At a vibrant and bustling French restaurant high above the Bay of Algiers in 2005, a loud crash sent my Algerian friends diving for cover under the table. Diners at other tables all did the same, leaving me sitting upright and alone. When it became clear that a waiter had dropped a serving tray stacked with dishes, everyone reemerged laughing. My friends joked that I was too slow. Had it been the 1990s, it would have been a terrorist bomb and I would have been dead. Gallows humor to ease the trauma of Algeria's "Dark Decade" when it fought an Islamist insurgency. There has never been an official count, but estimates are that 150,000 to 200,000 people died during the ten year conflict, many of them in terrorist attacks targeting public places, just like the French restaurant where we were having dinner.
When I spoke with friends and colleagues in Algiers on January 16, 2012, as news of the terrorist attack at In Amenas began to radiate outward from the close community of expatriates working in the hydrocarbons sector to everyday Algerians, the conversations seemed if not scripted at least oft repeated: In Amenas was tragic; the loss of life would be horrible. And no one expected it to end any differently than it ultimately did. Their's was a response that had been learned and rehearsed during the Islamist insurgency. If it seemed somehow reflexive, like ducking under dinner tables, it was no less sympathetic.
The insurgency was gruesome. People killed by electric drills and power sanders. Entire villages slaughtered in the night. Corpses were displayed during the morning rush hour on the shoulder of the highway leading into downtown Algiers. Families would be notified and come to collect their dead. They would hold funeral rites and bury the victims, only to find the bodies by the side of the road again the next day, having been disinterred by insurgents. Anybody was a target -- doctors, poets, professors, lawyers, journalists, politicians, elementary school teachers. This was not the al Qaeda-style, episodic, spectacular terrorism of recent years. This was the excruciating grind of workaday terrorism. The insurgency's violence had engendered an equally violent and uncompromising counterterrorism policy. And the more brutal the insurgency became, the more unrelenting the government's response. The government's response to the terrorism in the 1990s set the precedent for the policy that was implemented at In Amenas. Even in the early hours of the In Amenas crisis Algerians knew how it was likely to end. Algerian security forces would kill the terrorists. Hostages would die as well. This would be a genuine tragedy, but the unarticulated sentiment was that any deaths among the hostages were the cost of reestablishing law and order and reinforcing the state's monopoly on force. Hostages might die for the sake of the greater goal of preventing Algeria from slipping back into the Dark Decade.
Hostages did die, at least 37 expatriate workers and one Algerian. What surprised many outside observers was that Algeria did not distinguish between Algerians and expatriates. To understand why, it is important to understand the emergence of modern Algeria.
Algeria is a socialist country. When Algeria finally won independence from France in 1962 after an eight year war, the founders of the new state did not revive an indigenous form of government that had been displaced by more than a century of French colonial occupation. Instead they created a socialist republic modeled on France, but without the French. Echoing the Fifth Republic's liberté, égalité, fraternité, Algerians were free, they were equal, and they were brotherly. Despite the state's shortcomings over the last 50 years which are readily apparent to Algerians of all walks, this sense of equality is deeply engrained. No one Algerian was above another. As visitors to Algiers and other Algerian cities are quick to note, there are no shoeshine boys in Algeria -- no Algerian is expected to kneel at the feet of another. By extension, certainly no foreigner was above any Algerian.
While foreigners are welcome in Algeria, they are made to understand that they are not only subject to the government's laws and its rules and regulations, but also to the state's broader objectives. Just as Algerians are part of what the government calls the "national project," expatriates too are expected to contribute to furthering the state's goals and to the betterment of the country. Foreigners are not in Algeria simply to exploit what Algeria has to offer and then return to their home countries. When foreign companies install themselves in Algeria, it is understood that they have committed themselves to Algeria's "national project." Part of this commitment is enshrined in regulations governing foreign firms, but another portion is informal - expatriate workers are not accorded any special status and are treated no differently in their day-to-day doings and interactions with the Algerian bureaucracy than Algerian citizens. Usually, this is just a challenge of living and working in Algeria, a source of headaches and hassles, but nothing more.
At In Amenas, this tragically meant giving their lives alongside their Algerian colleagues. For the Algerian government, the military operation's goals were threefold, a quick end to the crisis, rescue of as many hostages as possible, and most importantly, restoration of the state's monopoly on force and reestablishing its capacity for deterrence. The government did bring the crisis to an abrupt end and it did manage to rescue some hostages. It is still unclear whether the military's raid will deter further attacks, but for the sake of the Algerian and expatriate victims, let's hope that it did, especially because while it may be some time before expatriates return to Algeria, Algerians do not have the same option and are compelled to see the national project through.