Algeria is engulfed in a bloody civil war that has claimed
around 40,000 lives since January 1992. In that month the Algerian
army seized power, ousted President Chadli Benjedid, and canceled
parliamentary elections to avert a takeover by Islamic radicals, or
"Islamists." The provisional military government and the loose
coalition of Islamists who seek its overthrow have fought to a
standstill. It is gradually becoming clear that neither side is
likely to score a decisive military victory. Unless this civil war
is halted, Algeria will disintegrate into political chaos that
could destabilize the entire region. But as bad as Algeria's
situation is now, an Islamist victory would be even worse.
A radical Islamic victory in Algeria would pose significant
long-term threats to U.S. interests in North Africa, the Middle
East, and the Muslim world generally. The triumph of Muslim
militance in Algeria, at a minimum, would embolden Islamists
elsewhere in the Islamic world to redouble their revolutionary
efforts, increase subversive pressures on pro-Western secular
regimes, and encourage further opposition to the Arab-Israeli peace
negotiations. In the worst case scenario, a radical Islamic Algeria
could become another Iran -- a base for actively exporting
anti-Western revolution, terrorism, and anarchy.
The Clinton Administration has distanced itself from the
beleaguered Algerian military regime and has established diplomatic
contacts with the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), the umbrella group
of radical Islamic organizations opposed to the secular regime. The
President and his advisers believe this policy will lay the
groundwork for a political settlement in Algeria. But FIS leaders
increasingly have lost control over the ultra-radical guerrillas
who do most of the fighting and adamantly reject compromise with
the Algerian regime. It makes little sense to conduct a dialogue
with leaders who cannot deliver a negotiated peace even if they
wanted to do so. Moreover, reaching out to Algerian Islamic
"moderates" is counterproductive because it undermines the ability
of secular Arab regimes to resist the surge of militant Islam.
Supporters of the dialogue with the FIS argue that it will lead
to better Algerian-American relations in the event that Islamic
revolutionaries come to power. This dangerously wishful thinking
flows from the false premise that Western powers can co-opt radical
Muslim movements through negotiation, dialogue, and compromise,
practices valued in democratic societies but not in radical Islam.
Any Islamist leaders that come to power in Algeria after years of
bloodshed inevitably will be virulently anti-Western. Their
totalitarian ideology uncompromisingly rejects Western values,
which are perceived to threaten the purity of Islam, and is hostile
to Western interests. Moreover, the political dynamics of
revolutionary struggle favor militants at the expense of moderates,
who tend to become increasingly irrelevant as political violence
The Clinton Administration appears to be making the same
mistakes in Algeria that the Carter Administration made in Iran. By
reaching out to Islamic revolutionaries and undertaking a political
dialogue, the Administration puts American national interests at
risk and loses credibility with nervous allies battling their own
Islamists. The Carter Administration's over-eager courting of
Iran's revolutionary provisional government backfired in November
1979, when Iranian radicals seized American diplomats as hostages
at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. The Clinton Administration's
courtship of Algeria's FIS is even more misguided because it could
help boost Algerian Islamists to power by demoralizing the
embattled military regime in Algiers.
The United States has relatively little direct influence over
what happens in Algeria in the coming months. What little leverage
it has should be used to help block the rise of Islamists hostile
to American values and interests, not to ease their path to power.
The sad truth is that any power- sharing arrangement between the
regime and the Islamic opposition would be the first step toward a
complete victory for the Islamists.
Instead of seeking to ingratiate itself with FIS "moderates" who
are likely to be squeezed out of power and discarded by their more
radical rivals if Islamists take power, the U.S. should:
- Break diplomatic contacts with the FIS. These contacts risk
undermining the Algerian government with no real benefits for the
- Halt efforts to pressure the Algiers regime into a suicidal
power-sharing arrangement. Power- sharing would only be a prelude
to an Islamist takeover.
- Cooperate with France and other allies to help buy time for the
regime. Washington should help Algeria reschedule its heavy debt
burden, although it cannot afford to give direct economic aid.
- Seek to deprive Algerian Islamists of external support. The
U.S. needs to increase economic and diplomatic pressures on Iran
and Sudan, which aid Algerian Islamists, and cooperate with
European allies to reduce the flow of arms and money from Algerian
expatriates in Europe.
