Wednesday 30 January 2013, 18:52

Adam Curtis Adam Curtis


The West is worried about the rise of Islamism in Africa. There are two big fears - one is that there is a new international terror network that will come and attack Europe and America. The other is that sneaky Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood will get themselves elected - and then promptly abolish democracy.

But behind these fears is an incredibly simplified - almost fictional - vision of the world. It possesses the minds of many western politicians, journalists and associated think tank "experts". And at its heart is a kind of filter that wipes away anything complex about power and the struggles for power in African countries - and replaces that with a simple picture of the world as divided between goodies (us in the west) and dangerous frightening baddies who are out to destroy us.

It's both blind and arrogant. And it's terribly dangerous.

To try and bring it into focus I want to go back twenty years and tell two dramatic stories. In them lie many of the roots of today's western fears - but also, in the details of both stories are keys to understanding two crucial things that we ignore today at our peril. One is the complex local power struggles that have helped the rise of Islamism in Africa, and the second is the way past western interventions have fuelled a hatred and distrust of Europe and America - that has in turn massively helped the Islamist cause.

One is the story of what happened in Somalia between 1990 and 1993 - the real events that led to Black Hawk Down or, to give it its proper name, "Operation Gothic Serpent". The second is the story of the weird and horrific events that happened in Algeria between 1992 and 1996 after the Islamist party called FIS was stopped from winning an election by an armed coup. A coup that had the implicit backing of the west.


There is an odd ghost that haunts not only Somalia's history, but has also lodged itself in the western imagination. He was called Mohammed Abdullah Hassan - and a hundred years ago he set out to try and unite all the Somali people in an Islamic state. The British called him The Mad Mullah and they battled against him for twenty years until they found a new way of getting rid of him. They bombed him from the air.

These are the forgotten ruins of the place that was going to be the capital of his Islamic state - he called it The Dervish state


For the next forty years the Somali people remained divided - ruled by the British and the Italians as part of their empires. Then, in 1960, Somalia was finally given its independence. But, like so many of the other former European colonies, all sorts of powerful remnants of colonial rule remained. Not just the arbitrary lines drawn on maps to make the new countries - but in the minds and imaginations of millions of newly liberated people.

Here is a film made in 1961 which captures this brilliantly. It's from a series called Africa Now, subtitled First Hand Reports from a Changing Continent and it is about life and politics and the new forces of power in independent Somalia.

The capital, Mogadishu, had been part of Italian Somaliland - and the film shows how strongly the Italian presence remains. Not just in the grand buildings that had been part of Mussolini's dream of a Second Roman Empire, but in the language. Not only is there no written Somali language - which means the Somalis use Italian - but they don't even have a word for "independence", so they use the Italian word - "indipendenza". I also really like the attempt to create a written Somali language. It was called "Osmania", and it wasn't a success.

The film also shows how Mogadishu has already become "the cockpit in the propaganda struggle in the Cold War". The film captures the ambassadors from all the different players - the Soviets, the Americans, the communist Chinese and the West Germans - going hither and thither in their gleaming cars in Mogadishu, all snuffling around trying to gain influence over the new President, Abdullah Osman Daar.

And the key to that influence is foreign aid. The film shows how the Soviets are offering to build a proper harbour, while fascinatingly the Chinese are already building a road system for Somalia. The Americans don't seem to be doing very well - but the West German ambassador is very keen, he spends his time walking around the desert looking for possible places for development projects.

But you can see who's going to win out. The Russian ambassador who is described as "a carefree agitator with boyish charm".

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But in 1969 democracy in Somalia ended. There was a military coup led by Major-General Siad Barre who set up what he called The Somali Democratic Republic. But in reality it was a centralised communist state modelled on General Barre's interpretations of Marx and Lenin and Mao.

Siad Barre promised to wipe away the ghosts of the past that were holding Somalis back from being truly independent. And that meant not just the old colonial remains, but the crucial thing that was holding Somalia back, Barre said, was the clan structure.

Somali society was permeated by a complex clan structure. Somalis defined themselves and understood their relationship to each other in great part through this system of clans and sub-clans. Siad Barre said that it was the clans - or "clanism" - that had undermined democracy in the new Somalia - so he was going to wipe out this destructive and outmoded "tribalism" and replace it with a new, centralised society run by The Supreme Revolutionary Council.

In 1974 the Council published a book about the new society they were building. It has great images of revolutionary displays.


It also contained lovely colour pictures, like this one of modern Somalis dancing at the discotheque in the new Juba hotel in Mogadishu.


And it also summed up this glorious new revolutionary world and its beautiful future like this:


Algeria didn't get its independence quite as easily as Somalia. Between 1954 and 1962 revolutionary groups - the main one was called the FLN - fought a vicious terrorist war against the French who ruled Algeria. The FLN bombed French civilians in cafes and the streets, while they also killed many Algerians in the French controlled Algerian army. In response the French killed the guerrillas and also used widespread torture.

In 1962 the French gave up and Algeria became independent. Its first President was one of the leaders of the FLN - Ben Bella. But in 1965 he was deposed by a military coup led by one of his close friends from the revolutionary times - Houari Boumediene - who, of course, like Somalia, turned Algeria in the a copy of the Soviet Union.

It all worked fine for a while because Algeria had oil - and as oil prices rose the FLN used the money to subsidise their state socialism. But underneath everyone knew that power was really concentrated in a small elite group that came from the east of the country and excluded everyone else.

There was growing resentment, but no real coherent opposition. But then, in November 1982, there were a series of battles on the campus of the University of Algiers between a group of Marxist students and a group of Islamists who killed one of the Marxists. The Islamists were protesting about the fact that the Marxists, who all spoke French, would get all the best paid jobs. While anyone who just spoke Arabic would find it nearly impossible to get a professional career. This meant that they were excluded from power in Algerian society.

