A Modern Look at History - The Algerian Civil War

Memba BenStarred Page By Memba Ben, 17th Nov 2016 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Guides>History

A commentary and analysis of the Algerian Civil War which took place from December 26, 1991 – February 8, 2002.

Prelude to War...

Algeria had recently won its independence from the French in a bloody and prolonged war. At the forefront of the war with the French was the FLN, the self-described champions of the Algerian independence movement. When the war was over, the FLN took power and Ahmed Ben Bella, a leader of the FLN, became Algeria’s first prime minister and president.

Ben Bella and the FLN had a lengthy reign which lasted from 1965 until 1991, during which the FLN tried to modernize Algeria to keep up with ever changing global current affairs and trends but they didn’t work out the way the FLN had hoped as there were a number of problems the attempted transition encountered. These included:
• A population surge in the 1960s and 1970s that killed the already struggling economy's ability to supply jobs, housing, food and urban infrastructure to massive numbers of young in the urban areas.
• A collapse in the oil price, whose sale supplied 95% of Algeria's exports and 60% of the government's budget.
• A disillusionment with the ruling party whose ideals were based on socialism, anti-imperialism, and popular democracy, but ruled by show of force with high-level military from the east side of the country instead of the very ideals they fought for.
• A growing restlessness from underemployed Arabic-speaking college graduates who were frustrated that the “Arab language fields of law and literature” took a decisive back seat to the “French-taught scientific fields” in terms of funding and job opportunities.

To add on to all these issues, the political climate was becoming tenser with growing calls from clerics to promote "Islamic reawakening", application of sharia law and the creation of an Islamic State via jihad within Algeria. This situation was made worse as the FLN led government was a close ally of the jihadists’ enemy, the Soviet Union, which therefore made these jihadists believe that they would eventually have to go to war with the Algerian FLN state.

Riots began to break out in Algeria over the ban of other political parties which the FLN implemented and they had no choice but to dissolve that ban in order to appease the country. Soon afterwards, on February the 18th 1989, an Islamist party named the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) was formed but only came into legal existence in September 1989.

The party was led by two men. The first was Abbassi Madani, an ex-independence fighter who became disillusioned with the FLN. Madani represented a religious conservatism and symbolically connected the party to the Algerian War of Independence, the same identity that the FLN traditionally represented. The second integral figure of the FIS was Ali Benhadj, a charismatic preacher and high school teacher who appealed to the younger and less educated people of Algeria. What made him so dangerous to the FLN was his ability to galvanize, enrage or calm the crowds who came to hear him speak. However, both Madani and Benhadj alarmed non-Islamists and feminists as they weren’t big on democracy.

When the time for the first free elections since independence came in Algeria, the Algerian population chose the FIS as the party won 54% of votes cast, almost double that of the FLN and far more than any of the other parties.

Once in power, the FISs’ administration and Islamic charity was praised by many as just, in contrast to its corrupt and inefficient FLN predecessors. However, this didn’t mean that things went swimmingly as the FIS began shutting down all unIslamic establishments and made preparations to get rid of French and its influence in Algeria.
Benhadj made his and the FISs’ intentions clear when he was quoted as saying that he and the party wanted "to ban France from Algeria intellectually and ideologically, and be done, once and for all, with those whom France has nursed with her poisoned milk."

Followers of the FIS took these words to heart and began the elimination of French influence in Algeria by removing satellite receivers receiving European satellite broadcast in favor of Arab satellite dishes receiving Saudi broadcasts, and shifting the language of instruction in more institutions, such as medical and technological schools, from French to Arabic. Unsurprisingly, the FIS found support with large numbers of disenfranchised recent graduates as they had found the continued use of French in higher education and public life disadvantageous.

Up until this point, the political climate in Algeria might have been tense but, for the most part, nonviolent.

This was to change.


In January of 1991, (following the start of the Gulf War), the FIS led giant demonstrations in support of the Saddam Hussein and Iraq (the FIS supported any country which followed sharia law). One of these demonstrations ended up taking place in front of the Ministry of Defense where Benhadj gave an impassioned speech demanding a group of volunteers be sent to fight for Saddam. For some reason, the Algerian military took this as a direct affront to the military hierarchy and cohesion which only furthered tensions.

Things really took a downward turn in May of 1991 when a project to realign electoral districts came to light. This led the FIS to call for a general strike which was answered. Violence ensued and on the 3rd of June 1991 a state of emergency was declared, constitutional rights were suspended, and parliamentary elections postponed until December.

The FIS began to lose the initiative and within a month, its central figureheads Madani and Benhadj were arrested and later sentenced to twelve years in prison. This really antagonized the FIS, who began to draw support for armed struggle which came to fruition on the 28th of November, when a frontier post was attacked and the heads of army conscripts were cut off.