- Prevent future Algerias. There is little the U.S. can do in
concrete terms to solve Algeria's immediate crisis. The Algerian
government has been a repressive failure, but the Islamist
alternative would be worse. The U.S. should encourage the Algiers
regime to adopt free-market economic reforms and cautious
democratic reforms, although this will be difficult while the
regime is fighting for survival. The U.S. is likely to have more
success encouraging long-term political, economic, and educational
reforms that can help other secular Arab regimes avoid Algeria's
Algeria's Political Breakdown
Algeria's plunge into civil strife was precipitated by three
intertwined crises -- economic, social, and political -- that
undermined the legitimacy of the ruling National Liberation Front
(FLN) regime. The FLN had spearheaded Algeria's bloody eight-year
war for independence and dominated Algeria for 30 years after it
won independence from France in 1962. Although it enjoyed
considerable prestige based on this success, it squandered its
popular support by building a one-party socialist state that badly
mismanaged Algeria's deepening economic, social, and political
The FLN nationalized large portions of the economy and built a
Soviet-style command economy. It undertook an overly ambitious
industrialization program that led to the development of swollen,
inefficient state enterprises. The regime collectivized Algeria's
thriving agricultural sector and experimented with "socialist
villages" designed ostensibly to develop the economy and modernize
society. The burgeoning state bureaucracy grew increasingly corrupt
and inefficient. The mismanaged socialist economy was kept afloat
by Algeria's oil and gas revenues, but the 1985-1986 fall in energy
prices dealt a body blow to the economy, reducing oil revenues from
$12.5 billion in 1985 to $8 billion in 1986. Rather than institute
free-market economic reforms to revive the economy, the FLN regime
borrowed heavily abroad. By the early 1990s, Algiers was forced to
expend most of its oil and gas income -- roughly $8 billion to $9
billion per year -- just to finance its mushrooming $26 billion
This economic crisis exacerbated a fundamental social crisis
posed by rapid population growth and declining living standards.
Algeria's population surged from 10 million in 1962 to its current
level of 28.5 million (and continues to grow at the rapid rate of
about 3 percent per year). Peasants uprooted from the countryside,
in part because of the regime's mismanagement of agriculture,
crowded into the coastal cities in search of scarce housing and
jobs. Algerians grew profoundly disenchanted with the FLN's
one-party rule and its inability to deal with such persistent
problems as high unemployment (now estimated to run about 25
percent, but much higher for younger workers), chronic food
shortages, overcrowded housing, rising prices, and an overburdened
The standard of living fell sharply following the 1985 decline
in international oil prices, with private consumption per capita
plummeting 18 percent between 1985 and 1992.
Widespread discontent over the regime's mismanagement of the
economy and resentment of the socialist pretensions of the ruling
elite boiled over into anti-FLN riots that swept many Algerian
cities in October 1988. Although they began as a spontaneous
protest in a working class neighborhood in Algiers against
austerity measures imposed by the regime, the mass demonstrations
subsequently took on an Islamist cast and spread from the capital
to other cities. The army was deployed to halt attacks on
government buildings, state enterprises, and FLN political offices.
Roughly 500 people were killed and $250 million in damage was
inflicted on government facilities before the riots were suppressed
after five days of bloodshed.
Stunned by the scope of the political violence, President
Benjedid undertook a series of reforms to open up the political
system and defuse opposition. A new constitution was approved by
national referendum in February 1989, and the parliament approved
the transition to a multi-party system in July 1989. The chief
political challenge to the FLN came from the FIS, formed in March
1989 as a coalition of more than 20 Islamist groups dedicated to
creating an Islamic state ruled by the Sharia, Islam's sacred law.
The FIS quickly mobilized a mass following, drawing its strongest
support from the urban poor and Algerian youths who sought a sense
of purpose and identity in a society that presented them with a
bleak future of diminishing opportunities. The FIS got a head start
over other opposition parties because it enjoyed an informal
support network in the mosques and was bolstered by heavy funding
from Islamists in Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich Persian Gulf
The FIS also profited from the miscalculations of President
Benjedid, who greatly underestimated its strength. Despite the fact
that a July 1989 law banned political parties based on "sectarian
practice" and "intolerance," the government recognized the FIS as a
legal party in September 1989. Benjedid may have hoped to use the
growing challenge posed by the FIS to offset FLN hard-liners
opposed to his reform program. Or he may have allowed the FIS to
operate openly in a Machiavellian attempt to scare voters into
supporting the FLN.
Benjedid's approach clearly backfired. In the June 1990
municipal and district elections, the first free elections since
Algeria gained independence, the FIS decisively defeated the FLN,
winning 54 percent of the popular vote to the FLN's 28 percent.
Although the Islamists won control of 850 of Algeria's more than
1,500 municipalities, this vote was not an accurate barometer of
their true strength. The FIS benefited from a boycott of the
elections by several secular parties that led 38 percent of the
electorate to abstain from voting. Others cast ballots for the FIS
as a protest vote against the FLN.
Despite this electoral setback, Benjedid pressed ahead with his
plans to move rapidly toward multi- party legislative elections to
restore the FLN's shattered political legitimacy. He unwisely
designed a winner-take-all electoral system that would magnify the
number of parliamentary seats awarded to the leading political
party, perhaps assuming that the pre-election gerrymandering of
electoral districts would guarantee an FLN victory. For its part,
the FIS became increasingly aggressive in politically attacking the
regime, organizing civil disobedience, calling for general strikes,
and appealing to army officers to rebel against the FLN regime. The
June 1991 elections were postponed when violent political protests
erupted over the FLN-engineered electoral reforms. Martial law was
declared and thousands of Islamists were arrested. Despite this,
the FIS was allowed to participate in the legislative elections,
rescheduled to take place in two rounds of voting in December 1991
and January 1992.
