When the severed heads of seven French Trappist monks were found in a remote region of Algeria on May 30, 1996, many people around the world considered it perhaps the most gruesome act that Algerian jihadists had committed in their battle against the Algiers regime. Thirteen years later, however, the families of the victims, church officials and observers in France and Algeria are being told there’s an even darker side to the massacre. The revelation came on Monday that the monks may actually have been killed as the result of a bungled Algerian army military operation, and that French and Algerian authorities covered up the mistake by pinning the blame on Islamic fighters.
Skeptics have long sniffed at the official Franco-Algerian version of the abduction and murder of the monks. But in a June 25 statement to investigators looking into the case which was revealed Monday by French daily Le Figaro and confirmed by TIME with French security officials retired General François Buchwalter blew the biggest hole yet in the conclusion that the seven men were killed by the extremist Armed Islamic Group .
A former army intelligence official who was serving as military attaché to France’s embassy in Algiers at the time of the killings, Buchwalter told French investigators that Algerian colleagues had informed him that the monks had actually died when an Algerian army helicopter patrolling a mountainous area south of Algiers opened fire on what soldiers thought was a radical encampment. The monks were among the corpses discovered there. But when Buchwalter reported the information to his superiors, he said, he was ordered to remain silent in order to protect bilateral relations that would suffer if Algeria’s official version blaming the GIA, which had been battling Algeria’s government since 1992, were publicly invalidated. Attempts by TIME to contact Algerian authorities for comment were unsuccessful.
“There are a lot of aspects of the official story that just don’t stand up,
including the fact that alerts by several French officials on the Algerian army’s responsibility were never followed up,” says a member of France’s counterterrorism services who has knowledge of the case. “Also, why were only the severed heads of the monks found and returned to France If you can find the heads, you can find the bodies unless there’s a reason someone doesn’t want the bodies to be found.”
When the monks from the Tibhirine monastery some 55 miles south of Algiers disappeared on March 27, 1996, questions arose from the outset. The clerics had been friendly with surrounding communities and stressed interfaith relations they would even occasionally treat sick or wounded GIA members. For that reason, many experts were perplexed when the GIA issued a statement a few weeks later, on April 18, saying it had grabbed the monks to exchange for captured militants. Confusion grew further when the GIA issued a second communiqué on May 21, saying it had “slit the throats of the seven monks.”
“Why would a ruthless group that had already carried out numerous terrorist attacks in France and Algeria waste time and take chances dragging around hostages for prisoner swaps it decided to give up on in just a few weeks” asks the French official, who believes the GIA may well have been holding the monks for bargaining purposes when the disastrous army attack occurred.
The Algiers regime has long been dogged by unsubstantiated claims that it has exploited or at times staged spectacular violence assigned to jihadist groups as a means of provoking popular reaction in support of the state. Several independent terrorism experts, for example, believe that late GIA leader Djamel Zitouni who took personal responsibility for the monks’ murders was in fact a government plant with the dual role of fueling an escalation of terrorist violence and serving as its face for the public to revile.
Algerian officials have steadfastly denied that charge, along with accusations that its armed forces have been responsible in counterinsurgency massacres blamed on the GIA. They’ve also consistently argued the veracity of the official version of the monks’ deaths, attributing them to extremists.
But with Buchwalter now officially on the record in the investigation into the monks’ killings that was re-opened in 2004 at the request of victims’ families, the question is whether other French insiders will similarly step up and challenge the established story.
It’s unlikely. Buchwalter’s testimony indicates that French leaders were aware of the circumstances of the Tibhirine assassinations and that they connived in misdirecting blame toward the GIA. Admitting that now would result in an unimaginable scale of scandal. And both sides still benefit from sticking to the official line. The security situations in both France and Algeria have gotten worse over time, with France now relying on Algerian assistance in battling the jihadist threat perhaps more than it did in the mid-1990s. After all, Paris got considerable help from Algeria in its successful halting of the GIA’s 1995-96 terrorist bombing campaign in France and in its later dismantling of associated jihadist networks and plots.
Meanwhile, a series of permutations now finds the GIA operating as a member of Osama bin Laden’s international jihadist movement called al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb. As such, it has threatened to strike out at France from its Algerian base, most recently after France proposed a ban on the burqa. Given that, revising a 13-year-old story may seem too risky a venture to consider on either side of the Mediterranean.
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