"Those who fight us with the pen shall be fought with the sword": The GIA's War on Algerian Intellectuals
Before there was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, there was Antar Zouabri.
In late 1991, an Islamist party called the FIS won free parliamentary elections in Algeria. That country's military, fearing with some justification that this marked the end of democracy, not the beginning, voided the election. The result was a horrific civil war starting in 1992 between radical Islamists and the Algerian state. This war would last nearly a decade and claim over 100,000 lives. The Algerian military behaved quite brutally and committed numerous atrocities. However, even the worst government excesses were surpassed by the utter barbarism of the main Algerian jihadist organization, the Armed Islamic Group (GIA). In the words of Judith Miller, the GIA was "Algeria's own Khmer Rouge".
If the GIA was the Khmer Rouge, then Antar Zouabri was their Pol Pot. He became Emir of the group in July 1996. Even before his ascension the GIA had developed a well earned reputation for ruthlessness. Zouabri, however, like Zarqawi in Iraq, was to take the GIA's murderous struggle to a truly barbarous extreme.
Under his leadership, the organization declared that anyone who did not support the GIA was an apostate, and thus could be murdered with impunity. In effect, Zouabri and the GIA declared takfir (excommunicated) all of Algerian society. The GIA went on to indiscriminately slaughter tens of thousands of men, women and children. Whole villages were wiped out.
Eventually, the GIA's horrific excesses became such that even other jihadists turned against them. At the urging of Osama bin Laden, members of the GIA split away to form the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC). The GIA became little more than a small band of hunted fanatics. In early 2002, Antar Zouabri was tracked down and killed by Algerian security forces.
Even before Zouabri's rise to prominence, however, the GIA had committed itself to systematically exterminating those it deemed to be apostates. Secular writers and intellectuals, especially those who condemned the Islamists, were among their primary targets. The GIA openly justified this campaign with the statement that "those who fight us with the pen shall be fought with the sword."
This is exactly what the GIA did. In a July 2006 article, Tunisian writer Zyed Krichen listed the number of Algerian intellectuals murdered in 1993 alone:
...This was a very bloody year for writers, journalists, academics, and artists [in Algeria]. The victims, most of them murdered by Islamist activists, include Ruptures magazine writer and editor Taher Djaout; sociologist Djilali Liabès; Beaux-Arts [College] head Ahmed Asselah; sociologist M'hamed Boukhobza; Bab-Ezzouar University head Salah Djebaïli; poet and writer Youssef Sebti; playwright and stage director Abdelkader Alloula; psychiatrist Mahfoudh Boucebci, national education superintendent Salah Chouaki; playwright Izzedine Medjoubi; pediatrician Dilalli Belkhanchir; economist Abderahmane Faredeheb; and journalists Ferhat Cherkit, Youssef Fathallah, Lamine Lagoui, Ziane Farrah, Abdelhamid Benmenni, Rabah Zenati, Saad Bakhtaoui, and Abderrahmane Chergou..., and the list is far from complete...
Sadly, this was just the beginning. According to Judith Miller in her book God has Ninety-Nine Names: Reporting from a Militant Middle East, 18 Algerian journalists were murdered in 1994 and 40 the following year. (p.169) It wasn't only journalists. The GIA killed a number of prominent musicians as well. To fanatical Islamists like Zouabri, music was an "un-Islamic" vice to be eradicated.
A 1995 report from Human Rights Watch sheds some light on the full extent of the GIA's war against any form of apostasy or unbelief:
The GIA opposed "any dialogue, truce or reconciliation" with the regime. It issued death threats against broad categories of people including journalists, women who did not wear headscarves, foreigners who did not leave Algeria, butchers who did not lower their prices during the holy month of Ramadhan, proprietors of cinemas, and vendors of such "forbidden" products as musical cassettes, French newspapers, and tobacco. It claimed responsibility for a wave of car bombings in October, and for the bombs that killed three in a June 29 demonstration in Algiers.
The GIA also declared war on the public school system. In August it ordered the closure of all high schools and universities and declared that elementary and middle schools could remain open only if they: segregated students by gender; eliminated the teaching of music, French, and, for girls, physical education; and required headscarves for women staff and students past the age of puberty.
The effect of GIA's literally murderous campaign against all forms of "un-Islamic" expression continues to be felt down to the present day. Cultural and intellectual life in Algeria has barely begun to recover.
Sadly, the danger has not yet passed. The GSPC lives on, and has even officially declared itself a branch of al Qaeda. In March 2006 it threatened the Danish cartoonists who drew caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed, and periodically issues death threats against Algerian writers and intellectuals as well.
To borrow Judith Miller's analogy, the GIA really was the Khmer Rouge of Islamism. Just like the Cambodian Maoists, the Algerian jihadists carried their particular vision of totalitarian social engineering to its logical (or illogical) extreme. By seeking to murderously purge their society of all forms of apostasy and immorality, the GIA reduced Islamism to its pure totalitarian essence.