The first round resulted in an FIS landslide. Although the FIS
actually received 1 million fewer votes than it had at the peak of
its popularity in the June 1990 municipal elections, the misguided
electoral reforms magnified its victory. The FIS gained 188 of the
230 seats contested in the first round, eclipsing the FLN, which
picked up only 15 seats. The non-Islamist vote was severely
fragmented, and many voters opted for the FIS rather than their
preferred parties because they feared their vote might be wasted
under the winner-take-all system. Shocked by the size of the
Islamists' political victory and suspecting that President Benjedid
had cut a deal with the FIS, the army ousted Benjedid on January
11, 1992, canceled the elections, banned the FIS, and set up a
transitional authority, the five-man High State Council (HCS).
Spiraling Political Violence
Although many Algerians were relieved that the army had stepped
in to block an Islamist takeover, the new regime lacked a solid
base of support. To remedy this, the HCS chose Mohammed Boudiaf, an
unblemished hero of the revolution against the French who had opted
for self-exile, as the new prime minister. Boudiaf led a crackdown
against the Islamists, who had gone underground and had begun an
escalating campaign of armed attacks against the regime. But
Boudiaf also asserted his independence from the entrenched elite
that had run Algeria for their own benefit and made clear his
intention to root out corruption in the FLN-controlled state
bureaucracies. Boudiaf was assassinated by one of his own
bodyguards on June 29, 1992, possibly because he was regarded as a
threat to hard-liners within the army and FLN.
The Islamist camp also was fractured by internal political
rivalries and disputes. Once the FIS was forced underground, its
unity partially dissolved, and radical splinter groups proliferated
and grew stronger. The military wing of the FIS, the Islamic
Salvation Army (AIS), has become increasingly independent of the
political leadership, much of which is under arrest or in exile.
Local guerrilla leaders, known as emirs, have waged largely
autonomous struggles against the government, and unaffiliated
groups have opportunistically engaged in rising levels of criminal
In early 1992, militant Islamists formed the Armed Islamic Group
(GIA), one of the most ruthless and violent Islamic revolutionary
organizations in the world. Founded by Algerian veterans of the
Islamic jihad (holy war) against the Soviet and Afghan communist
forces in Afghanistan, the GIA adamantly opposes any negotiated
settlement with the government and scorns the FIS for its
willingness to consider a dialogue with the regime. While the AIS
has focused its attacks on the regime, particularly on police and
military personnel, the GIA has unleashed a fierce terrorist
campaign against a broad array of civilian targets, including
secular opposition leaders, journalists, artists, academics, and
The GIA has chosen such a wide variety of targets because it is
fighting a cultural war, not just a political war. It seeks to
impose its vision of pure Islam on Algerian society by violently
eliminating Western cultural influences that it considers a threat
to that vision. Because it fears that secular education "undermines
the jihad" by "taming" Algeria's youth, the GIA has sabotaged or
destroyed roughly 700 schools and murdered over 200 teachers. It
has assassinated intellectuals, particularly those that write in
French, as symbols of the francophone elite that it wishes to
destroy because of that elite's secular and "Westoxicated" values.
GIA and other fanatical Islamist terrorists have slit the throats
of young school girls for not wearing veils that conform to their
view of Islamic modesty. They have impaled the decapitated head of
a hapless contractor on the satellite television antenna that he
was installing, because in their eyes he was helping to spread the
decadent values of Western culture. The GIA also has killed more
than 100 Algerian religious leaders with whom it disagreed.
GIA terrorism increasingly threatens foreigners as well as
Algerians. More than 90 foreign expatriates have been assassinated
in Algeria since the GIA issued an ultimatum for foreigners to flee
the country in September 1993 in an effort to undermine the regime.
The GIA also has exported its indiscriminate brand of terrorism in
an effort to deprive the Algiers regime of foreign support. Four
GIA terrorists hijacked an Air France passenger jet on December 24,
1994, and planned to crash it into the streets of Paris on
Christmas day. Fortunately, French commandos stormed the plane
while it was refueling in Marseilles and killed the terrorists
before they could deliver their gruesome Christmas offering. The
GIA on October 7, 1995, also admitted responsibility for a series
of eight terrorist attacks in France that had killed eight people
and wounded 130 since July. On October 17, it struck again, setting
off a bomb on a crowded Paris commuter train and wounding 29
The GIA's terrorist tactics, particularly its use of massive car
bombs and kidnappings, are similar to those of Hezbollah (Party of
God), the pro-Iranian Lebanese Islamist group. This is not
surprising, since the GIA is believed to enjoy clandestine support
from Iran and has dispatched representatives to meet with Hezbollah
leaders and with Iran's Minister for Intelligence, Ali Fallahian,
who oversees much of Iran's terrorist and subversive operations.
