The Islamist Challenge in Algeria: A Political History
by Michael Willis
New York University Press, 419 pp., $39.95
The Agony of Algeria
by Martin Stone
Columbia University Press, 274 pp., $16.50 (paper)
Unbowed: An Algerian Woman Confronts Islamic Fundamentalism
by Khalida Messaoudi, with Elisabeth Schemla, translated by Anne C. Vila
University of Pennsylvania Press, 184 pp., $14.95 (paper)
Ironically, the world has awakened to the horror of events in Algeria at a time when it may be too late to offer any constructive advice or to exert any political pressure on the current regime. A few years ago, the violence, which by now has killed many thousands of civilians, could be seen as having clear political origins. There were still some possible courses of action outsiders could recommend to the Algerian government. And, at the time, the regime was so divided over what policy to adopt toward dissident Islamic political groups that it is at least possible that some of Algeria’s leaders could have been persuaded to listen. But nothing was even attempted. Outsiders, frightened by visions of an amorphous, vengeful Islamic movement and anxious to keep on the right side of the Algerian government, limply gave the regime the support it asked for.
Now the carnage has become so widespread and its methods so vile and so incomprehensible that it has forced itself on the world’s attention. Again and again we hear of terrorists descending on a village to spend a long night hacking people to death, cutting their throats, tossing their children into burning houses. But the new men of violence are probably beyond any possibility of political bargaining. Most of the people with more understandable aims and motives, with whom a political bargain might perhaps have been struck, have by now been forced to the margins of political life. Talk of a political solution is becoming almost irrelevant.
So visiting outsiders, such as the recent delegations from the European Union, anxious to do something, are reduced to pleading for information, for a little light to dispel the murk of rumor, suspicion, and censorship. At best, they would like some kind of international investigation. A great many questions demand answers. Who, for a start, is to blame for these seemingly senseless murders—murders for which Muslim groups seldom claim responsibility? Why is nobody brought to trial for them? Why hasn’t the army, sometimes within earshot of the victims’ screams, intervened to stop the slaughter?
There are, for now, no clear answers. According to the Algerian authorities, the murders are all the work of Islamists (an ugly expression, but one that has become the accepted way of describing radical, militant, or fundamentalist Muslims). In particular, they are carried out by the GIA (the French acronym for the Armed Islamic Group), which is trying to overturn the regime by terrorizing the population and is on the point—always, we are told, on the point—of being wiped out by the security forces.
Much of this is true: Islamist terrorists are almost certainly to blame for most if not all of the recent ghastly killings. But many mysteries remain. There is little hard evidence for the GIA’s responsibility. Most of the murders take place in Islamic strongholds, even GIA strongholds, in a triangle of villages south of Algiers. The army’s role and its inability …