General Smail Lamari and the Massacres of 1997-8
Algeria-Watch, 3 september 2007
The tenth anniversary of the massacres of 1997 and 1998 goes un-commemorated in Algeria. The killings are taboo, for far too many questions remain open regarding the circumstances and especially those responsible: those who gave the orders.
Yet these massacres are among Algeria’s unhealed, gaping wounds. Why not talk about these attacks in which dozens or scores of victims had their throats slit in a single night? Why not try to understand how young men could so savage women, children and infants? Who were the attackers who were able to act with impunity, for hours at a time, sometimes at the gates of Algiers? Why did the soldiers stationed nearby not intervene? Ten years later these and other questions still haunt us. Only inquiries and trials can bring answers and a semblance of peace.
The Unmentionable Made Taboo
The massacres suffered by the Algerian population in this period can never be counted. Just some of those from the infernal month between mid-August and mid-September 1997, will serve to recall the scale of the horror: 60 dead in Souhane, near Tablat (Médéa) on August 20; 64 dead in Béni-Ali near Chréa (Blida) on August 26; between 300 and 500 dead in Rais (Sidi-Moussa), a suburb of Algiers, on August 28; over 70 dead in Sidi-Youcef, Beni-Messous (Algiers) on September 5; over 50 dead in Béni-Slimane, near Tabla (Médéa) on September 20; over 400 dead in Bentalha, a suburb of Algiers, on September 22.(NOTE 1)
Over the following months the blood-thirsty fury raged on. Almost daily, hordes of men armed with knives and Kalashnikovs attack villages or suburbs and massacre dozens of victims. The Algerian army, omnipresent and otherwise omnipotent, is apparently powerless. And the horror exceeds all limits as we reach the charnel-house of 1998: in different locations in the Relizane area, in the east of the country, almost 1000 are killed during the nights of December 30, 1997, and January 4, 1998.
In the following years, the frequency of such mass killings – which had begun in 1996 – decreases. But whatever the claims made by adherents of “civil concord” and “national reconciliation” as guarantors of peace, the practice does not disappear. Thus on October 22, 2004, at a road block set up at M’senou, near El-Hamdania (Médéa), 16 are killed.
Despite all the blood and tears shed, official Algeria ignores this tenth anniversary: no ceremony; no monument; no memorial tribute to the thousands of victims; no word spared for the survivors, the displaced, the orphaned, the traumatised for life; no demonstrators chanting “never again”; no calls for Truth and Justice on behalf of those who have been doubly murdered, in the flesh and in the forgetting. Algeria’s “decision-makers” want no memory, because they refuse to recognize the truth. The unmentionable is made taboo. And the guilty go unpunished.
Since 2006, the years of blood – as the people call them – are known by the legally consecrated expression “national tragedy”. This confers on the “decision-makers” the monopoly of defining crimes and culpabilities; it creates a confusion calculated to obscure distinctions among different crimes, and to prevent investigations and judgements of those responsible for them – with just a few exceptions, namely the select few small fry who co-operate and in return, benefit from a legal whitewash. Those who are truly responsible, those who gave the orders for this violence which Algeria still mourns – they must not be named. They enjoy all honours and have been absolved of all guilt.
One of them has now escaped human justice for ever: Major General Smail Lamari, known as Smain, second in command at the DRS, head of the counter-espionage section (DCE) for 17 years. He died on August 27, 2007, on the eve of the tenth anniversary of the massacre at Rais. The victims of Rais have been dumped on the refuse-heap of history. The survivors still suffer physically and suffer the psychological trauma. He received every honour from official Algeria, which is ever grateful to its boss-men.
Smail Lamari and the Massacres of 1997
The position of those in power in Algeria has been made amply clear these ten years at home and abroad (notably in French media): any call for an investigation into the massacres and those responsible for them is illegitimate, since the responsibility for the killings was claimed by the GIA (Armed Islamic Groups), and therefore any questioning on this subject amounts to “playing into the hands of the terrorists”. This sophistry effectively enables persons of good will to overlook their objective complicity with those who were and are responsible for crimes against humanity.
It has never been denied that the GIA’s communiqué 51, published in their newspaper Al-Ansar, on September 26, 1997, declared their responsibility for the massacres (using, for the first time, the justification that the Algerian people had become “impious”). But the real question concerns the nature of the GIA at this time.
