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What Just Happened?

Algeria is a black box for most Western foreign correspondents. Most of us, including me, have never been there. I sort of want to visit, but the place gives me the creeps in a really bad way. It is by far the most bloody-minded and ruthless place in the neighborhood.

The biggest reason this fact is not widely known is because during the unspeakable civil war there in the 1990s, every faction—including the government side—murdered reporters both domestic and foreign. Pretty much nobody went there to cover it. So between 100,000 and 200,000 people were massacred with hardly anyone outside the country even knowing about it.

You’re therefore not likely to read much of anything in the mainstream media about the gruesome scene at the Ain Amenas natural gas plant by anyone with a solid grasp of the country. Algeria wanted to be off the media map. And so it is.

Adam Garfinkle, the editor of the indispensable magazine The American Interest, says he is not an Algerian expert, but he is compared with just about everyone else, and he wrote a background essay that everybody should read. I can only excerpt part of it here. You really ought to head over there and read all of it.

To properly set the stage for what I am about to tell you, dear reader, let me point out that the Algerian leadership is a stark atavism. There was a time when “progressive”, “socialist” and avowedly secular military elites lorded over huge swaths of the Arab world. These elites were invariably friendly with the Soviet Union in the Cold War parallax that defined the region’s geopolitics, with the conservative monarchies and a few outliers (Tunisia, Lebanon) more or less associated—one should not say allied—with the West, and in most cases the United States by indirection. Egypt before mid-1972, Libya, Syria, Iraq, Algeria and, for a time, Southern Yemen all muscled up with a Soviet-supplied and trained order of battle. Of these “progressive” military governments, Algeria is the only one left aside from the Assad regime in Syria, which is reeling on its last legs.

The present Algerian leadership consists of the very last remnants of the old guard that experienced the war of independence against France, and the generation right behind it experienced the civil war. Taken together, then, this leadership is as battle-hardened, ruthless and cold-blooded a group of guys as can be found anywhere. This is not a kind and gentle military that holds regular sensitivity-training sessions; it’s a military that uses eight bullets when two will do nicely, and that has no qualms about feeding still wriggling bodies through the wood chipper. They are also very proud and exquisitely sensitive to any slight coming from the general direction of foreigners. One former U.S. Air Force helicopter pilot (who of course will not be named) involved in a limited training mission has had this to say: “. . . the Algerians . . . . proved to be completely inflexible and almost hostile to the idea of working with us. Could it be their past experiences with the French or just garden-variety suspicion of the U.S. and our intentions?” Answer, friend: Both and neither. Yes, experience and suspicion figure in, but these people are just professional hard-asses and, as I say, they’re proud of it.

That said, they are also these days, I suspect, growing more fearful by the month. They are, as I say, the last of the breed of independence-era Arab military “progressives”, whose legitimacy formula has long since passed its sell-by date. If you look at a map of which parts of the country voted which way back in 1991, you can see that the government party won nowhere outside of the capital, and that the entire Tuareg south was disaffected both from the government and from the Arab Islamist opposition. Since 1991-92 the Amazigh—the Berbers—have also made their ticked-off presence very well known. And the general rise of Islamist energies with the so-called Arab Spring—particularly in neighboring Tunisia and in Egypt, but also in next-door Morocco—has probably got the Algerian leadership feeling not only somewhat antique but also increasingly isolated. At least some of them have to fear that if there is a second coming of their civil war, they might lose this time. These guys are so proud that they would never show fear publicly. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t down there somewhere in their guts.

And that, it seems to me, goes far to explain why they reacted to the In Amenas attack the way they did: quickly, and with deadly force. As I said in my second Flogging Mali post: “What the Algerians are saying, in effect, is we’re not going to come after you if you leave us alone, but if you mess with us we will show no mercy.” Well, just the next day, on the front page of the January 18 New York Times, I found evidence for my interpretation. The government spokesman, a fellow named Mohammed Said Oublaid, said as follows: “Those who think we will negotiate with terrorists are delusional.”  Just in case the Western journalists present did not get the point, Oublaid added: “Those who think we will surrender to their blackmail are delusional.”

It’s not hard to imagine the scene behind the curtain. The senior generals tell Oublaid to go out there and make one point, and one point only: We are focused on deterring more attacks against our country, period. And that had the merit of being true. The Algerian leadership did not give a flying fork about the hostages, Algerian or foreign. The way they see it, you play hard-ass and maybe a few dozen people die; you go soft and a new plague of civil war will kill tens of thousands. The bleating of some foreign governments about how the Algerians failed to employ standard counter-terrorist protocol—stun grenades and tear gas to help avoid needless bloodshed—completely missed the point. Maybe the Algerians know how to do that sort of thing and maybe they don’t, but it doesn’t matter because in this instance they wanted to shed blood. They wanted to look as unsentimental as a frozen brick, because that was the way to deliver the message they wished to send. And send it they did.

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