The protests were immediately repressed - the Islamists were all arrested. But it was an important moment because it was the first public demonstration by an Islamist opposition, breaking cover and coming into the open in a country where all opposition was banned. The protests were led by a teacher called Abbasi Madani who had once been in the FLN. He was put in prison for two years - but he will turn up later in this story playing a very important role.



They key thing in the protests was the fact that the Marxists spoke French - and that was the route to power. Again it was a powerful example of how the remnants of French colonial times still exercised a powerful grip on the destinies of those who were supposed to be free and independent of that past. And it was that frustration that was a powerful fuel for the growing Islamist movement.

The most dramatic example of how the French Empire still possessed the minds and behaviour of Africans was in the Central African Republic. It too had got independence from France in 1960 - but in 1965 there was, of course, a military coup and Colonel Jean Bedel Bokassa took power. In 1972 he made himself President for Life, but then, in 1977, he decided to crown himself Emperor of the Central African Empire.

It was a weird and grotesque demonstration of how the European mind set still controlled Africans in a distorted way. Because Bokassa was directly modelling himself on the French emperor Napoleon - and his coronation was supposed to be an exact copy of Napoleon's coronation as emperor in Paris in 1804.

Here is a great film made about Bokassa as he prepares for his coronation. It's a wonderful picture of what happens when a mad dictator decides to spend lots of money - clutches of European designers and planners and "facilitators" flock around all taking it very seriously. While Bokassa spends his time in his palace watching film of other royal coronations and the British Queen's Silver Jubilee in order to get inspiration.

Bokassa is also interviewed. He explains why he cuts peoples' ears off - he says it's a lot less barbarous than the death penalty, which France still had at that time. I suppose he has a point. And then he tries to explain why he is establishing an Empire when in fact he hasn't got an Empire. It's a very odd explanation - and it's very funny.

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To the Islamists in Algeria, a figure like Bokassa was a dramatic example of what their fundamental theory predicted. Modern Islamist ideas said that European and Western ideas of democracy were always going to lead to corruption. However well-intentioned at the beginning, the system gave enormous power to individuals and that always corrupted them.

It was a very pessimistic theory because it saw human beings as always being fallible and corruptible. Bokassa was an extreme example, but the Islamists believed that the same thing had happened in Algeria. The idealistic Marxist revolutionaries had morphed into a corrupt and repressive clique. The only solution was to an impose a rigid, incorruptible system of moral and political guidance on the politicians which they had to follow. And that should be drawn from Islam.

The Algerian Islamists’ chance came in 1988. Two years before - in 1986 - oil prices had collapsed and the effect on Algeria had been catastrophic. Half of the country's budget was wiped out and the whole socialist "experiment" collapsed. Out of the disaster came widespread corruption and soaring prices.

On October the 4th 1988 the dam burst and the young, angry urban poor started to riot in Algiers. The centre of the rioting was in the shopping mall called Riad al Fath, the Victory Gardens. It symbolized the elite that ruled Algeria and the rioters smashed it up. In the next days the rioting spread spontaneously. And the only organisation ready and able to ride the wave of fury were the Islamists.

And on March 10th 1989 the Islamic Salvation Front FIS was formed - with the aim of bonding together the chaotic rebellion and using it to create an Islamist state. The founders of FIS had different approaches, but the two key ones were Abassi Madani and Ali Belhadj. Madani had led the protests back in 1982 and he believed that it would be possible to Islamize Algeria without changing the fabric of the state, while Belhadj was more radical - he believed in armed struggle to create a new kind of state.

Here are the first reports of the rioting in the "Days of October" - followed by the meeting that announced the founding of FIS.

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Meanwhile in Somalia things were also going very badly for the "Victorious Leader" - Siad Barre.

His problems had begun back in 1977 when he had decided to try and create what he called Greater Somalia. Barre started by invading an area of neighbouring Ethiopia called the Ogaden. Millions of Somalis lived there - but back in the late 1940s the British, under US pressure, had decided it was part of Ethiopia. But now Siad Barre decided Somalia wanted it back.

To begin with the invasion went well. But then the Soviet Union, who had been backing Siad Barre, suddenly decided to switch sides and back Ethiopia. Almost overnight they pulled out their advisers and troops, along with a bunch of Cubans who had also been helping Somalia.

The reason the Soviets switched sides was because there was a new dictator running Ethiopia who was more Marxist-Leninist than Siad Barre - and even more ruthless. This made the Soviets feel that he was more worth backing and they poured weapons, money and men into Ethiopia to help defeat Siad Barre, their previous friend. This included airlifting thousands of Cuban troops into Ethiopia.

Here is Siad Barre saying everything is going swimmingly with the Russians - followed by news footage of the Soviet Advisers leaving Mogadishu a few days later.

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And here is film of the weird, frightening world of Colonel Mengistu in Ethiopia that the Soviets went off to help. It was shot just after Mengistu had taken power in 1977. He had just started what he called The Red Terror. It was the mass execution of what Mengistu called "counterrevolutionary elements" - otherwise known as the Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Party who had already been running what was called The White Terror, which involved killing Mengistu's supporters - who were members of what was called the Derg Party

There is a very odd scene in a graveyard where there are hundreds of graves already dug for the future victims of the White Terror. There is a very good piece of deadpan dialogue from one of the gravediggers.

Q. What is the Red Terror?

The Red Terror is conducted by members of the revolution.

