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Algeria’s Trappist Monk Massacre: The Case That Won’t Go Away

June 24, 2013
tibhrine 2

The Beheaded Ones – The Monks of Tibhirine, Algeria

(Note: This is also published at Foreign Policy In Focus)

The Case That Won’t Go Away

It’s the case that won’t go away, that of the Monks of Tibhirine (Algeria), killed and then beheaded in  March, 1996. Among the most gruesome killings in recent times, no U.S. administration in the past 17 years has deigned it important enough to press either Algeria or France to investigate.

To the contrary, the brutality of the Algerian government during the 1990s seems to have greatly impressed Washington policy makers.  Washington might talk the talk of human rights and democracy, but the U.S. has a long and sordid list of close allies who specialize in various and demented forms of mass repression, from Pinochet in Chile, the Argentinian generals, to Mobutu of the Congo, Mubarek of Egypt, Sharon of Israel, the Shah of Iran and the `Kings’ of Saudi Arabia and Qatar,  just to name a few of the usual suspects.

Now add the Algeria to the list.

Downplayed, but no secret, since 9-11, the United States has entered into a growing, if not solid strategic partnership with Algeria. It a curious alliance given the public political feuding between a North Africa government that publicly considered itself `anti-imperialist’ or `anti-colonial’ and the behemoth modern neo-colonialism since World War II’s end, the United States.

How else to explain the silence this side of the Atlantic concerning the beheading of the seven gentle souls, by all accounts deeply appreciated by local Algerians who knew them? It could undermine the strategic hand-holding, upset the relationship vital for U.S. growing interest and strategic control of northern Africa, from Algeria to Nigeria with its extensive deposits of oil, natural gas, uranium and the like. In the same manner and for the same reasons, here in the US we tend to hear little of the Nigerian government’s human rights violation. Funny how that works!

The US – Algerian `deal’

In today’s world, Algeria and the United States are nothing less than birds of a feather and they most definitely flock together. The US opens doors for Algeria internationally; Algeria opens doors for Bush and Obama regionally. For the United States, Algeria has become its eyes and ears in northern Africa – the Magreb, the Sahara, the Sahel – regions where frankly despite U.S satellite and drone intelligence, Washington hardly has a clue as to what is going on, on the ground. For its part, Algeria gets some communication and high tech weaponry toys in return, but actually something far more important – international credibility, credibility that its government was fast losing as the country’s civil war of the 1990s drew to its bloody close.

Part of `the deal’ includes downplaying the growing voices, allegations of government crimes against the Algerian people during the 1990s and unexplained gruesome incidents like the Tihbirine killings. The Algeria civil war was very low on the U.S. media radar and was hardly reported in the United States while it was transpiring. What news that did filter in reflected the Algerian government’s version of those events. Still there is something about war crimes – they don’t go away, not like their perpetrators hope. Ten, fifteen, fifty years later, the voices of victims from their mass graves, torture chambers those dropped from helicopters into the oceans, still percolate back to the surface.

The Tibhirine Monk Massacre

So it is with the monks of Tibhirine, who were, truth be told, a tiny part of a much more extensive horror story that took the lives of  hundreds of thousands of others, victims of Algeria’s dirty war. Virtually unknown in the USA, the case of the Tibhirine monks refuses to die in France and continues to haunt the ruling circles of Algeria as well, the latter dominated  by the military and the country’s powerful security apparatus.

But then `it’ – the kidnapping, slaughter and decapitation of seven Trappist monks from the monastery at Tibhirine –  was one of the more gruesome acts of Algeria’s `Dirty War’, the civil war which wracked the country during most of the decade of the 1990s. The Trappist monks were among the 250,000 or so killed, although the exact figure will probably never be known. Only the heads remain; neither the bodies nor their possible whereabouts have been identified. What in French is called the Groupe Islamique Armee (The Armed Islamic Group) or G.I.A claimed responsibility.

Questions remain, especially concerning the possible infiltration of the G.I.A. by the Algerian security apparatus who very well might have actually run the group and directed its activities pressing the G.I.A. to commit a series of gruesome acts, including the massacre of the Tibhirine monks in an effort to discredit the opposition movement, make them appear like monsters that need to be exterminated, as political dialogue is out of the question.

To what degree was the Algerian government complicit in the Tibhirine killings? Did they actually direct the operation? To what degree was French intelligence that had close ties with their Algerian counterparts at the very least aware of this gruesome operation (as well as many others)? These are the questions that do not go away, and once again, emerge in the public sphere.

