January 2, 2000
Algeria. Remember That Name.
Brooklyn Man Is Charged With Aiding in Bomb Plot (Dec. 31, 1999)
By JOHN F. BURNS
igh 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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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