Q. And who are the victims of the Red Terror?

Those who conduct the White Terror

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The solution for Siad Barre was simple. He switched sides too - and went to the Americans for help. The US started to pour arms and money into Somalia. But it came too late to help him in the war in the Ogaden. The Russians and the thousands of Cuban troops mounted a counterattack and smashed the Somalian army. The Ethiopians then displayed the arms they had captured along with captions saying where the arms came from.


and their ammunition


I particularly like - "Reactionary Pakistani Grenades"


The defeat in the Ogaden was a disaster for Somalia. Over one million people fled from the Ogaden into Somalia, a country that then had a population of about 4 million. Food prices soared, groups began to fight for access to precious water, and there was total disillusion with Siad Barre.

Over the 1980s the Americans poured all kinds of weapons along with hundreds of thousands of dollars into the country. And as the economy collapsed the country became increasingly dependent on American aid. But the aid then had a strange consequence - it brought the clan structure back to prominence and power. Siad Barre gave up any idea of ridding the country of "clanism" and started using the aid as a way of buying loyalty from different clans. Clans who supported him got the aid, those who didn't went without. This had a crucial effect because those who headed the Somali clans began to see aid as the route to power in Somalia.

And when the Cold War ended in 1990 the clans who had been excluded set out to overthrow Siad Barre. A war began and Barre was forced out. It didn't stop there though, "the liberators" split into sub-clans and then started to fight each other viciously. The ensuing civil war had terrible consequences because the terrible violence was the primary cause of a famine in the Bay area of the country that surrounded Mogadishu. The victims were hundreds of thousands of people who had been displaced by the fighting.

What then happened was one of the great scandals of the past twenty years. The United Nations promised to help - and then did nothing. A bureaucracy that had once promised to bring peace to the world had become corroded and corrupted by the politics of the Cold war - and it failed utterly. For over a year it did nothing - and thousands of Somalis died of starvation.

Then western television discovered Somalia. Crews began to pour in from Britain and America and sent back horrific pictures of dying children. There has been much criticism of TV journalists both from within the aid community, and from those who think that aid is a bad thing - they argue that television simplifies, emotionalises and thus distorts the reality on the ground.

Here is a film that I think is very important in this debate. It was made by the BBC journalist, Michael Buerk, at the time in Somalia, and it is about the difficulties of reporting such a complex situation. It's good because it shows how chaotic and incomprehensible things were - with different factions in the civil war trying to get control of the aid (because that was what they had learnt from the 1980s onwards). But it also shows how television was inexorably drawn to the two powerful images that were beginning to occupy a very big space in the western imagination.

The innocent, dying child.


And the evil frightening men on their "technicals"


Goodies and baddies.

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In Algeria, in contrast, things seemed to be going very well. The riots had forced the ruling FLN leadership to give up on the one-party state - and bring in proper democracy. In February 1989 President Chadli announced a new constitution that would allow political parties to exist and compete in elections on both a local and national level. It was an extraordinary breakthrough - and everyone had great hopes of a future democratic Algeria.

But there was a lurking doubt in many peoples minds. The front-runners in any future elections were obviously FIS - the Islamist Salvation Front - because they already had a national organization. But the question was - did they really believe in democracy? Or would they simply use the elections to get into power and then create a new kind of Islamist state that abolished democracy? No-one knew.

But FIS had the high ground because they offered an alternative to the corrupt regime. For the first six months of 1990 they organized marches and meetings - and then on June 12, 1990 FIS won an astonishing victory in the local and municipal elections. It won control of the majority of the country's communes.

Here is the first report on the BBC of the shock result - and already you can feel the concern in the west beginning. The fear that this would be Khomeini Mk II, though this time it was Sunni not Shia. There is also a good interview with a Tunisian Islamist who tries to counter these fears. He says that western governments must not turn away from this new Islamism:

"otherwise they will be seen to be supporting the corrupt governments, and our people will make the link between the dictators in our countries and British and American and European governments"

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The mystery about FIS was personified in the two men who led the Islamist movement. One was the urbane Abassi Madani who drove around in a Mercedes and spent his time reassuring the Algerian middle class establishment that everything was going to be OK.



The other was the charismatic Ali Belhadj who rode around on a small motorcycle and was an amazing public speaker. His followers were the young urban poor. They were called the "hittistes" - from the arab word for a wall - "hit". They were called this because millions of hittistes spent all day leaning up against the wall with nothing else to do.



There was euphoria in FIS after the local elections - but the effect was to deepen the mystery and the fears. Groups of young FIS followers started to try and impose bits of what they thought were sharia law. Women who worked for the local communes were forced to wear the veil, video stores and shops that sold alcohol were closed down. And the middle class who had supported FIS began to get worried.

It got worse. At the end of 1990 Ali Belhadj gave an interview where he zeroed in on how western culture - above all French culture - had poisoned the very minds of Algerians. This had to be wiped out. His intention, he said, was:

"to ban France from Algeria intellectually and ideologically, and be done, once and for all, with those whom France has nursed with her poisoned milk"

The Hittistes loved this - and groups of them started to go round trying to destroy the TV satellite dishes that were feeding the poisoned milk into the minds of the Algerians.


The Algerian middle classes really didn't like this. They felt they were becoming trapped in a regressive bubble - isolated from the world that they connected with via the French news that came in through their dishes. They also feared the growing thuggishness of groups of Hittistes who were going round beating up girls who didn't wear the veil.

Sensing this disenchantment, the FLN rulers started to play dirty. They designed the new electoral constituencies deliberately so they would weaken FIS's chances of winning. In return FIS got very angry and in June 1991 they called for a General Strike. Thousands of their supporters took over squares in the centre of Algiers and things got very Arab Spring.

At a press conference Ali Belhadj made a dramatic intrusion. He said that if the ruling elite tried to stop FIS then he would take up arms and fight them, just like his father had done when he had fought the French. It's a really powerful moment that shows how charismatic Belhadj was - and also why the middle classes were becoming frightened of FIS.