As reported recently in The Irish Times, in France, seventeen years after the seven Trappist monks were kidnapped and killed, their decapitated heads left smiling by a small country roadside, families of the victims have asked French President,  Francois Hollande to fulfill a campaign promise to press the Algerian government to cooperate with the investigation. There is an ongoing investigation of the case in France, headed up by an anti-terrorist  judge, Marc Trévidic., but it has been stalled for years due to lack of cooperation from both the French and Algerian governments.

Trévidic wants to interview some 20 Algerians, among them members of the government in power at the time of the murders; he also is asking for an autopsy to determine whether the decapitations took place either at the time of the killings or afterwards.  To date, Algiers has been less than enthusiastic about replying, although the ailing Algerian President,  Abdelaziz Bouteflika promised to cooperate although nothing has happened since.

Boudiaf 2

Mohammed Boudiaf, Algerian president, assassinated in 1992. At the time of his assassination he was investigating France-Algerian corporate corruption rings between French corporations and Algerian figures, many in the military and Algerian security apparatus.

Up from the grave they arise…again and again

Both French and Algerian government circles would like the case to simply run out of steam and disappear. Not likely. Besides the families of the victims, still unsatisfied with the explanations given by the Algerian government, the Order of the Friars Minor – known more commonly as the Franciscans – continue to pursue the case. There have been several documentaries and books, mostly in French but also in English. Doubts continue to grow that the official version of events reflects what actually happened.

The most damning evidence – evidence that implicates both the Algerian government of the time and to a lesser degree, France – comes from two former members of the Algerian intelligence apparatus, the Departement de Renseignement et de la Securite (DRS). Habib Souaidia was an officer in the DRS’ special forces unit charged with countering Islamic terrorism who now enjoys political refugee status in France.

The other intelligence officer, Mohammed Samraoui, became the No. 2 man in the DRS’s counter-intelligence unit. He quit and sought political asylum in Germany after being asked to organize the assassination of  an Algerian Islamicist living in Germany,whom Samraoui knew had nothing to do with Islamicist guerilla movement.

Of the  ruthless methods the DRS would use against its opponents, real and imagined, Samraoui would write:

“At least from 1994 onward, I was able to confirm that the leadership of the DRS habitually tortured and killed their fellow citizens, as if they were simple insects. Once committed to this cycle of violence, it became perfectly logical that the generals would use massacres as a tactic to regulate the political problems that befell them in 1997″ (1)

In a book published slightly earlier,  by Decouverte Press in 2002 (in French), La sale guerre (The Dirty War), Habib Souaidia claims that many, if not most, of the Islamic terrorist groups in Algeria in the 1990s were both infiltrated by the DRS as well as literally run by them, prime among them the G.I.A mentioned above. Running the G.I.A. operations from his Algiers office was Smail Lamari, Deputy Director of the DRS and in charge of operations of its military wing, known as the Securite Militaire, or SM

Many of these `operations’ were `false flag’ operations, operations secretly conceived and implemented by the Algerian government itself, with the knowledge of the ruling clique to make the country’s Islamic movement look far worse than it was in actual fact. Committing acts of brutality, in actual fact carried out by the government, but in the name of Islamic militants helped to isolate the Islamic movement at the time from its popular base, provoke intense fear among a population that would then ask for stronger security measures, ie – a more repressive hold on the country by the state.

At the time of the Tibhirine murders, Souaidia was serving a four year sentence on trumped u charges of having stolen automotive material from military warehouse, but it was because of his refusal to continue to participate in the Dirty War which was the more probably cause of his incarceration. `La sale guerre’ does not discuss the Tibhirine murders but it cast doubts over the Algerian government’s official explanation of the murders, suggesting that, like so many others, that this was some kind of false flag operation manipulated by the Algerian state itself through the DRS, in this case with the goal of undermining talks of a political settlement then taking place in Rome.

While none of this directly implicates the Algerian DRS in the Tibhirine murders, still it is suggestive of the lengths to which the Algerian counter-intelligence operation was willing to go. In the decades since other suggestions challenging the government’s official version of the Tibhirine events have surfaced, among them French intelligence complicity with their Algerian counterparts, certainly enough `smoke’ to suggest that somewhere there is a fire and to merit a serious investigation.

Consequences of Tibhirine…

If all the details of the Tibhirine massacres remain under wraps, the consequences are not at all ambiguous. As Louis Aggoun and Jean-Baptiste Rivoire wrote of the Tibhrine tragedy in Francalgerie, crimes et mensonges d’Etats:

“In attacking Christianity in its very heart and soul, the assassination of the monks traumatized France, still `the eldest daughter of the Catholic Church’,(1) discredited the Islamicists that much more, re mobilizing the West (France, USA, UK, Germany etc) in support of a harder anti-Islamicist position (2) at a time when a negotiated settlement between the warring parties was being considered in Rome’ (3)

What Algeria’s generals feared most at the time was a negotiated settlement with Algeria’s Islamicists that would threaten their hold on power and the oil wealth that comes with it. Aggoun and Rivoire’s analysis, while not proving Algerian DRS management of the Tibhirine killings, still gives a viable political explanation for why the Algerian government might have acted as it did.