Feeling that the FIS were losing sight of their original goal and were going into extremist territory, a number of FIS members left to join other factions.

Surprisingly, despite the loss of members, the FIS still won big in the legislative elections and on the 26th of December, 1991, won the first round with 118 deputies elected as opposed to just 16 for the FLN. Despite getting fewer votes than it had in the 1990 elections, the FIS appeared to be on track to win an absolute majority in the second round on January 13, 1992.

Feeling confident that they would gain power, the FIS made open threats against the ruling party and the Army, condemning them as unpatriotic and pro-French, as well as financially corrupt.

It can be argued that this is the point where things went to hell.

Two days before the second round of legislative elections, the army struck.

On January 11, 1992 the army cancelled the electoral process, forcing the President Bendjedid to resign and brought in a previously exiled independence fighter named Mohammed Boudiaf to serve as a new president. However, on 29 June 1992 he was assassinated by one of his bodyguards, a Lieutenant L. Boumaarafi. The assassin was sentenced to death in a closed trial in 1995 but suspiciously, the sentence was not carried out. Many FIS members were arrested and the government officially dissolved the FIS on the 4th of March.

The few FIS activists that remained free took this as a declaration of war which led to a recruitment drive and an armament program from the FIS. Throughout the country, remaining FIS activists, along with some Islamists too radical for FIS, took to the hills (the mountains of northern Algeria, where the forest and scrub cover were well-suited to guerrilla warfare) with whatever weapons were available and became guerrilla fighters. The tense situation was compounded by the economy, which collapsed even further that year, as almost all of the longstanding subsidies on food were eliminated.

At first, Algeria remained relatively calm. But in March 1993, a steady number of university academics, intellectuals, writers, journalists, and doctors were assassinated. While not all were connected with the regime, they were French-speaking, which in the eyes of the young urban poor who had joined the war effort, they were associated with the hated image of French-speaking intellectuals.

Other attacks showed a willingness to target civilians such as the bombing of the Algiers airport, which killed 9 people and injured 128. The FIS condemned the bombing along with the other major parties, but everyone thought otherwise.

What they (and the FIS) didn’t realize was that the FIS's influence over the guerrillas was minimal.

The army began to lose control of mountain and rural districts. In working class areas of the cities, FIS guerrillas drove the police out and declared the areas "liberated Islamic zones".

With all the chaos going on, other Islamist movements began to emerge looking to get a piece of the action.

The birth and rise of the Islamist movement

The first major armed movement to emerge almost immediately after the coup was the Islamic Armed Movement (MIA) led by the ex-soldier "General" Abdelkader Chebouti, who was a longstanding Islamist. The MIA was well-organized and structured and favored a long-term jihad targeting the state and its representatives and based their guerrilla campaign like that of the FLNs’ during the War of Independence. The legitimacy of the MIA was further boosted by the backing of former FIS founder and leader, Ali Benhadj, who gave the MIA his blessing.

The other main jihad group was called the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) whom its leader, Abdelhak Layada, declared was independent of the MIA. The GIA was opposed to the government, the FIS, and the MIA, stating that "political pluralism is equivalent to sedition" and issued multiple death threats against several FIS and MIA leaders. The GIA also favored a strategy of immediate action to destabilize the enemy by creating an atmosphere of insecurity through repeated attacks. However, it was far less selective than the MIA, who insisted on ideological training, and as as a result, was was regularly infiltrated by the army’s forces, resulting in a rapid leadership turnover as successive heads were constantly killed.

At this point, Algeria had become a free for all for parties vying for power, but the Islamist movements had a change of heart and thought it would be better to come together against their common enemy, the Army. The various groups arranged several meetings to attempt to unite their forces, accepting the overall leadership of Chebouti in theory. At the last of these meetings, Chebouti expressed his concern about the movement's lack of discipline, in particular worrying that the Algiers airport attack, which he had not approved, could alienate supporters. The meeting was broken up by an assault from the army’s forces, breeding suspicions of a traitor in their midst, which prevented any further meetings.

During the coalition talks between the other Islamist movements, the FIS established an underground network, with clandestine newspapers and even an MIA-linked radio station, and began issuing official statements from abroad starting in late 1992. However, at this stage the opinions of the guerrilla movements on the FIS were mixed. While many supported the FIS, others felt they had become unIslamic, and therefore rejected the FIS statements.

In 1993, the divisions within the guerrilla movement became more apparent. The MIA and MEI attempted to develop a military strategy against the state, typically targeting the security services and sabotaging or bombing state institutions. However, from its inception, the GIA called for and implemented the killing of anyone supporting the authorities, including government employees such as teachers and civil servants. It assassinated journalists and intellectuals, making a statement that ANYONE who fought against Islamism would die.