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In response the Algerian government declared a state of emergency, sent in the troops and postponed the elections till December. Plus they arrested both Belhadj and Madani - and threw them in jail.

Algeria was gripped by a dramatic crisis. Here is just one moment captured on video that shows that intense mood. Ali Belhadj's young son addresses a mass rally of Islamists. The son has an amazing power and charisma - just like his father. The response from the crowd also show just what the Algerian government were unleashing through trying to trick FIS out of their election victory everyone knew was coming.

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Here too are parts of a really good report shot during the crisis in June and the occupation of the squares. It captures the mood of the time - and also shows the growing fear among the middle classes about FIS and the suspicion about what the Islamists were really up to.

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But just as FIS were trying to force the poison of France - and the West - out of the Algerian mind, the West - or more precisely America - came roaring back to invade and take over Somalia.

What happened in Somalia in the year between December 1992 and the end of 1993 was an extraordinary sequence of events - driven by a new idea. It was the belief that you could invade another country, not because it threatened you or because of any power politics - but because you were bursting with good intentions to save innocent people. And it all went wrong.

The UN's failure to save victims of the famine, combined with the TV images of starving children had cause outrage in America. In the face of that a powerful group of people at the top of some of the relief agencies proposed an alternative. This group have been called "the international humanitarians" and their solution, which would have been unthinkable only a few years before,was that you should go and occupy a country militarily on humanitarian grounds.

They were driven by the sincerest of motives - but it was also going to give them extraordinary power, especially as all sorts of other groups in Washington saw in their idea new opportunities for themselves now the Cold war was over. In December 1992 a wave of political pressure built up on the outgoing President Bush. It was led by the humanitarians - like Philip Johnston, the President of CARE-US who wrote letters to the press saying bluntly:

"the international community, backed by UN troops, should move in and run Somalia, because it has no government at all"

He was backed up by powerful newspaper columnists like Leslie Gelb of the New York Times who put it more bluntly - it should be a policy of "shoot to feed" he said. The US military also joined in because they were keen to prove that they could do OOTW - "Operations Other Than War". And there were powerful elements in the State Department who pushed for it, plus the UN who were feeling incredibly guilty and wanted to be seen to be doing good. UN officials told the press that 80% of food aid was being looted - which was completely untrue. The figure was more like 20% or less.

The writer and African expert Alex de Waal has written a fantastic book that details how this rush to intervention built up in the final weeks of the Bush administration - and how in the process it fatally simplified the country of Somalia. It's called Famine Crimes - and in it de Waal says:

"By the time the drumbeat for intervention reached it's crescendo, the vision of 'Somalia' in which the US marines were intervening was wholly different from the real Somalia experienced by Somalis."

And here is a fantastic, clear and thoughtful documentary about what happened next in Somalia. It was made during the first six months after the invasion by the British journalist Richard Dowden who knows the history of Africa well. He starts by going back to Victorian times to show how the British missionary David Livingston was the humanitarian interventionist of his time. Livingston was shocked by the Arab slave trade and persuaded the British government to intervene - but that inexorably led to the European takeover of Africa.

Dowden is convinced that the Somali intervention in 1992 - Operation Restore Hope - is going the same way and leading to what is in essence an imperial takeover of the country. He films fantastic detail - like the daily morning meeting of the humanitarian aid officials and the US military. It is in all but name the government of Somalia - but as Dowden shows, it completely ignores the Somalians.

And he shows all the other factors that are coming into play. The Pentagon who are desperate to keep their budgets, the ex-secretary of Defence - one Dick Cheney - who says that is not true, contrasted with the star of the show, a US marine interviewed on the street who puts it all so clearly:

"the place is filling up with American contractors all bidding to rebuild this joint. That's all the Defence Department is. We're bodyguards for American contractors ……………… You should know that - you've been to college."

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Dowden's film was made in the first six months of 1992. What he missed was another factor that came into play with the new Clinton Administration in Washington which was going to give an extra twist to the story.

The Bush administration had been persuaded to invade - but they were fundamentally conservative in their outlook. Their aim was to protect the humanitarian groups who were feeding the starving Somalians. The only problem was that by the time the US Marines got there, the famine was almost over. Faced by this there was growing pressure to expand the mission - and with the Clinton administration came a new idea. Nation-building.

This meant trying to create a new peaceful state in Somalia. But that in turn meant taking on the warlords who were causing such havoc in the country. One of the most powerful of these was General Mohamed Farrah Aidid. He was the head of one of the groups who had overthrown Siad Barre and he and his militia now dominated Mogadishu.



General Aidid was far from being a simple gangster villain - which is how he was portrayed. He had served in Siad Barre's cabinet, he had been the ambassador to India, and had at one point been Barre's intelligence chief. The problem for the Americans in Mogadishu was that Aidid thought he was their friend. When they had first arrived they had turned to him to help protect the aid agencies, had told the press what a helpful person he was, and had even rented a house from him.

But now Aidid was an obstacle to nation building. This came to a head in June when a group of Pakistani UN soldiers under US control went to search some of Aidid's buildings - including Radio Mogadishu. Aidid's men ambushed them and 24 Pakistanis were killed. At that point General Aidid began to see the UN and their American sponsors in a different light. He realised that they were like a rival clan. And a vicious four-month war began.

In the war thousands of Somalis were killed. Alex de Waal has written a very powerful piece of journalism that says the US and other troops under its control were guilty of serious war crimes in Somalia. You can find it here - and it describes in detail how the months of bitter urban warfare allegedly involved the Americans firing rockets into a building where a group of Aidid's supporters were holding a meeting - killing 54 civilians, and knowingly firing missiles into a hospital full of innocent people because they though Aidid was hiding there.