As has been the case, frankly for decades, a fierce, under the surface power struggle in Algeria, is unfolding, `the battle of the clans’ as it is often referred to although in this case, the `clans’ as they are called in French are more accurately called in English `interest groups’. The DRS and the military (although there are some differences between the two) have held the reins of power for decades, their power consolidated just before the Dirty War began and continuing until today.

On the other hand, there is the president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika and his  circle who have, rather unsuccessfully it appears, tried to wrest power from the security- intelligence apparatus.  Other presidents who tried were either assassinated (Boudiaf) or unceremoniously pushed aside (Zeroual) when their usefulness had run its course, or when they decided to challenge the powers that be. It is not entirely inconceivable that the Tibhirine monk’s massacre could emerge as an issue in this power struggle as the power struggle gets dirtier. It already is pretty intense.

Regardless, the case of the Tibhirine monks is essentially only kept alive due to popular pressure especially in France and Algeria. It is time the U.S. human rights movement add its voice to the chorus demanding an explanation, justice in this case. That it might embarrass the U.S. government some, the French government more and the Algerian government most of all should have little bearing on case.

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1. Mohammed Samraoui. Chronique des annees de sang. Algerie: comment les services secret ont manipule les groupes islamistes. Denoel, Paris: 2003. Back cover jacket.

2. `la fille ainee de l’Eglise’

3. Referred to in French as `l’option eradicatrice’ – or the `eradicating option’ – ie, the need for the total physical destruction of political Islam in Algeria.

4. Louis Aggoun and Jean-Baptiste Rivoire. Francalgerie, crimes et mensonges d’Etats. La Decouverte. Paris, 2004. p.474

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Links:

COMITE NATIONAL CONTRE LA TORTURE. Vingt apres que rest-t-il d’October 88 en Algerie. ENAG. Algiers. 1989. (note – this is the report on the extensive torture perpetrated on the Algerian people after the uprising of October, 1988 in which no less than 500 people were gunned down by the authorities and thousands, perhaps tens of thousands were, in its wake, arrested, tortured. The goal of the torture – besides terrifying civil society, was to turn as many of the torture victims as possible into informers for the government in anticipation of the social conflicts to come. I wish I had the time to translate the entire volume, but I don’t. I will however, translate certain selections.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. June 27, 2013 4:11 am

    Reblogged this on Piazza della Carina.

  2. John Kane permalink
    June 28, 2013 4:58 am

    Thanks for placing the murder/decapitation of the monks in its broader and continuing political context. One correction and a suggestion: I believe the monks were Trappists and not Franciscans (minor point), and there has been a good little film (drama not documentary) about them — made in France and shown in the US (stayed for several weeks in Denver) called “Of Gods and Men” — which is probably still available and has helped the awareness you seek to expand — though its focus is on their courage and faith, only vaguely on the political background that is your focus.

  3. Mark Brennan permalink
    July 22, 2013 11:44 am

    On the face of facts or assertions recited here, I find it no less plausible that the monks were murdered by vicious Islamists than as part of a “false flag” operation intended to discredit Islamist terrorists who, by their undeniable brutality, had already discredited themselves more than the Algerian government could ever have hoped to discredit them.

    Yet, your very interesting article caused me to examine the matter further through some less-than-rigorous, mere internet research.

    Although I seldom refer to al-Jazeera as a reliable authority on any issue involving the Muslim world, the following article offers a very plausible alternative explanation that portrays the Algerian government in a less-than-favorable-light.

    It describes apparently strong evidence, including the testimony of a retired French general, that an Algerian gunship inadvertently killed the monks during a botched operation:

    “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.”

    Obviously, there are, as usual with respect to anything involving the Arab/Muslim world, numerous explanations of varying plausibility, most of which seem grounded more in the political agenda of those who flog them than in evidence. The “false flag” conspiracy strikes me as plausible, yet considerably less plausible than Buchwalter’s allegation.

  4. Mark Brennan permalink
    July 22, 2013 11:46 am

    Sorry. Posted my comment before adding the link to the article from al-Jazeera to which I referred:

    http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/2010/11/2010118122224407570.html

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  1. Monks: “Take me, cowl’d forms, and fence me round, Till I possess my soul again”** | The Knife and me

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