The GIA soon stepped up its attacks by targeting civilians who refused to live by their prohibitions, and in September 1993, began killing foreigners, declaring that anyone who exceeds the GIA deadline of November 30 to join the GIA will be responsible for their own sudden death. 26 Foreigners were killed by the end of 1993. Because of this, most foreigners had all but left Algeria.

It was clear that the GIA would do anything to get its way.


The violence continued throughout 1994, although the economy began to improve during this time. Negotiations with the IMF were fruitful for Algeria as the government succeeded in rescheduling debt repayments, providing it with a substantial financial windfall, and further obtained some 40 billion francs from the international community to back its economic liberalization. As it became obvious that the fighting would continue for some time, The Army decided to instill General Liamine Zéroual as the new president of the High Council of State because he was considered to belong to the pro-negotiation faction of the Army, rather than the eradicator faction of the army.

The Army had hoped that this would work to ending the violence in the country.

Zéroual began negotiations with the imprisoned FIS leadership, releasing some prisoners by way of encouragement. While it was good that Zéroual was taking steps to bringing back peace to Algeria, the talks split the political spectrum. The largest political parties called for compromise, while other forces sided with the eradicators.

While the Amy was holding negotiations with the FIS, the GIA became the most high-profile guerrilla army in 1994, and achieved supremacy over the FIS. In May, several Islamist leaders that were not jailed joined the GIA. This was a blow to the FIS and the peace talks since the GIA had been issuing death threats against the leaders since November 1993.

FIS-loyal guerrillas, who saw marginalization of the group on the horizon, attempted to unite their forces.

In July of 1994, the MIA, together with the remainder of the FIS, the MEI, and a variety of smaller groups, united as the Islamic Salvation Army (AIS) and named Madani Merzag as Amir.

By the end of 1994, they controlled over half the guerrillas of the east and west, but barely 20% in the center, near the capital, where the GIA were mainly based. They issued rallies and statements condemning the GIA's indiscriminate targeting of civilians not involved in the repression, and attacked the GIA's school arson campaign. The AIS supported a negotiated settlement with the government/military, whereas the GIA was absolutely opposed to negotiations, which made them see the AIS as traitors and sought instead "to purge the land of the ungodly", including the Algerian government and the AIS.

While the power of the GIA was growing, things were beginning to deteriorate for them.

The Islamic people who had first supported them grew to hate them. Part of the reason was a voluntary "Islamic tax" that the GIA implemented, which became a "full-scale extortionist racket, operated by band of armed men claiming to represent an ever more shadowy cause," who also fought each other over turf. The extortion and the fact that the GIA were killing everyone who didn’t side with them made the people angry, which eventually led to them joining the AIS, severely weakening the GIAs Islamist cause.

The GIA even went so far as to declare a caliphate for Algeria on August the 26th with its leader as "Commander of the Faithful". However, the very next day, Said Mekhloufi (a high ranking GIA officer) announced his withdrawal from the GIA, claiming that the GIA had deviated from Islam and that this caliphate was an effort by ex-FIS leader Mohammed Said to take over the GIA. The GIA continued attacks and added began threatening insufficiently Islamist schools with arson.

At the end of October, the government announced the failure of its negotiations with the FIS. Undeterred, Zéroual embarked on a new plan: he scheduled presidential elections for 1995, while promoting "eradicationists" within the army and organizing "self-defense militias" in villages to fight the guerrillas.

A few AIS leaders escaped into exile abroad. Upon the invitation of the Rome-based Community of Sant'Egidio, in November 1994, they decided to extend an olive branch and began negotiations in Rome with other secular opposition parties. They came out with a mutual agreement on January 14, 1995: the Sant'Egidio platform. This presented a set of principles: respect for human rights and multi-party democracy, rejection of army rule and dictatorship, recognition of Islam, Arab and Berber ethnic identity as essential aspects of Algeria's national identity, demand for the release of political leaders, and an end to extrajudicial killing and torture on all sides.

The agreement was well received favorably by international communities but for it to work, the government had to be interested in the agreement, which was not going to happen.

Ultimately, the idea was shelved.


Following the breakdown of negotiations with the AIS, the government decided to hold presidential elections. On the 16th of November 1995, Liamine Zéroual was elected president with 60% of votes cast in an election contested by many candidates. The results reflected multiple popular opinions, ranging from support for secularism and opposition to Islamism to a desire for an end to the violence, regardless of politics. The ASI tried to urge Algerians to boycott the election and the GIA threatened to kill anyone who voted, but turnout was relatively high amongst people who had formerly supported the Islamist movement but became disillusioned by the endless violence in the name of jihad.

The election results were a setback for the armed groups, who saw a significant increase in desertions immediately following the elections. The AIS responded to the shift in general consensus by adopting a more conciliatory tone towards the government, but was condemned by some voices within the party for selling out. The GIA was also rocked by internal dissension. After the election had taken place, its leadership killed people who had recently joined the GIA, accusing them of attempting a takeover.