This is part of a documentary made in 1994 that tells the story of this war - and how it ended with the events just outside the Olympic Hotel in October 1993. They are the real events later told in Black Hawk Down.

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In Algeria a bloody terrorist war had also begun. But this was going to last for six years.

At the start of 1992 the Algerian Army stepped in and took power in a coup. They did this because FIS had won the first round of the postponed national elections - and the army argued that they had to cancel all elections "in order to defend democracy". FIS was dissolved and more than 40,000 people were arrested and sent to camps deep in the Sahara.

For a year things were relatively quiet. But then armed jihadist groups emerged out of the hardline remnants of FIS and other Islamists. The key figure who united a number of the groups into what was called the GIA - The Armed Islamic Group - was a car mechanic from Algiers called Abdelhaq Layada.


In an interview in March 1993 Layada spelled out his theory. He quoted Oswald Spengler on the decline of the West, and Bertrand Russell on how "the white man has had his day" - and said that a new Islamist society would arise instead. He then explained how those who stood in its way should be killed.

Layada justified this by using a theory which lay at the heart of modern Islamism but which was extremely dangerous because it was so imprecise. It said that those who had become involved with western style politics and power had entered into a state of barbarism or "Jahiliyyah" and that this meant they were no longer Muslims. That, in turn, could be interpreted as meaning that they were impious, or "takfir" - and that meant you could kill them.

The danger was that there was no objective way of defining who was impious or not. Layada said that it included not just politicians, but anyone having anything to do with the politicians. So, starting in March 1993, the Islamists began assassinating intellectuals, journalists, professionals - like doctors, and academics. Many had nothing to do with the regime, but in the eyes of the young Hittistes they were hated French speaking intellectuals, and that was enough.

Then Layada was arrested. The new GIA leader was called Djafar al-Afghani - because he had fought in Afghanistan - and he broadened the category of who could be killed even further. It was correct, he said, to kill godless foreigners as well as godless Algerians. The dangerous logic of Islamism's unthought-out theories was beginning to take hold of the movement.

Here is part of a film made about the Islamist terrorist movement in Algeria. It was shot in 1994 as the killing was broadening out. The programme went and filmed the Islamist fighters in a camp in the mountains, and it is very odd. They are all posing for the cameras, and it has the mood of a holiday camp. They all lie around watching TV, then get up to send death threats by fax, and settle down at the sewing machine to stitch leather bullet belts.

The weirdest bit is where "the bomb-maker" shows how he makes a giant bomb using a gas canister. It's like a grotesque cookery programme - even down to the seasoning he drops in at the end - horrible small bits of metal shrapnel to make it kill more people. Come die with me.

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Then in September 1994 something very strange happened to the GIA. After two of it's leaders were killed, a new leader was appointed called Djamel Zitouni who was the son of a poultry merchant.


He escalated the violence - first of all he started a terrorist campaign in France. Then he followed the logic of who could be killed to include a new category. Zitouni declared that all the other Islamist factions that didn't agree with him were also godless - and so they should all be killed as well.

It didn't stop there. Throughout 1995 there were purges within the GIA itself - which seemed to mean that Zitouni had decided even those around him were impious too. His rivals in the GIA, and a number of journalists, were convinced though that what was really happening was that the Algerian intelligence agencies were manipulating him. That the intelligence agents were cleverly twisting the mad logic of Islamism so that it would end up destroying itself.

Or maybe not. Because it got even weirder and more horrific. In July 1996 Zitouni was shot and Antar Zouabri took over.


The GIA then began to kill hundreds of ordinary Algerians in a series of horrific massacres - culminating in terrible bloodbaths in August and September. The GIA put out a communique taking responsibility for the killing and saying it was justified because everyone in Algeria who didn't join the GIA was now impious and thus should be killed. As the historian of Islamism, Gilles Kepel, put it - the GIA had decided on the excommunication of the whole society. Except for themselves, everyone else must be killed.

It was mad, and the Islamist movement in Algeria fell apart.

Here are some extracts from a report on the horror that was being created both by the terrorists and by the government. It begins with a woman called Zora who is a very perky PR for the military rulers. What follows shows the reality.

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At the heart of both these stories - in Somalia and in Algeria - is is a simple question. Could the chaos and the horror have been avoided? Was it inevitable?

In both cases there are fascinating clues.

In Somalia the evidence lies in a place that, as far as the rest of the world is concerned, doesn't exist. It is the independent Republic of Somaliland - which is the large northern part of Somalia that in 1991 seceded and set up as an independent self-governing state. Since then the people of Somaliland have built - from the bottom up - a safe, successful and democratic state without any foreign aid or outside intervention.

It is a fascinating story that has gone almost completely unnoticed and unreported. After 1991 thousands of Somalis who had fled abroad came back and began to set up in the new state all sorts of individual business initiatives that gradually rebuilt the state without any centralised guidance. They became known as "The Somaliland Pioneers". Then out of that emerged a new idea of how to take the existing Somali clan system and integrate it with the idea of multi-party democracy. This idea itself was developed democratically out of a series of grassroots meetings - not imposed by western 'nation-builders'.

The journalist Mary Harper is the BBC World Service African Editor and she has written an absolutely brilliant book about Somalia and its recent history. Anyone who wants to understand what has really gone on in that country should read it. It's called Getting Somalia Wrong and in it she is absolutely clear about what the story of Somaliland means:

"Because Western models of peacemaking and state-building have not been imposed from the outside, Somaliland has in many ways saved itself from the fate of Somalia. The example of Somaliland has demonstrated that, when left to themselves, Somalis can form a viable nation state.

