni.

These witnesses paint a clear picture of counterinsurgency operations: the arming of militias by the state, systematic torture and disappearances. Key to the strategy were false flag operations and misinformation casting political opponents as ruthless terrorists, while genuine opponents of the regime were “eradicated” – their killings often blamed on “Islamists”.

The counterinsurgency tactics, Samraoui states, were rooted in those used by the French secret services during the Algerian War of Independence.

While many FIS supporters willingly partook in the violence, the dissidents stress the underlying role the security forces played in encouraging the conflict to spiral out of control.

These accusations have never been investigated. In Algeria, questioning the role played by the security forces and the militia who worked with them became illegal in 2006.

Internationally, the petroleum-rich nation has gained credibility by positioning itself as a stalwart in the ‘war on terror’.

Stubborn insistence

That the details of the case are being questioned at all is largely due to the insistence of Father Armand Veilleux. He was the procurator general of the Cistercian Order in Rome at the time and was sent to Algiers by the Vatican during and immediately after the kidnapping.

His doubts over the official version of events hardened when authorities tried to prevent him from seeing the bodies ahead of the funeral service in June 1996. When officials finally gave in to his request, Michel Leveque, the French ambassador, informed Veilleux that only the heads had been returned. The ambassador asked him not to say anything about what he saw in the coffins, to avoid a “dishonour for Algeria”. 

Then there was the murder of Pierre Claverie, the bishop of Oran who had been present throughout the hostage crisis. Claverie was killed by a bomb outside his home on August 1, 1996 – the day after he had met with Hervé de Charette, the then French minister of foreign affairs.

“[Claverie] knew a lot about the conditions in which the brothers were taken captive and kept hostage and died, and so most probably he knew too much and that’s the reason why he was eliminated,” Veilleux said.

Unusually, there was never any official investigation into what had happened on either the French or Algerian side. It was only when Veilleux and the family of Christophe Lebreton filed suit in December 2003 that the probing began.

Veilleux says his desire to uncover the truth of what really happened to his fellow monks is also about justice for the Algerian people. He believes enough information has already come into doubt to disprove the overly “simplistic version” of events that the monks were simply killed by Muslims because they were Christian.

“In a way, we are fighting for the truth to be made, not only about the seven monks but about all the victims of the same mad violence,” he explained. “All those people cannot sign or cannot even request that the truth will be made about the disappearance of their relatives. We can do it.”

Justice willing

Judicial progress was slow under the first judge to take the case, Jean-Louis Bruguière. A leading “anti-terrorism” judge with a reputation for sticking close to the powers that be, Bruguière clashed publicly with the civil party’s lawyer Patrick Baudouin, who accused him of blocking any testimonies that countered the official line.

Families of the disappeared cannot question the role of the security forces under a 2006 law [EPA]

Bruguière quit the judiciary in 2007 to devote himself to politics as a member of Nicolas Sarkozy’s ruling UMP party. Since then, Marc Trévidic, a younger judge known for his “engagement and tenacity,” has taken the case. He made a request in 2009 for the declassification of relevant documents by French authorities, accelerating the pace of the investigation.

Trévidic also found a video cassette from the Algerian authorities in the office he inherited from his predecessor, which Bruguière had never mentioned to the civil party. The video features two interviews with “repented” insurgents who claim that Abderrezak “El Para” (also known as Amari Saifi) was involved in transporting the hostages.

El Para is a mysterious figure linked to a string of armed groups. Most infamous for his role in the 2003 kidnapping of 32 European tourists, El Para is now officially imprisoned in Algeria. Baudouin points to suggestions that El Para is an agent for the Algerian services.

“Nothing is certain,” he said. “But these are questions that deserve to be asked and which merit a response from the Algerian authorities.”

Trévidic has already requested to question El Para regarding the 2003 kidnapping in the Sahara, requests which have gone unanswered.

Ties that bind

The ambiguous relationship between the Algerian and French secret services has come under scrutiny in the case. The declassified documents shine a light on the ties between Philippe Rondot of France’s domestic intelligence service (DST), and Lamari, the director of Algeria’s counterespionage department. The pair had collaborated together on previous occasions, including when Lamari shared information with Rondot which had led to the capture of “Carlos the Jackal” in 1994.

“Evidently, these two men had an extremely robust relationship, very tight, even cordial, and I think in some ways Rondot sincerely thought he benefited from constructive assistance from the Algerian secret services,” Baudouin said. “Then we see very clearly that, as time went by, General Rondot starts to have some doubts as to whether the Algerian services were really co-operating.”

Documents from the interior ministry that were recently declassified at Trévidic’s request show that Lamari shunned any contact with France’s external intelligence agency (DGSE) during the hostage crisis, preferring Rondot as his only channel of communication.

“My meetings with General Smaïl Lamari took place têtes-à-tête, which is inhabitual but shows the confidence which governs, for some time, our relationship,” Rondot wrote to his hierarchy in France. “Lamari has, from the beginning and on many subsequent occasions, insisted that the only channel by which the operation would be managed was, through my person, our service.”

Another note Rondot sent to Philippe Parant, the head of the DST, in the days after learning the monks had been killed shows that he was beginning to question the approach taken by his Algerian counterparts: “For a very (too) long time – and for tactical reasons – Djamel Zitouni and his groups have benefited from a relative tolerance from the Algerian secret services, which helped (undoubtedly, unintentionally) foster the fracturing of the GIA and internal fighting between the armed groups ….”

“To try to eclipse this failure, the DCE should eliminate, by all means necessary, Djamel Zitouni and his accomplices. It’s our duty to encourage this and maybe even impose it,” he wrote.

A few weeks later, on July 16, 1996, Zitouni was killed. The exact details of his death remain unclear.

Rondot testified before Trévidic on September 29, 2010. While he did not change his position on any of the key points, Baudouin says there were many questions the retired general was unable to answer.

Asked what he knew about the monks’ remains, for instance, Rondot denied any knowledge of the circumstances in which the Algerian authorities handed over the heads. “He gave very evasive responses, which is a little dubious. In every other matter, he was very well-informed,” Baudouin said.

Equally revealing were comments in Rondot’s daily diaries, which show that the agent has continued to “handle” the case, years after the events of 1996. Concerning the present legal inquiry, Rondot wrote in 2004 that he and the director of the DST had met with Judge Bruguière. “It’s necessary to supervise the judge,” he wrote in his diary.

He defended his comments to Trévidic, saying the word “supervise” should not be taken literally. For Baudouin, however, Rondot chose his words deliberately.

“To ‘supervise the judge’ obviously has a particular meaning which implies that the services, with Rondot as their interlocutor, weren’t going to allow the legal system investigate the affair too closely or in too much detail,” the lawyer said.

The path ahead

The question of why no autopsy was performed is another sticking point Baudouin plans to investigate further.

Following Rondot’s testimony, Judge Trévidic has requested the declassification of a second round of documents. The civil party is seeking further faxes between Rondot and his superiors in the DST, as well as any written communication the agent might have had with Lamari.

While the Algerian authorities are currently unwilling to co-operate with the investigation, he is hopeful that changing power structures in Algeria might one day allow this. He points to cryptic comments which Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the Algerian president, made in 2004 to the French television chain LCI.

“Not every truth can be said warm. We’ve just come out of a civil war and when I know the truth, I will inform you,” the president said.

Baudouin said: “The more we gather this kind of element, the harder it will be for the Algerian authorities not to speak out one day.”

Source: Al Jazeera