U.S. officials maintain that Sudan also assists Algerian Islamists
by allowing Iran to use Sudanese territory as a transit point for
arms and ammunition smuggled through Chad and Niger to Algeria. The
Algerian government broke relations with Iran and Sudan in 1993,
charging that both Islamic regimes supported Algerian
Current Stalemate and Grim Future
There is no end in sight to the killing, which has claimed an
estimated 40,000 lives since January 1992. As the conflict has
intensified, both the Islamists and government security forces have
become more indiscriminate in their use of force, leaving many
Algerians fearful and resentful of both sides. The army controls
the urban centers, large towns, and oil and gas facilities, but
central authority is gradually crumbling. Islamists, increasingly
dominated by the GIA, control wide areas of the countryside, many
villages, and poor neighborhoods in many cities. Even the most
secure bastions of government supporters are subject to terrorist
The government's security forces are stretched thin, battling
against roughly 20,000 insurgents who are assisted by extensive
support networks. The military employs about one-third of its
155,000 forces against the Islamists. It prefers to deploy only
professional military units, because many of its conscripts have
defected to the rebels. Senior officers are said to distrust young
officers with the rank of captain or lower. The regime relies on a
paramilitary gendarmerie of roughly 30,000 and the police to
perform most internal security tasks. By one estimate, it can rely
on about 63,000 men for security operations but can raise this to
about 90,000 in a crisis for a short period of time. The government
also announced in March 1995 that it will organize and arm up to
50,000 men in local militias. Such militias are likely to be
unreliable, except perhaps in the mountain strongholds of Algeria's
Berber minority, which generally is secular and hostile to Islamist
The Islamists have had some success infiltrating the security
forces and assassinating key government officials. In March 1994,
they attacked a prison, allegedly with inside help, and freed more
than 900 prisoners. But the GIA and other groups also have been
penetrated by government intelligence services. This has allowed
the internal security forces to target the commanders of the
revolutionary Islamic forces, killing several of them. In March
1995, the army struck a devastating blow against the GIA, ambushing
roughly 900 guerrillas and killing hundreds of them in a running
battle that lasted several days in the rugged Ain Defla region, 90
miles west of Algiers.
The government claims that it now has the upper hand in the
fighting, but this remains to be seen. Hundreds of Algerians
continue to die each week, but there is little chance the army can
score a military knockout with the Islamists so well entrenched
throughout Algeria. It is more likely that a bloody stalemate has
set in, with both sides too exhausted to win a decisive victory.
While the regime commands little enthusiastic support, it has the
passive acceptance of most of the population. Moreover, the GIA's
terrorist excesses have tarnished the appeal of the Islamists and
provoked a backlash. More young men now appear to be defecting from
the insurgents than from the army.
The military regime tentatively has sought a political
resolution to Algeria's predicament, but has found no acceptable
interlocutors willing and able to halt the bloodshed. In October
1993, it created a Commission for National Dialogue, which sought
to prepare the way for elections. The political parties declined to
participate, ostensibly because they did not wish to "legitimize"
the regime. But opposition parties also have been intimidated by
ruthless terrorist attacks by the GIA, which rejects any form of
compromise with the regime. The High Security Council appointed
Liamine Zeroual, a proponent of dialogue, as President on January
31, 1994. General Zeroual, a career military man and devout Muslim
who had resigned from the army in 1988 to protest the harsh
repression of the October 1988 riots, had been persuaded to return
as Defense Minister in July 1993. Zeroual had engaged in secret
contacts with imprisoned FIS leaders before becoming President and
quickly made it clear that he was prepared for political dialogue
with all political factions, including the FIS.
Throughout most of 1994, the two top FIS leaders, Abassi Madani
and Ali Belhaj, who had been imprisoned since July 1991, refused to
enter political negotiations with the regime unless all FIS
prisoners were released and Zeroual agreed to immediate elections.
They relented and agreed to start discussions in September 1994
when promised unhindered contact with other FIS leaders. The two
were moved from prison to a loose form of house arrest, but little
came of the talks. The FIS leaders, apparently perceiving Zeroual's
gesture as a sign of weakness, demanded a purge of the army and
refused to call for an end to the violence. The talks had broken
down by late October.
Opposition leaders briefly revived hopes for a fruitful
political dialogue when they met in Rome, Italy, in January 1995
under the auspices of Sant' Egidio, a Catholic lay group. In Rome,
eight prominent opposition politicians representing the major
political parties, principally the banned FIS, the FLN, and the
Socialist Forces Front (FFS), agreed to a "national contract" that
set conditions under which talks with the regime could begin. They
called for the regime to recognize the FIS as a political party,
release its leaders, and proceed with multi-party elections.
Significantly, the "contract" did not require the FIS to commit
itself unequivocally to democracy. The FIS made its commitment
contingent on "the framework provided by our religion," a vague
formulation that can be interpreted any way the Islamists see fit.