After breaking away from Somalia in 1991 the people of Somaliland looked deep into their own traditions, building a system, which was initially based on clan politics, but over time incorporated more modern political institutions and processes. A hybrid system of government was designed, whereby Western-style institutions were fused with more traditional forms of social and political organisation.

And it was rooted in a popular consciousness rather than imposed from above."

This is the government of Somaliland - a country that is unrecognised by every other nation in the world


There are also practically no BBC television reports about what has happened in Somaliland - except for a film made by the intrepid reporter Simon Reeve in 2005. He went to look for this place that everyone in authority said didn't exist. It's a great film full of great facts. At one point he visits an airport that was originally built by the Soviet Union - which has the longest runway in Africa. The Americans then later used it for the most unexpected reason.

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In Algeria the clue as to what might have happened lies buried in the chaos of 1991 when the Islamist Party FIS was heading for power.

In the first round of the national elections in December 1991 FIS lost nearly a million votes compared to the local elections the year before. FIS still won comfortably - but the big drop in support showed that the Islamists had begun to frighten and alienate large sections of the Algerian middle classes. The historian of Islamism, Gilles Kepel, has argued that this meant that FIS had passed its peak as a political force.

No one can know if that was true - but if FIS had been left alone they would have had to face the fact they were alienating a very powerful section of the urban middle classes in Algeria. Then they might have had to come to terms with the realities of power in complex modern societies.

Instead they were forced out into the barren wilderness - both literally, and in their imaginations. This led to violent illusions. A simplified vision of Algerian society took hold of the Islamists' minds - divided between good Hittistes and the bad westernised elites who had been poisoned by democracy. And that led them to believe they could use violence to force the kind of society they wanted into existence.


But maybe the same thing happened to the West in Somalia with the humanitarian intervention?

In 1992 a loose group of humanitarian internationalists, policy wonks, politicians and TV journalists invented a simplified vision of Somalia. It was a country full of innocent dying children and evil warlords riding around on their technicals. This was a picture almost completely detached from the complex questions of power that were causing such chaos in Somalia.

Then, when things didn't go as simply as the humanitarian vision predicted - and the westerners got inevitably caught up in the local struggles - they turned to violence to try and enforce a simplified vision of democracy and nation-building on the country.


And we still haven't learnt.

For ten years after 1994 Somalia descended into chaos. It wasn't caused by the failed western intervention - the Somalis bear a great responsibility. But then, in 2005 an Islamist movement emerged called the Islamic Courts Union which began to impose a new kind of order and stability in areas of the country using sharia courts. Mary Harper, and other journalists who know Somalia, have argued that the Islamic Courts were a local grassroots attempt to create order and essential services - similar to what had happened in Somaliland to the north. It's important not to romanticise them, but they were a fragmented and essentially local version of political Islam - with the violent extremists very much in the minority.

America's response was to immediately label the ICU as yet another part of a global jihad network linked to "Al Qaeda". Within six months Somalia was invaded by Ethiopia - backed by America and supported by giant US gunships and a naval fleet. The ICU fled - but then the Islamist movement re-emerged in a much more violent form in the shape of a group called Al Shabaab. Mary Harper says that America's intervention in Somalia had created the very thing it feared.

And the same thing is happening now all across the northern part of Africa. In Mali, in northern Nigeria with Boko Haram, and in Algeria with the remnants of the GIA. In every case what are local struggles for power are being simplified by Western politicians and commentators into part of a global battle against "Al Qaeda".

It is true that there are extreme Islamists involved who proudly announce that they are joined together into a global movement. But the reality is that that kind of extreme Islamism has failed everywhere. Ever since Algeria in the early 1990s none of the extremist salafist-jihad groups have managed to take power and create the kind of society they yearn for. The reason for their failure is simple - the growing urban middle classes throughout the Arab world don't want it. You only have to look at the battles now tearing Egypt apart to see that happening.

Instead our politicians and allied terror experts fall for the Islamists' attempts to aggrandise themselves - and in the process become the Islamists' PR agents. It means the western elites are helping to promote a failed revolutionary movement while ignoring the signs of what might be the future for Africa - the new systems of multi-party democracy being built from the grassroots in places like Somaliland. Without aid, and without the west imposing centralised forms of control.

Meanwhile most western aid agencies working in Africa have a very firm policy. They do not talk to the press or TV any longer. They keep what they are doing completely secret. Given what happened in places like Somalia it is a very sensible policy. But it leaves us and our leaders ever more lost in the wood looking for the baddies hidden behind the trees.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Very interesting article Adam! Get so fed up with the lazy labeling of all these groups as al qaeda. Egypt will be interesting as (thankfully) it appears that the west is keeping their noses out of it. Hopefully the recent protests towards the Muslim Brotherhood will affect their support, and eventually force a more secular, liberal and modern sort of governance. Especially as their tourist industry is collapsing in the face of all the unrest!

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    This is a really excellent piece, as per usual. I spotted one terminological mistake. "Takfir" is the Arabic word meaning to condemn someone as a a non-believer or 'infidel'. The word used for "infidel" is apparently blocked by the post filter as a profanity in both the singular and plural, but one ought to be able to find it online.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    What strikes me about almost all the extra-African involvement in Africa is the almost complete lack of understanding of the culture into which they were entering. During the Cold War, it appears both sides assumes the other has control over its ally, simply because of the money that is being poured into the country. The dictators in Africa blatantly covet the money from the developed world- this is obvious from the number of television interviews they are willing to perform for Western media- but those giving it, both the West and the Soviets, have next to no understanding of any local practices and culture, or even Islam as a whole, Buerk's portrayal of the famine in Somalia being a classic example: it's all human issue story, no attempt to do any "journalism", uncover the underlying reasons as to why the famine happened, the politics behind the crisis.
    The same is true in Algeria- it is described as "sophisticated", simply because its capital looks like a European city, suggesting that in some way modernity is linked to stability in Africa, when it is clear that this is simply not the case, and when Khalida Messaoudi, the woman's rights activist, attempts to describe the Islamists, she calls them Fascists, because it is the only comparison easily available to Westerners. Even Khalida, as an Algerian, cannot see the nuances of Islam because of the veil the Cold War "good v evil" dichotomy has drawn over her eyes. This is not to say there cannot be a comparison between hardline Islam and Fascism, or that either is morally justified, but that the differences between them are lost to those who refuse to see the world outside of said dichotomy, and automatically equate one with the other. (This is something Adam has touched on in The Power of Nightmares.)