The Government's political moves were combined with a substantial increase in the pro-Government militias' profile. Local citizens were trained and armed by the army in the name of self-defense, and were promoted on national TV. This proved to be a masterstroke as the program was unanimously well received.

Parliamentary elections were again held on the 5th of June 1997 and were dominated by the National Democratic Rally (RND), a new party created in early 1997 for Zéroual's supporters, which got 156 out of 380 seats. Views on this election were mixed; most major opposition parties filed complaints, and that a party (RND) founded only a few months earlier and which had never taken part in any election before should win more votes than any other seemed implausible to observers.

Despite an earlier transition in warfare from battlefields to political houses, a new problem emerged.


Starting around April, Algeria was wracked by massacres of intense brutality and unprecedented size. Pregnant women were sliced open, children were hacked to pieces or dashed against walls, men's limbs were hacked off one by one, and, as the attackers retreated, they would kidnap young women to keep as sex slaves. These massacres continued through the end of 1998, changing the nature of the political situation considerably.

Initially, the GIA claimed responsibility of these massacres, calling the killings an "offering to God" and declaring that all Algerians who hadn’t joined their ranks are apostates and deserving of death. It has been suggested that the GIA were motivated to commit a massacre by a village's joining the Patriot program, which they saw as evidence of betrayal to the Islamist cause.

However, details began to emerge about the massacres that have suggested otherwise.
1. According to reports by Amnesty International, army barracks were stationed within a few hundred meters of the villages yet did nothing to stop the killings.
2. A number of people claiming to be defectors from the Algerian army, alleging that the army had plans to perpetrate some of the massacres.

These and other details raised suspicions that the government was in some way collaborating with, or even controlling parts of, the GIA via infiltration. After all, the GIA had an open-door policy when it can to recruitment.

Regardless of the theories people may have regarding the massacres, the government’s credibility had been tarnished by its non-assistance to endangered civilian villages being massacred in the vicinity of military barracks.

At that point, the AIS was in fear of being blamed for the massacres due to being engaged in war with The GIA and felt that it might need to take a backseat from the political scene.

On the 21st of September 1997, the AIS' head, Madani Merzag, ordered a ceasefire in the hopes that the true mastermind of the massacres would expose themselves, which by doing so, would clear the AIS from any wrongdoing. This act would reduce the fight for Algeria to a struggle between the Government, the GIA, and the various splinter groups that were increasingly breaking away from the GIA.

The Conclusion of the War

In the wake of the massacres and international condemnation, President Zéroual announced his resignation on September the 11th. New elections were arranged, and on April 15, 1999, the army-backed ex-independence-fighter Abdelaziz Bouteflika was elected president with, according to the authorities, 74% of the votes. All the other candidates had withdrawn from the election shortly before, citing fraud concerns.

Bouteflika continued negotiations with the AIS, and on June 5 the AIS agreed, in principle, to disband. Bouteflika followed up this success for the Government by pardoning a number of Islamist prisoners convicted of minor offenses and pushing the Civil Harmony Act through Parliament, a law allowing Islamist fighters not guilty of murder or rape to escape all prosecution if they turn themselves in.

This law was finally approved by referendum on 16 September 1999, and a number of fighters took advantage of it to give themselves up and resume normal life. Due to the implementation of the Civil Harmony Act and people just getting tired of all the fighting, the violence declined, though not stopping altogether, and a sense of normality started returning to Algeria.

The Government's efforts were given a boost in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks; United States sympathy for Algeria's government increased, and was expressed concretely through such actions as the freezing of GIA assets and the supply of infrared goggles to the army. This, along with other army operations, being torn apart by in fighting, having its supporters leave the GIA to resume normal life, and being denounced by every other side in the Islamist movement put the final nail in the GIAs coffin.

The Consequences of War

Having effectively ended the war, a newfound governmental confidence which would be deepened by the 2004 presidential election where Bouteflika was reelected by 85% with support from two major parties and one faction of the third major party. The vote was seen as confirming strong popular support for Bouteflika’s policy towards the guerrillas and the successful termination of large-scale violence.

Looking back, the only thing that may have prevented Algeria from becoming an Islamic state was that Islamist supporters had lost faith with the Islamic Movement. The people grew to fear an Islamist takeover far more than they hated the corruption and ineptitude of the government. What had once been a desire for change had become a blinded cause, killing hundreds of thousands in its wake.

In what may be the cruelest thing for the then civilians of Algeria, while Bouteflika's compromise might have ended the war, in a way, it allowed the reintegration of people who had seen and instigated killings and rapes of multiple innocents. It was indeed a bittersweet ending to a tragic period in Algerian history but such is the way of way:

When all the fighting has stopped, it is left to the people to deal with the aftermath.

There are no winners in war; only casualties.


Algeria, Historical Events, History

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