The Zeroual regime understandably rejected the Sant' Egidio
declaration, which also was denounced by the fanatical GIA and the
increasingly militant AIS.
Nevertheless, Zeroual maintained contact with the imprisoned FIS
leaders, Madani and Belhaj, through a presidential adviser. These
contacts finally were broken off in July 1995, with each side
accusing the other of bad faith. The Algiers regime now is pressing
ahead to hold presidential elections on November 16, despite the
refusal of the major opposition parties to participate.
U.S. Interests and Algeria
The military regime fighting for survival in Algiers is not a
pro-Western ally. Since independence in 1962, Algeria has been
ruled by radical Arab nationalists who have imposed Soviet-style
economic policies and supported anti-Western liberation movements
while staking out a claim to leadership of the nonaligned movement.
Since the Algerian government was not aligned with the West in the
Cold War, Washington has no moral obligation to align itself with
the regime clinging to power in Algiers today.
But Washington does have a major stake in the outcome of the
struggle inside Algeria. This is because the triumph of Islamic
revolutionaries in Algeria, the largest state in North Africa, will
have strong and lasting impact on the region, the Arab world, and
radical Islamic movements throughout the Muslim world. A successful
Algerian Islamic revolution probably would have a greater effect on
the Middle East than the 1979 Iranian revolution. Unlike Iran,
Algeria is predominantly an Arab nation, and its people are Sunni
(orthodox) Muslims, not members of the smaller Shiite branch of
Islam. This closer cultural affinity and Algeria's revolutionary
history would give Algerian Islamists an entree into other Arab
societies that Iranians do not enjoy.
Specifically, a revolutionary Algeria would undermine U.S.
interests by posing a threat to:
- Pro-Western Arab secular regimes. An Islamist regime is likely
to provide sanctuary, training, arms, advice, and moral, political,
and material support to Islamist movements elsewhere in the region.
The Algerian "Afghanis" already have established links with a wide
variety of other Islamists, both during the war in Afghanistan and
in training camps in Pakistan and Sudan. Exiled FIS leaders have
made contact with a wide array of Islamic radicals in Europe. Even
if the Algerians should neglect to support their counterparts in
other countries (an unlikely prospect), their success will embolden
other Islamic revolutionaries, providing a psychological boost to
those who will see it as a vindication of Islamism and a harbinger
of things to come in their own countries.
- The countries most strongly threatened would be Algeria's
neighbors, Tunisia and Morocco. Both already have suffered
terrorist attacks at the hands of Algerian Islamists. Egypt, which
has managed to survive an upsurge of Islamist terrorism since 1992,
also would face the possibility of Algerian aid to Egyptian
Islamists channeled through Sudan. All of these governments have a
strong hold on power and enjoy considerable popular support. They
are by no means dominoes to be toppled easily. But the spillover
effects of Islamic revolution in Algeria will exercise a long-term
destabilizing influence in the region that harms U.S. allies and
gratifies anti-Western forces.
- Containment of international terrorism. The triumph of Islamic
revolution in Algeria will be a victory for ruthless and
indiscriminate terrorism. Not only are other Islamists likely to
imitate the tactics and strategy of Algeria's GIA, but Algeria's
new rulers -- if they should win -- are unlikely to discard
terrorism as an instrument of policy. Islamic Algeria, like Iran,
Sudan, and Afghanistan before it, is likely to become a haven and
base for Islamist terrorist groups.
- Arab-Israeli peace negotiations. The Algerian revolution is
likely to electrify disgruntled Palestinians and help strengthen
the appeal of Islamist groups such as Hamas and the Palestinian
Islamic Jihad. Algeria's Islamists vehemently reject any compromise
with Israel and would cooperate with Iran, Sudan, and Palestinian
Islamists to block a permanent settlement. The galvanizing effect
of Algeria's revolution also would limit the degree to which
cautious secular Arab regimes could take risks to support further
- Nonproliferation efforts. U.S. intelligence agencies in January
1991 discovered a nuclear research reactor that Algeria was
building secretly with Chinese assistance. It is believed to be
part of a clandestine nuclear weapons program. After it was
discovered, the Benjedid government announced that Algeria would
sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which it did in January
1995, probably to help ensure continued Western support. But
signing the treaty and accepting the accompanying inspection regime
of the International Atomic Energy Agency cannot guarantee that the
present regime or a future regime will abstain from developing a
nuclear weapon. Saddam Hussein's nuclear efforts demonstrated how
easy it is to get around IAEA "safeguards." A nuclear- armed
revolutionary Islamic Algeria, just 200 miles from Europe's
southern shores, is a chilling possibility that would pose a
critical threat to NATO allies, regional friends, and American
forces in the Mediterranean basin. Moreover, an Islamist regime in
Algiers might consider sharing nuclear technology or materials with
Iran, Sudan, or radical Islamic terrorist groups.
