8 Jan 2015

France and Algeria: a long and bloody embrace

The fact that Cherif and Said Kouachi, the brothers suspected of the Charlie Hebdo attack, are of Algerian descent may have disturbing resonances of earlier conflicts in the north African country.

Cherif and Said Kouachi, the two brothers wanted by French police in connection with the Charlie Hebdo killings, are of Algerian descent. That connection, though not necessarily significant in relation to Wednesday’s terror attack, undoubtedly has resonance for French people.

Since world war two Algeria has seen two major conflicts: the war of independence and the civil war. Both have caused major political upheaval and prompted large-scale campaigns of terror, not just in Algeria but in France, which colonised the north African country in 1830.

The Algerian war between 1954 and 1962, which resulted in the country’s independence from France, was a major event in post-war history. It divided Algeria and led to the collapse of the French fourth republic. More than one million Algerians died in the conflict, and nearly as many people of French origin living in Algeria – the “pieds noirs” – were evacuated to the mother country.

French writer Albert Camus, a European who grew up in the coastal city of Oran, embodied the complexity of the issues thrown up by the war. A socialist and former member of the French resistance, he supported political rights for native Algerians but could not bring himself to endorse independence.

Algeria’s war prompted the formation of the National Liberation Front (FLN), which led the fight for independence from France. In addition to the tens of thousands of Muslim civilians killed or abducted by the FLN in Algeria, an estimated 4,300 people were killed on the French mainland in FLN-related violence.

Anti-terrorist GIGN force storms hijacked Air France in 1994 (Reuters)

Anti-terror GIGN operatives storm a hijacked plane in Marseille (Reuters)

Islamist fears

In 1965, Houari Boumedienne overthrow Ahmed Ben Bella, independent Algeria’s first president and the FLN leader. Post-war stability was achieved at the price of authoritarianism.

In the three decades between Algeria’s achievement of independence and the outbreak of the country’s civil war at the start of the 1990s, France continued to suffer terrorist attacks, though few were connected with its post-colonial relationship with Algeria.

But in 1991 the Islamist Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) achieved success in the country’s legislative elections, prompting fears of an Islamist government. Elections at the start of 1992 were cancelled and Algeria’s military effectively took control of the government. The president, Chadli Bendjedid, was forced out of office.

Evacuation after a bomb at the Musee d'Orsay station in Paris (Reuters)

Evacuation after a bomb blast at the Musee d’Orsay in Paris (Reuters)

Metro terror

The civil war which followed in Algeria lasted until the end of the 1990s, and inevitably spilled over into France. On Christmas eve 1994 the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), the FIS’s military wing, hijacked an Air France plane at the main airport in Algiers, the French capital. Three passengers were killed. In the subsequent raid at Marseille airport by operatives from France’s GIGN anti-terror group, all four hijackers were killed.

On 25 July 1995 eight people were killed when a gas bottle exploded at Saint-Michel RER station in the centre of Paris. GIA claimed responsibility and said the attack was in reprisal for French support of Algeria’s military-backed government.

The following month 17 people were wounded in a bomb blast at the Arc de Triomphe. On 7 September a car bomb at a Jewish school in Lyon wounded 14. 13 were hurt in a fourth attack when a gas bottle exploded at Paris’s Maison Blanche Metro station on 6 October.

Twenty were seriously injured in an explosion underneath the Musee d’Orsay station in Paris on 17 October (see image above). And on 6 December 1996 three died in an explosion, produced by a camping gas canister filled with nails, on the southbound track of the Port Royal station on Paris’s left bank (see image below). Dozens were injured in the attack.

All the above attacks were attributed to the GIS, and led to France suspending its use of the Schengen agreement on free movement in Europe. Schengen was reinstated in 1996.

Since then, there have been few – if any – terror attacks in France that are specifically related to the situation in Algeria.

Aftermath of a bomb explosion at Paris's Port Royal station (Reuters)

Aftermath of a bomb explosion at Paris’s Port Royal station (Reuters)