These groups had emerged in 1992, taking up arms against the regime which had refused the verdict of elections won by the FIS (Islamic Salvation Front). Following the coup d’etat of January 1992 which annulled the elections, the generals launched a war against the population which had “voted wrongly”, making no distinction between combatants and civilians. The army carried out a brutal repression, arresting, deporting, torturing and “liquidating” thousands of members and supporters of the FIS. The chiefs of the army and the security services feared the spread of the rebellion, knowing that it had support in many villages and urban neighbourhoods. So they decided to adopt more subversive methods as well. The head of counter-intelligence at DRS since September 1990, Smail Lamari played a central role in the development of “counter-insurgency strategy”. In order to discredit the real rebels, his service multiplied fake rebels, fake mudjahadin, fake emirs and fake roadblocks, created lists of targets, carried out killings attributed to Islamists, and so on.
Colonel Smail Lamari therefore had “prime operational responsibility for the clandestine actions of the DRS” (NOTE 2) under General Mohammed Mediene (a.k.a. Toufik). These actions included the manipulation of Islamist violence, the creation of death squads, the organisation of disappearances, etc. Addressing officers of his counter-intelligence section (DCE) at a meeting in Chateauneuf, in May 1992, Smail Lamari declared that he was “ready and determined to eliminate three million Algerians if necessary to uphold the order threatened by the Islamists”(Note 3).
The detention centres run by the DRS are centres of torture and of extra-judicial execution: factories of death, into which thousands disappear. They include six regional centres (CRTIs), the most important of which, CRTI Blida, plays a central role in the training of fake armed groups. A specialist in low methods and dirty tricks, as early as April 1991 Smail Lamari had set up fake rebel groups under the control of DRS agents. That is, before the Islamic rebellion had even begun, his fake groups were in place, ready to welcome recruits to the armed struggle.(Note 4) Following January 1992, the recruits arrived: young people choosing the option of revolt, or in flight from brutal repression, seeing no alternative. Smail Lamari’s men had many of them unwittingly under their influence from the beginning.
Infiltrated from the moment of their creation, the Armed Islamic Groups were entirely under the sway of the DRS by the end of 1995.(Note 5) From this time onwards the GIA mutated into tools of the counter-insurgent struggle, serving masters who were prepared to commit any crime in order to subjugate the still-resistant population. This is not to say that all GIA members were DRS agents. By no means. Many GIA fighters certainly took part in massacres in the belief that they served the cause, having been indoctrinated by fake specialists in religious dogma who received their orders from Smail Lamari’s DCE or from CRTI Blida. Former army colonel Mohammed Samraoui refers to a certain Captain Djaafar Khelifati as writing such instructions.(Note 6) Abdelkader Tigha, formerly DRS Chief Warrant Officer stationed at CTRI Blida from 1993 to 1997, also reports that from the end of 1994 DRS was in control of GIA “communications”: “When Zitouni arrived, we began writing the communiqués of the GIA. […] And there was a contact with Mouloud Azzout, the head of the network which sent the tracts out to London, to Europe. He would write the GIA communiqués on the base, and we would tell him what to say in them.”(Note 7)
The large-scale massacres for which the GIA claimed responsibility began in 1996, in areas where the FIS had won before 1992 and where the army was now regaining control on the ground. Why would rebel fighters dependent on the support of civilians eliminate them? The official response to this question has always been to point to the GIA’s supposed declaration that the villagers were not supporting them enough, and had departed from religion, and therefore deserved to die. In reality, GIA groups controlled by men like Smail Lamari were above all determined to wipe out the real rebel groups they were fighting – some composed of disenchanted former GIA members, others organised in the AIS (Islamic Salvation Army, created in June 1994) – and to punish their families and associates.
During 1997 and 1998, when the massacres reached their climax, a power struggle was taking place within the Algerian power elite. The clan around the military elite and notably the two chiefs of the DRS, Mediene and Lamari, opposed the clan around the President, General Zeroual. He was threatening to assert his autonomy with regard to those who had installed him back in 1992. Having won over some senior military figures, he planned to establish his own political party and work towards a political settlement with the AIS. To the putschist clan, such a solution could only weaken their position. Thus the killings of Algerians carried out by the GIA under the command of the DRS had two purposes: to force the AIS into a truce on Smail Lamaris’s conditions, and to create the chaos which was one of the factors which forced Zeroual to resign in September 1998. (Note 8)
From 1999 onwards the GIA gradually faded away. There was never any serious investigation of the circumstances of the massacres. If all goes to plan, some individuals will no doubt be tried and condemned. Slapdash pseudo-investigations will not even clarify whether they in fact took part in the killings. Most of the killers, like their commanders, will escape justice.
Smail Lamari can no longer appear before any penal tribunal. But many of his accomplices remain, and cannot be entirely sure of escaping, most notably the real boss of Algeria, Major General Mohammed Mediene. History has not said the last word yet. The memory of a nation cannot be eradicated. Smail Lamari and his cronies will live in the Algerian people’s memory as murderers, guilty of terrible crimes against humanity.