January 2, 2000
Algeria. Remember That Name.
By JOHN F. BURNS
High above the sparkling blue sweep of the Bay of Algiers, with panoramic views over whitewashed colonial palaces and palm-treed gardens that still make the city one of the jewels of the Mediterranean, there is a magnificent hostelry.
The Associated Press
|Algeria's civil war has taken a heavy toll on civilians. This boy and girl lost their family in a 1998 massacre.
Once a palace, it became, at the height of France's 130 years of colonial rule in Algeria, the St. George's Hotel. On an upper floor, with a balcony scented in the springtime with mimosa blossoms, there is a suite with a brass plaque at the door recording the fact that Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower occupied the suite for several months in 1942 and 1943, when American and allied troops were pushing German forces eastward along the north African coast during World War II. Everyone knew, in that dark winter, the strategic importance of Algeria.
But that moment, during the climactic war of the 20th century, might have been the last time the American public really focused its attention on Algeria. Today, as a new century begins amid fears of a new kind of warfare -- far less intense but nonetheless frightening -- Algeria is once again thrusting itself onto America's consciousness, now that figures linked to its Islamic underground have been arrested while seemingly intent on bringing their terrorist war into the United States.
It is, of course, an utterly different Algeria. Today, the St. George's is the El-Djazaïr Hotel, state-owned like much else in independent Algeria, its lobby re-done in the over-marbled, socialist-modern style familiar from visits to Communist Eastern Europe. The armchairs by the front door are occupied 24 hours a day by the slim-hipped, chain-smoking watchdogs of the Algerian security police, without whose guardianship no trip outside the hotel by foreigners is allowed.
Americans hardly ever come. They have been warned off by nearly 40 years of military-dominated government since independence, by socialist economic policies that have all but wrecked the economy, and above all by an eight-year civil war. The conflict has been one of the most savage anywhere since Algeria's previous nightmare, the one from 1954 to 1962 in which the French colonial army fought fruitlessly to stave off independence. About a million people died in that earlier fighting, and so far about 100,000 have died in the current carnage. Many of the new victims have died at the hands of a shadowy guerrilla movement known, by its French initials, as the G.I.A. -- the Armed Islamic Group.
If a visitor wants to know something about the G.I.A., or about the wider conflict in which it has been fighting for an extreme form of Islamic rule, there are few better places to venture than up the hill from the El-Djazaïr, to one of the grandest American embassies anywhere, set in breathtakingly lovely grounds.
Here, amid graceful inner courtyards and arches, American diplomats have a command of the political and economic miseries beyond the embassy's high walls. The view is all the more impressive for the fact that the Algerian security police, and the State Department's own rules, make venturing out of the compound about as easy as heading out from a cavalry fort in Indian country. The current ambassador, Cameron Hume, a man of formidable charm and intellect, has defied the security rules to travel about more than most ambassadors, but even he would not exactly claim to be a denizen of the place.
All of which may go some way to explain why, two weeks ago, many Americans were puzzled to learn that an Algerian man had been arrested while driving off a car ferry from Canada at Port Angeles, Wash., with, American customs officials allege, enough bomb-making material in the trunk of his car to blow up almost any building. Suddenly there were headlines across America about Ahmed Ressam and the wider terrorist threat he has been thought to represent. But what of the country he hails from, and why might he have wanted to bomb a target in the United States? Above all, what is it that Americans must now begin to understand about Algeria?
The plain fact is that Algeria, however distant it has grown to Americans since it made headlines for them during World War II, remains of enormous strategic importance.
Not only is it the largest country on the African continent, in terms of area; it also has vast oil and gas reserves that have kept American oilmen barracked at remote sites in the Sahara desert for 30 years or more. Today, they are in fact the most numerous Americans in Algeria, even if for the most part they pass swiftly through Algiers and the other major cities, and have little contact with the larger society.
As significant as its resources, Algeria fills a long stretch of the southern Mediterranean, and thus is of compelling military and political significance. And what happens in Algeria is of profound significance to many of America's allies in Western Europe. Algiers is only an overnight ferry journey from Marseilles and even closer to Spain, allowing Algeria's enfeebled economy to send a huge flow of immigrant workers to Europe, where there are 4 million Algerians in FRance alone.
And then there is the war, and how it may have led to Mr. Ressam driving off that ferry in Washington. In this, perhaps more than anything else, Algeria matters to Americans these days.
In the history of modern Islamic radicalism, two countries have played pivotal roles -- Iran toward one end of the so-called "crescent" of Muslim nations that reaches from Morocco and Mauritania in the west to Afghanistan and Pakistan in the east, and Algeria toward the other end.
Twenty years ago Iran mesmerized the world with its mullahs' revolution, with its seizure of American diplomats and their embassy in Tehran and, later, with the religious decree that urged the killing of the novelist Salman Rushdie. Algeria, in 1992, lighted fires of equal intensity among Islamic radicals when its secular government called parliamentary elections, the first more-or-less free ones in the country's history, but canceled them at the last minute when an Islamic party, the Islamic Salvation Front, was on the verge of victory. The army generals had thought canceling the elections was a good idea; their reward was the rise of the G.I.A., a breakaway from the Islamic Salvation Front. Rather than try again for a generally moderate form of Islamic government, this group espoused worldwide holy war, going well beyond the Salvation Front prescriptions.
he conflict that resulted brought to Algeria a ghastliness that has been stunning, even by the standards of a country that knew extraordinary savagery, on both the French and the Algerian sides, during the independence war. The G.I.A., propagating among its fighters the belief that the triumph of Islam justifies the killing of anybody who does not actively support them, has gone into villages and towns and slaughtered hundreds of civilians at a time, often by cutting throats.
The army has responded in kind, setting up militias called "Patriotes" and other shadowy units; these are believed to have taken a leaf from France's counter-insurgency tactics in the 1950's, when "rogue" units set up to look like fighters of the independence guerrillas went about massacring villagers. Several thousand people have disappeared after being arrested by the army and police, and cemeteries in Algiers and elsewhere are strewn with gravestones carrying the sinister marking "X Algerien," often meaning that the person buried there was killed in custody and buried anonymously.
From this background have sprung faceless battalions of the G.I.A. in Europe, and from among them, investigators believe, came Mr. Ressam. So if he is another kind of "X Algerien" to Americans, it may be time to strip away that anonymity, to learn more about him and his country and their tragedies.
Six decades ago, an American general in Room 1101 at the St. George's Hotel learned at first hand why Algeria mattered; it is a lesson it may be time to relearn.
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