- Western access to energy. Algeria has the fifth largest
reserves of natural gas in the world and ranks 14th in oil. It is a
major energy exporter, the third largest source of the European
Community's natural gas imports. Its importance is likely to grow
when the Europe-Maghreb gas line, scheduled to be completed in
1996, links Algeria to Spain via Morocco. Although any regime that
comes to power in Algiers will have an interest in continuing
energy exports to maximize export income, Islamic revolutionaries
will be prone to subversive and terrorist activities that are
likely to disrupt the operations of the pipeline through Morocco or
the Transmed pipeline bringing Algerian gas to Italy via Tunisia.
Support for international terrorism also could trigger
international economic sanctions that would disrupt the flow of
Algerian gas to Western markets. Algerian support for Saudi
Islamists, who provided FIS with considerable financial support,
would increase the risk of destabilization in Saudi Arabia, which
in turn could disrupt the flow of Saudi oil exports and push up
world oil prices.
- Human rights. Although the Algerian military regime has abused
human rights in its desperate struggle against Islamist terrorists,
these abuses are dwarfed by the ruthless and indiscriminate
campaign of terrorism and intimidation unleashed by the Islamists.
For example, secular women have been a favorite target of Islamic
extremists, who have imposed "temporary marriages" -- rape -- on
those they despise. If the Islamists seize power, Algeria's human
rights situation is sure to worsen as they seek vengeance on the
supporters of the current regime and struggle for power among
Given the grave threats that a revolutionary Islamic regime
would pose to American foreign policy goals and security interests,
the overriding U.S. goal in Algeria should be to prevent an
Islamist takeover. Yet current U.S. policy is to ease Algeria's
transition to "democracy" by including the FIS in a power-sharing
arrangement that leads to national reconciliation.
This is wishful thinking that dangerously undermines U.S.
interests by making it easier, not more difficult, for Islamists to
seize power in Algeria.
U.S. Policy Toward Algeria
The Clinton Administration has shunned high-level diplomatic
contacts with the Zeroual government, concerned that such contacts
will be interpreted by the Islamists as unconditional support for
the regime. No senior U.S. official has visited Algiers since 1992.
Moreover, American diplomats began discreet talks with Anwar
Haddam, a high-level FIS representative based in Washington, in
late 1993. The ostensible purpose of these talks is to pull the FIS
into a political dialogue with the regime that will lead to a
political settlement. But such a dialogue is doomed unless the FIS
disavows terrorism -- in which case it will be attacked by the GIA
and other militants.
The Administration's policy is based on a number of questionable
- That the FIS is willing and able to halt terrorism.
- That the FIS is willing to play by the rules of democratic
- That the regime is willing to accept a suicidal power-sharing
None of these assumptions is realistic. The Administration's
policy therefore is understood more properly as an insurance policy
that it hopes will improve the chances of good relations with the
FIS if and when it comes to power. Advocates of a dialogue with the
FIS hope to prevent the U.S. from becoming the "Great Satan" in
Algerian eyes, as it did in the eyes of Iranian Islamists. But this
effort to placate Islamic revolutionaries is doomed to failure.
Algerian Islamists already are convinced of U.S. perfidy by virtue
of their ideology. They hate America as much for its culture, which
they believe promotes corruption and decadence in their own
societies, as they do for its policies. Years of bloody struggle
are not likely to dilute their hostility, particularly if they are
successful in shooting their way to power.
The Clinton Administration would do well to remember that it was
the Carter Administration's attempt to stage a rapprochement with
the provisional Iranian government that triggered the biggest
explosion in U.S.-Iranian relations, the 444-day hostage crisis of
1979-1981. Islamic militants seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in
large part to discredit the provisional government of Prime
Minister Mehdi Bazargan and preclude the normalization of
Iranian-American relations. Radical fears of Iran-U.S.
rapprochement were fed by a November 1, 1979, meeting in Algiers
between Bazargan, Iranian Foreign Minister Ibrahim Yazdi, and
Carter National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski. The Carter
Administration's well-intentioned dialogue with Iranian moderates
ultimately benefited Iranian hard-liners, who used it to oust
Bazargan and poison U.S.-Iranian relations. The Reagan
Administration also suffered a major policy setback when it tried
to cultivate Iranian "moderates" to secure the release of American
hostages held in Lebanon.
The Clinton Administration should halt its risky efforts to
cultivate Algerian moderates. If they truly are moderates, the
political dynamics of revolutionary struggle increasingly will
marginalize them and limit their usefulness to the U.S.
