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In Algeria, Sahara Attack Revives A Fear Of Renewed Terrorism

Feb 21, 2013
Originally published on February 22, 2013 10:30 am

When Muslim extremists overran an oil and gas facility in Algeria's Sahara desert last month, Algerians saw the drama through the lens of their own painful history.

The news that terrorists had seized the In Amenas oil and gas plant stunned people in Algiers, the Algerian capital, who thought they'd seen the last of such attacks.

For most of the 1990s, a brutal civil war between Islamists and the military engulfed the country. More than 150,000 Algerians — mostly civilians — lost their lives in the violence. The oil site attack was a frightening reminder that things could re-ignite, says Adlene Meden, weekend editor of Al Watan newspaper.

"Algerian society was shocked by the attack for two reasons," he says. "It was the first time terrorists were able to take over a high-security energy site. And suddenly we found ourselves in a new war with terrorists, whether we wanted it or not."

But mixed with the fear was anger, says Meden.

The international community's reaction to the crisis irritated Algerians. The Western media characterized Algerian forces as brutal, as if they somehow adhered to different standards. Algerians complained that the West's tone was racist. Hostages were separated into two categories — foreigners and Algerians.

That prompted a wave of patriotism from a public that is usually anti-military, says Meden. Pictures and videos — such as one of Algerian special forces in training — became popular on Facebook.

The Legacy Of Algeria's Civil War

These days, Algiers is crawling with security, one of the consequences of the brutal war of the 1990s.

Houda Metaoui, a 42-year-old Algiers resident, says those were nightmare years.

Metaoui says the police presence, and multiple checkpoints in the capital, can be annoying, but it is also comforting. She says Algerians were incensed when leaders like British Prime Minister David Cameron questioned the Algerian military's handling of the hostage crisis.

"Because when we had our terrorism here, nobody said a word," she says. "They left us living this nightmare alone and we didn't get any help. And now they say, 'Oh, you should have asked us.' It's like asking for permission. No. We don't have to ask for permission. We know them very well, we lived with them for a long time. So we know they are capable of a lot of horrible things."

Metaoui says people were also furious to learn from a French minister that their government had given France permission to use Algerian airspace to carry out its war against Islamist radicals in neighboring Mali. She says the people should have heard it from their own government.

The attack on In Amenas was clearly a blow to the Algerian state, which wanted its people and the rest of the world to believe it had defeated the terrorists.

Now, many Algerians say those terrorists simply moved next door. The mastermind of the In Amenas attack is Algerian, and many of the Islamists in Mali hail from an Algerian-founded movement, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.

'The Fear Is Still Here'

But that group includes only a few hundred fighters, as opposed to the thousands of Islamist rebels who fought the Algerian government during the '90s.

In 1999 and 2005, Algerian voters overwhelmingly approved documents aimed at putting their long war behind them. The first was a general amnesty for rebels who agreed to lay down their arms; the second was a charter of peace and reconciliation.

Many of the former rebels were given apartments and jobs, says Metaoui, and not everyone agreed with that. But no one had the stomach for any more violence.

"It's like an injustice because there are a lot of young people here who didn't kill or didn't do anything, and who couldn't benefit from the same advantages," she says.

And those former terrorists live among ordinary Algerians. It could be your neighbor, Metaoui says. The Islamists are known to their neighbors and still inspire fear.

"The fear is still here," she says.

Metaoui says the last thing Algerians want is to get pulled into the struggle against the Islamists in Mali.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

When terrorists took hostages at a natural gas plant in Algeria last month, there was shock inside and outside the country. Algerian forces moved swiftly and brutally to end the siege. Some of the international community questioned the wisdom of their tactics, but the Algerian response was framed by the country's own recent history with terrorism. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley visited the capital, Algiers, to hear how the crisis was viewed there.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: The news that terrorists had seized the In Amenas oil and gas plant stunned people in the Algerian capital who thought they'd seen the last of such attacks. Algeria was engulfed in a brutal civil war between Islamists and the military for most of the 1990s. More than 150,000 Algerians lost their lives in the violence, mostly civilians.

The oil site attack was a frightening reminder that things could re-ignite, says Adlene Meden, weekend editor of Al Watan newspaper.

ADLENE MEDEN: (Through translator) Algerian society was shocked by the attack for two reasons. It was the first time terrorists were able to take over a high-security energy site. And suddenly we found ourselves in a new war with terrorists, whether we wanted it or not.

BEARDSLEY: But mixed with the fear was anger, says Meden. Algerians were irritated by the international community's reaction to the crisis. Algerian forces were characterized as brutal in the Western media, as if they somehow adhered to different standards. Algerians complained that the West's tone was racist. Hostages were separated into two categories, foreigners and Algerians.

That prompted a wave of patriotism from a public that is usually anti-military, says Meden. Pictures and videos like this one of Algerian special forces in training became popular on Facebook.

(SOUNDBITE FROM VIDEO)

BEARDSLEY: Today, Algiers is crawling with security - traffic police, soldiers - one of the consequences of the brutal war of the '90s.

HOUDA BELDJHOUDI: (Speaking foreign language)

BEARDSLEY: Forty-two-year-old Algiers resident Houda Beldjhoudi says those were nightmare years.

BELDJHOUDI: (Speaking foreign language)

BEARDSLEY: As she drives me around the capital, we pass many checkpoints. Beldjoudi says the police presence can be annoying, but it is also reassuring. She says Algerians were incensed when leaders like British Prime Minister David Cameron questioned the Algerian military's handling of the crisis.

BELDJHOUDI: Because when we had our terrorism here, nobody said a word, okay. They left us living this nightmare alone and we didn't get any help. We know them very well, we lived with them for a long time. So we know they are capable of a lot of horrible things.

BEARDSLEY: Beldjhoudi says people were also furious to learn from a French minister that their government had given France permission to use Algerian airspace to carry out its war against terrorists in neighboring Mali. We should have heard it from our own government, she says. The attack on In Amenas was clearly a blow to the Algerian state, which wanted its people and the rest of the world to believe it had defeated the terrorists.

Now many Algerians say those terrorists simply moved next door. The mastermind of the In Amenas attack is Algerian and many of the Islamists in Mali hail from an Algerian founded movement, Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.

But that group includes only a few hundred fighters, as opposed to the thousands of Islamist rebels who fought the Algerian government during the '90s. In 1999 and 2005, Algerian voters overwhelmingly approved documents aimed at putting their long war behind them. The first was a general amnesty for rebels who agreed to lay down their arms. And the second was a charter of peace and reconciliation.

Many of the former rebels were given apartments and jobs, says Beldjhoudi, and not everyone agreed with that. But no one had the stomach for any more violence.

BELDJHOUDI: It's like an injustice because there are a lot of young people here who didn't kill or didn't do anything. And who couldn't benefit from the same advantages.

BEARDSLEY: And they're still living amongst everyone?

BELDJHOUDI: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. It could be your neighbor.

BEARDSLEY: And people know who they are?

BELDJHOUDI: Yeah, of course, they know. They know them very well. And some are scared also from them.

BEARDSLEY: So there's still this fear.

BELDJHOUDI: Yeah, it still exists. Fear is still here. Yeah. Yeah.

BEARDSLEY: Beldjhoudi says the last thing Algerians want is to get pulled into the fight against the Islamists in Mali.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.