    On a slightly different note, the refusal to recognise Somaliland as a sovereign country confuses me. Is it because that would admit defeat on the part of the UN to help Somalia? As a successful, stable democracy, surely it should be the blueprint for spreading democracy in Africa. Get the West out, then.... oh wait. I've answered my own question.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Thanks for this and your continued work and research Adam. As with Somalia and Algeria, your help in describing the background of such a complex topic (which ends up being polarized by the populist media to a simple boolean statement of good/evil) is very much appreciated.
    Hope this finds you well and you're having something nice for dinner and/or a cake.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    I have to say I used to be annoyed that somaliland went unrecognised by the UN and western governments, but now I think/hope, that its possibly a concious decision in some ways, the less involvement they have with it, the better it will do, if they start giving millions in aid money and start sending diplomats, it may descend into yet another failed state, ignoring the country does seem to be the best thing in recent years the west has done for africa

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Can we look forward to a series of related documentary films from you, Mr Curtis?

    Two of the great and destructive myths that bedevil Western 'intellectuals' are about the innate 'goodness' and necessity of the horribly corrupt, self-serving UN, and about the inability of former colonial possessions to find their own forms of self-determinations without 'civilised, civilising' interventions.

    While it seems obvious that both the generalisations I made have their significant exceptions, it would be most intriguing to see your particular take on these issues.

    Best regards from the antipodes.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    Thank you for the detailed and well-researched analysis. One obvious "misfire" however, was the following:

    "Barre started by invading an area of neighbouring Ethiopia called the Ogaden. Millions of Somalis lived there - but back in the late 1940s the British, under US pressure, had decided it was part of Ethiopia. But now Siad Barre decided Somalia wanted it back."

    The Ogaden was part of Ethiopia post-1940 not because of an arbitrary decision by the British. A glance at older maps of Ethiopia show clearly that the Ogaden was considered part of independent Ethiopia long before, and certainly during the time that Somalia was a colony divided between the British and Italians.

    Since Ethiopia was never colonized, it is at least one example of an African country whose borders were not drawn by Europeans. A detail to you, perhaps, but a historical fact worthy of some distinction.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Thanks for the interesting post.

    You said that Somali doesn't have a word for independence, so they must use Italian "Indipendenza".

    Please be careful with statements like "This language doesn't have a word for (x)". They are nearly always false, and usually carry some kind of implicit comment about the culture, which also tends to be false. Those statements are also extremely attractive to journalists and writers, and once they get said somewhere they propagate with very little if any fact checking to stop them.

    Somali does have native words for independence, but that doesn't stop loan words from making an appearance, too :)

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    When Bokassa was justifying his lavish coronation by pointing out the infrastructural side-benefits it did make me think of the London Olympics...

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Thank you for this brilliant article. Like your others this has been a marvelous education for your readers about so many parts of the world where the West has been exercising its power. Can I assume that your next article will be about Mali and Niger? Pepe Escobar in his podcast with Sibel Edmonds and William Engdahl at Global and have presented some fairly thorough analyses, and your take on it would also be most welcome.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Very interesting article on Somalia, Somaliland and Algeria. Pity that the US drone base in Djibouti is located so close to Somaliland and there will soon be new drone bases in Ethiopia and Yemen:

    I'd have liked to know something about how "piracy" developed around Somalia too and the role played by foreigners in pushing the Somalis into defending their territorial waters aggressively.

    @ AC: Also if and when moving onto Mali and Niger, would it be possible also to cover Western Sahara and the Sahrawi desire for independence? Theirs is one of the longest and most ignored struggles for self-determination. Thanks very much if you can do this!

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    This article has definitely made some valid points and was well-researched. I think the first two paragraphs set the mood perfectly for the rest of the article. It is the truth that we believe what the media tells us unless researched for ourselves. We have to stay alert and not allow the media to spoonfeed us their version of the story when only one side has been reviewd.


  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    > On a slightly different note, the refusal to recognise Somaliland as a sovereign country confuses me. Is it because that would admit defeat on the part of the UN to help Somalia? As a successful, stable democracy, surely it should be the blueprint for spreading democracy in Africa. Get the West out, then.... oh wait. I've answered my own question.

    Removing the UN from Africa would only be a small part of "getting the West out of Africa". And what about the Saudis, the Chinese? What about "guest" military bases? Removing the overt military presence of the UN could well work in many cases, but it's not obvious to me that simply withdrawing from everywhere would in every case create a better situation for the people of those countries.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Thanks for writing yet another excellent piece, it's greatly appreciated.

    Have you read any of Jeremy Keenan's work on the subject of Algeria, and specifically Algeria's Department of Intelligence and Security (DRS), and the US's suggested involvement in nurturing terrorism as a means to an end?
    He recently wrote a piece for New Internationalist 'How Washington helped foster the Islamist uprising in Mali'

    One of the incredible claims made is that Djamel Zitouni was a DRS agent. If that is the case then I think the Tax Payers' alliance of Algeria would have a lot to say about it!

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.