Furthermore, an American embrace actually could accelerate their
demise by helping hard-liners in the GIA or in the FIS itself to
The U.S. should work to combat and contain Islamists, not to
tame them -- a risky course that cannot be accomplished with any
certainty. The Clinton Administration therefore should:
- Break diplomatic contacts with the FIS. American diplomatic
talks with Algeria's Islamists undercut the Zeroual regime by
suggesting that Washington is hedging its bets and working to
establish good relations with the prospective victor in the bloody
civil war. This eventually could undermine confidence in the regime
and encourage defections. Diplomatic talks also confer a form of
legitimacy that strengthens the Islamists' sense of manifest
destiny and confirms their belief in Western weakness. While
breaking contacts with the FIS and tilting toward the Zeroual
regime may increase the risk of Algerian terrorist attacks on U.S.
targets, continuing a dialogue is no guarantee against such
attacks. In any event, the U.S. must take every precaution to
improve security against terrorism.
- Halt efforts to pressure the Algiers regime into a suicidal
power-sharing arrangement. Given the brutality of the ongoing
low-intensity war, it is unrealistic to expect the combatants to
agree to genuine power-sharing arrangements. Power-sharing has
become a euphemism for gradual Islamic takeover. Once placed in
government positions, the Islamists would quickly consolidate their
power and infiltrate the internal security forces. The military
regime knows this and will not accept such a disguised form of
surrender. Rather than publicly pressure the regime to negotiate
with Islamists, which only undermines the regime and strengthens
the Islamists, the U.S. should privately urge the regime to broaden
its political base. The U.S. also should make it clear that it
advocates political dialogue with the secular opposition parties,
not the Islamists. Washington should resist the temptation to
meddle in Algerian politics in a vain effort to ingratiate itself
with the Islamists. Such appeasement will only make things worse by
feeding the Islamists' sense of power and disdain for the
weak-willed West. It would be a tragedy if the U.S. helped
Islamists win through negotiations what they are incapable of
winning for themselves.
- Cooperate with France and other allies to help buy time for the
regime. France bolstered the Algiers regime with $1.2 billion of
foreign aid last year and has taken the lead in lobbying the
International Monetary Fund and the Paris Club of creditor
governments to lower Algeria's heavy debt burden. The IMF provided
a $1 billion standby credit in April 1994 for rescheduling its debt
and a $1.8 billion loan in May 1995 to support its cautious
free-market reforms. The Paris Club rescheduled $3.4 billion of
debt in July 1994, which cut Algeria's debt service ratio from 75
percent in 1993 to 30 percent in 1995.
The U.S. gives no economic aid to Algeria beyond $550 million in
loans under the Commodity Credit Corporation program for imports of
American agricultural commodities and $2 billion in loans
guaranteed by the Export-Import Bank to U.S. corporations,
primarily involving construction of the Europe-Maghreb gas
pipeline. Given its shrinking foreign aid budget, Washington cannot
afford to provide direct aid to Algeria. But it can and should
cooperate with France to secure aid from international lending
institutions such as the IMF and World Bank. Washington also should
lobby Saudi Arabia and the other oil-rich Persian Gulf emirates to
come to Algeria's aid. Finally, the U.S. should encourage Algeria
to undertake free-market economic reforms that can fuel economic
growth and create jobs that help alleviate Algeria's socioeconomic
crisis. This will be especially difficult in the prevailing civil
turmoil, but Algeria's long-term economic prospects depend on
- Seek to deprive Algerian Islamists of external support. The FIS
has strong grass roots that enable it to impose taxes on
"liberated" territory and siphon aid from radicalized groups of
Algerians living in exile in Europe, particularly in France. But
the GIA also receives considerable aid from Iran and Sudan. The
U.S. should seek to cut this aid by punishing Iran and Sudan on as
many fronts as possible. Senator Alfonse D'Amato's proposed
legislation to ban all U.S. trade with Iran and punish corporations
that continue such trade, the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions Act of
1995, would be a step in the right direction. Washington also
should press Saudi Arabia to crack down further on the financial
support that wealthy Saudi Islamists have provided to Algerian
Islamists. U.S. intelligence agencies should cooperate with their
European counterparts to reduce the flow of money and arms to
Algerian insurgents from Algerian expatriates in Europe.
- Prevent future Algerias. There is little Washington can do in
the short run to defeat Islamic revolutionaries in Algeria. But in
the long run, the U.S. can seek to prevent friendly secular regimes
in other Arab countries from making the same mistakes that
Algeria's FLN regime made. This means:
Encouraging free-market economic reforms that fuel economic
growth and provide jobs and hope to the unemployed youth who serve
as the vanguard of Islamic revolutions.
- Encouraging the emergence of a European Union-Maghreb
free-market area to bolster export- driven job growth in North
- Encouraging the development of secular political parties that
can give voice to political opposition and keep Islamists based in
mosques from attaining a monopoly over political protest.
- Taking a go-slow approach to democratization. The U.S. should
stress the building of civil society and pluralism, not just
holding elections. Algeria's rush to elections gave the Islamists
an advantage over other political movements that were not as
organized or prepared.