    Ok, two comments:
    1: Have you read Black Hawk Down the book, and are you aware of the differences between the book and the film? One of which seems to be a near complete omission of the use of Pakistani tanks and Malaysian APCs to get the US soldiers out of the city. In fact, it seems many changes were made to the film (compared to the book) which portrayed the US forces is a much more positive light than the book.
    2: More importantly, your paragraph "allegedly involved the Americans firing rockets into a building where a group of Aidid's supporters were holding a meeting - killing 54 civilians" I think that was the attack on a "Safe House" on July 12, 1993, prior to the events of Black Hawk Down on 3-4 Oct. If I recall correctly from the Black Hawk Down book, the Americans thought Aidid and some hardliners were there, only it transpired that not only was Aidid not there, but it was a meeting of clan elders, including some hardliners but also a lot of moderates who were opposed to Aidid. ( , page 110-114). For obvious reasons, blowing up lots of moderates in a group tends to not result in peace, and only strengthens the hand of the hardliners, since many moderates would have been injured/killed, or at least lost credibility or become angry (I think this point was also made in the book).

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    This question regards "It Felt Like a Kiss" (apologies for posting it off-topic here, but comments are closed on the original post).

    Can you identify the opening black and white footage of the couple waking up in the morning?


  • Comment number 17.

    This comment has been referred for further consideration. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    I'm checking back to see if there is a reply to my question concerning "It Felt Like a Kiss" archival footage (comment #16). I'm hoping Adam Curtis will see it - but if anyone else knows the answer to this question, or could suggest a strategy for identifying the opening footage of the film, I would be very grateful. I can be reached directly at if that's easier than commenting here.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    I know you're exercised by the rigid lock step we appear to have fallen into in the west over the last few decades, and how our "individualism" is an ironic shell masking a rigid conformism.
    I think this can be elegantly explained in 1 minute and 24 seconds with a very short video.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    Once again a treatise about the Algerian civil war that is totally beside the point and full of approximations. I am so sorry for you Adam. This is a first hand account of the events.
    For a start, comparing Algeria and Somalia is like comparing Britain and Georgia: They are miles apart and share very little in history and culture. But then from England they all seem the same.
    Let’s look at the specific historical mistakes:
    The war of independence 1954/1962 was led by ONE group of nationalist called FLN there were NO others.
    The FLN did not ONLY bomb cafés but organised guerrilla warfare led by its military wing ALN, which had a lot of success on the ground. There was no Algerian Army and no one was killed for that.
    What you omit to say and IT IS OF UTMOST RELEVANCE is that Algeria did not exist. It was three departments of the FRENCH STATE and as such an integral part of FRANCE. There were over 1,5 million pieds noirs (descendants of colons from various origins, French, Spanish, Italian and so on). The Algerian language was French, its culture was French, its laws were French, as is expected of every inch of France.
    One can imagine how tedious and difficult the task of those independentists of the FLN was! France fought the uprising as seditious and a threat to the republic.
    In 1962 France did not give up but after being threatened in is foundations, having had two serious coup narrowly averted and being condemned on the international scene (notably UN, Kennedy and Kroutchev, for once in agreement).
    When 1.5 million French left in 1962 their extremist organisation OAS practised the scorched earth policy and everything was either destroyed or burnt, intellectuals executed and so on. Algeria had no choice but to turn to whoever could help with the foundations of a new state. It is true that a lot of help came from the Eastern bloc, but Boumedienne did not turn Algeria towards the Soviet, but actually reduced any dependence and was instrumental in reinforcing the Non Aligned Group. Oil only became a major resource in the 70s as process rose. You forget to mention President Chadly who took over from him in 1979. His reign saw a turn toward the West and a massive increase in corruption. At no point were the Islamists at that time in opposition. They were part of the system and were labelled BeardedFLN. The only opposition was from the democratic berber movement in Kabylia, who organised the Kabyle spring in 1980, severely repressed by the police nd the army. It ws followed by a witch hunt about all Kabyles in government, army and corporation. The battles you refer to in 1982 were not between Marxists and Islamists, but between these democrats fighting to institute a democracy and salafists who believe the democracy is Kofr (illicit in religion).
    Why would kabyles fight for democracy? The answer is because democracy is in their blood. Kabyles have led a democratic way of life for millennia, well before anyone heard of it in Britain. That system had been disrupted by France which would not tolerate on its territory anything but the republic!
    Salafists refuse democracy as in religion the power should be given to the learned only. That is the concept of the Kalifat People cannot have power. Power is in god’s hands!
    The idea that Islamists did not speak French is again a fallacy. The idea of mentioning Marxists in the reign of Chadly is also a fallacy. Chadly and his government were right wing and they did their best to befriend the US and other western powers. There were plenty of jobs and Islamists did get them particularly in the sectors that were totally arabised: Education, Justice. The problems with the Islamists were of another nature. They wanted to turn the workplace into a place of worship and refer all behaviour and decisions to their Islamic Knowledge: Women had to wear veils, no mixed working place, work had to stop at prayer times, and so on. These were perceived as an aggression by open minded people and there are many in Algeria. The Islamists would accuse them of being the agents of France, as that was so easy! Most conflicts were won by Islamists as they have more determination to achieve their aims. Weary of standing up to these fanatics the Algerian elite started to emigrate to different destinations, mostly to Quebec. But overall the standard of living of Algerians was much better than its neighbours and there was little unrest except for the Kabyles who wanted also the official recognition of their language. In the 13 years of Chadly’s reign there was only one instance of an Islamist having taken arms and fought the police. Most ot the others were well integrated in the FLN and the institutions (including Abassi Madani who was chairman of a local authority in Algiers).
    More to follow. This is a witness account, no her say, no bias. I stand for the truth and the BBC should uphold the truth and only the truth.


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