- Paying more attention to the education of the young. Islamists
gained a solid foothold in Algeria in part because the Algerian
government carelessly imported hundreds of Egyptian teachers who
sympathized with the Muslim Brotherhood as part of its
"Arabization" program in the 1970s. The U.S. should encourage North
African states to duplicate the Tunisian model of education, which
has greatly reduced the appeal of radical Islam among the
Algeria's fate will be decided by Algerians. But the U.S. can
and should apply the lessons it learned from its experience with
Iran to avoid making Algeria's situation worse. Rather than try to
appease Islamists, an approach that is doomed to failure, the U.S.
should break off its dangerous flirtation. Islamic "moderates" are
a mirage. They cannot be depended upon to restrain terrorism or
deliver a political settlement. Washington should work to isolate
the Islamists and help prevent them from seizing power, not
facilitate a cosmetic power-sharing agreement that enables them to
There is no short-term solution to Algeria's problems. The U.S.
should focus instead on long-term political, economic, and
educational reforms, as well as appropriate security measures, that
can prevent future Algerias. If Islamists do seize power, the U.S.
must work with France, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, and other
interested countries to devise and implement a patient, firm, and
concerted containment policy to prevent the spread of Islamic
revolution from Algeria.
- Roughly 65 percent of Algerians are under the age of 25, and 44
percent are under 15.
- Gideon Gera, "An Islamic Republic of Algeria? Implications for
the Middle East and the West," Policy Focus Research Memorandum No.
29, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, June 1995, p.
- See Khalid Duran, "The Second Battle of Algiers," Orbis, Summer
- "The Battle Looms: Islam and Politics in the Middle East," A
Report to the Committee on Foreign Relations, U.S. Senate, February
1993, p. 4.
- Robert Mortimer, "Islam and Multi-Party Politics in Algeria,"
The Middle East Journal, Autumn 1991, p. 585.
- Andrew Pierre and William Quandt, "Algeria's War on Itself,"
Foreign Policy, Summer 1995, p. 135.
- The Economist Intelligence Unit, "Algeria: Country Report,
Second Quarter, 1995," p. 11.
- This has come to be known as "intellectocide." George Joffe,
"Algeria -- A Sombre Outlook," Jane's Intelligence Review, May
1994, p. 217.
- "Algeria: Afghan Chaos or National Reconciliation?," TransState
Islam, Summer 1995, p. 5.
- In retaliation, the GIA murdered four Catholic priests in
- Thomas Kamm, "Algerians Claim Responsibility in French
Attacks," The Wall Street Journal, October 9, 1995, p. A8.
- French intelligence officials believe that Iran has linked up
with GIA "on an operational level" and may have been involved in
the GIA's December 24, 1994, attempt to hijack an Air France
passenger jet and crash it into Paris. Youssef Ibrahim, "As Islamic
Violence Accelerates, Fears of a Showdown in Algeria," The New York
Times, February 22, 1995, p. A6.
- Chris Hedges, "Sudan Linked to Rebellion in Algeria," The New
York Times, December 24, 1994, p. A5.
- "Algeria: Afghan Chaos or National Reconciliation?," p. 4.
- Carol Migdalovitz, "Algeria in Crisis: Situation Update,"
Congressional Research Service Report 94-241F, March 15, 1994, p.
- George Joffe, "Algeria and the Mahgreb
- The Future Looks Grim," Jane's Intelligence Review, May 1994,
- The GIA blamed the rival AIS for providing intelligence to the
army for the attack. "Algeria's Islamic Armies: A Guide for the
Perplexed," TransState Islam, Summer 1995, p. 14.
- "Algeria: Afghan Chaos or National Reconciliation?," p. 6.
- GIA terrorists in November 1993 assassinated Sheikh Mohamed
Bouslimani, who was closely associated with Hamas, a more moderate
Islamist group, when he agreed to participate in a dialogue with
- Pierre and Quandt, "Algeria's War on Itself," p. 136.
- Gera, "An Islamic Republic of Algeria?," p. 7.
- Algerian terrorists killed six Tunisian border police in
February 1995 and were involved in an August 1994 terrorist attack
in Marrakesh, Morocco.
- Leonard Spector, "Nuclear Proliferation in the Middle East,"
Orbis, Spring 1992, p. 191. See also Iris Gonzalez, George Walne,
and James Warren, The Impact of Nuclear Proliferation: The Case of
Algeria, Center for Naval Analyses, September 1994.
- The Saudi government prohibited private donations to FIS
activists after FIS leaders supported Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.
But Saudi Islamists, such as the exiled billionaire Osama Bin
Laden, still are believed to be supporting Algerian Islamists
- See James Phillips, "Iran, the U.S. and the Hostages: After 300
days," Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 126, August 29,
- See Daniel Pipes, "There are No Moderates: Dealing with
Fundamentalist Islam," The National Interest, Fall 1995.
- See James Phillips, "The Changing Face of Middle East
Terrorism," Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 1005, October 6,
- Economist Intelligence Unit, "Country Report: Algeria, Second
Quarter 1995," p. 7.
- See Alan Richards, "Containing Algeria's Fallout Through
Prosperity," Middle East Quarterly, June 1995.