Lakhdaria Emir Reveals Secrets and Internal Liquidations of the Mountain, GIA Emir was Accused of Becoming Shiite After Some Elements Received Training in Lebanon. - Part III - (by Camille Tawil)
Camille al-Tawil Al-Hayat - 13/06/07//
Only a few leaders of the militant groups, who were behind the 1990s incidents, survived to tell the truth about what was happening in their strongholds in the mountains of Algeria. The majority of survivors chose to remain silent.
Omar Sheikhi (Abu Rokaya) was not one of those. The Emir of Lakhdaria in Bouira province (southeast of the Algerian capital), does not deny that he was one of the closest associates of the GIA leaders, including Djamel Zitouni and Antar Zouabri, who were described as the most bloody and extremist leaders. He was in fact a member of the few people forming the 'the inner circle', even when the group started to break up and the battalion commanders and warlords began to dissociate themselves from it. Given the personal relations he enjoyed with the 'mountain warlords', Omar can blow the lid off what was happening between the leaders of groups: their differences, the "inquisitions" they set up and the liquidation of many of them.
Sheikhi lives today in the Algerian capital. He came down from the mountain in the second half of the 1990s. It was reported that he had not come down out of his own will, as he was arrested by security services before reaching an agreement with them to benefit from the Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation. Omar Sheikhi descended from the mountain, leaving behind his brother, a member of the GIA who was killed in a battle with Algerian security forces in 1994, and three of his wife's brothers, who were all killed in battles with security forces in the 1990s. He also left behind many of his comrade-in-arms and part of his past.
Sheikhi is trying to rebuild his life after spending many years in what the Algerians call 'Kazimat' - a euphemism for the militant hideouts in the mountains. But he knows that he cannot escape forever from his past. His 11-year-old daughter, Rokaya, is asking him about her uncle and three maternal uncles. "I tell her they died in a traffic accident. But I know she no longer believes me. She must be hearing news from her classmates, friends and neighbors. My son is still young (eight years old), but undoubtedly he will know the truth."
What follows is the story as told by Sheikhi, whom 'al-Hayat' has met twice in Algiers last month, about the mountain's secrets.
Going up the Mountain and the Emergence of GIA
"We were active in a group known as the 'Lakhdaria Group', which was widely believed to be affiliated to the Islamic Salvation Front. Although we began armed action after the cancellation of 1992 elections, I have been in hiding since the summer of 1991, when a clash took place between us and the security forces, which wanted to replace 'the Islamic Municipality' slogan with 'From and to the People' slogan at the Lakhdaria municipality. Therefore, we began preparation for the armed struggle. We contacted several groups that were active at the time, such as Abdelkader Chebouti's Movement for an Islamic State (MEI), brother Mansur Meliani's movement (the Afghans) and brother Mohamed Allal (Moh Leveilley), who had his own group comprising Ali Zouabri (brother of Antar Zouabri) and Abdelhaq Layada (the first Emir of GIA). There was also an independent group, Tawfik Hattab (who assassinated the former Prime Minister and former Intelligence Chief Kasdi Merbah and who is the older brother of Hassan Hattab, the founder of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat). After the failure of Tamesguida meeting for the unity of the armed groups at the end of August and early September 1992, another meeting was held in Baraki (a suburb of Algiers), and it was attended by almost eight persons. In that meeting the Armed Islamic Group was established and Abdelhaq Layada (Abu Adlane) was appointed as Emir."
"Layada continued on as Emir until the summer of 1993 when he was arrested in Morocco. A meeting was held in Boukra (a GIA stronghold in Blida). The meeting witnessed the induction of Brother Isa Bin Ammar as Emir, but he was killed by the security forces only weeks after his appointment. He was promptly replaced by Jaafar al-Afghani (Sid Ahmed Mourad). Jaafar was a high-caliber fighter. His leadership lasted until February 1994 when he was killed by security forces, therefore he was replaced by the head of the GIA Sharia board, Cherif Gousmi, who orchestrated the unity under the umbrella of GIA (which included a faction from FIS led by Sheikh Mohammed Said and representatives of MEI led by Abdelkader Chebouti and Said Makhloufi, the former captain in the Algerian army). After the unity (which was announced in May 1994), efforts were made to incorporate the Islamic Salvation Army (AIS), but to no avail. Afterwards Cherif Gousmi was killed in September 1994 and he was subsequently replaced by Djamel Zitouni."
In that period (between 1993 and 1995), there were contacts between the Algerian government and the detained FIS elders, chiefly Abbasi Madani and Ali Belhadj, in order to reach an agreement on the cessation of violence in the country. Based on those contacts, the FIS leaders dispatched some of the released FIS sheikhs to the mountain to meet secretly with leaders of the militant groups. Consequently, contacts were made with AIS and GIA, what is the story of this communication?
Omar Sheikhi said:
"The Islamic Salvation Front had already contacted us in that period. Actually the FIS established two contacts: Abdelkader Boukhamkham and Ali Djeddi went to meet the national emir of the eastern area, Madani Mezrag, and the emir of the western area, Ahmed ben Aicha, while Kamal Kammazi contacted us. He went up the mountain in Boukra to meet us. Djamel Zitouni was the emir at the time. Zitouni, Antar Zouabri, Abu Saleh, Mohamed al-Saeed and I asked Kammazi, 'Sincerely speaking, are we in Jihad or not?' He said, 'Yes, you are.' We discussed the matter with him. A makeshift tent was prepared for him and Mohamed al-Saeed to sleep in. Among the things Mohamed Saeed, may Allah have mercy on him, said is, 'If you go to Sheikh Ali Belhadj (as he was placed under house arrest in the capital awaiting the result of the contacts between FIS leaders and the militant groups), please tell him not to mention the armed Islamic groups in his writings as this is an invitation to division. We were united (in 1994) under the GIA and any one who does not want to join the GIA is a man favors division.'"
"Kammazi also said, "Entry and exit from 'Jinan Mufti' (official residence where Belhadj was placed under house arrest) is simple. I will go and inform Sheikh Belhadj and the other sheikhs (FIS Sheikhs) how things happen and I will come back to you to join the fight.' Some members of the group opposed allowing him to leave the mountain. They said he should stay here. But he said that he had to go to inform Sheikh Ali Belhadj of what is happening. We told him he could do so. As for what happened between Ali Djeddi and Boukhamkham and the AIS leaders, only God knows. We had no news of them."
Sheikhi said, "Djeddi came to us at the time of Zitouni's leadership, but the contact with Ali Belhadj was established at the time of Cherif Gousmi's leadership. Ali Belhadj said in his message, which was found in Gousmi's pocket when he was killed (in September 1994), 'Continue Jihad and if I am released from prison I will be a soldier with you.' In fact, there were two letters from Belhadj during Zitouni's leadership. In the first he calls for dialogue and says that we have to sit and talk. He urged us to read a book on how to hold dialogue with the enemy. I think he sent us a copy of it. The second letter was a reply to a letter sent by Zitouni asking his opinion about photography in terms of Sharia and complaining to him about Mezrag's AIS as they refuse to join the unity and speak in the name of the Islamic Salvation Front. As far as I remember, Belhadj replied in his letter by saying, 'With regard to photography the scholars' fatwas must be followed, as there are opinions of Albany and Ibn Baz explaining when photography becomes a necessity, giving his own opinion on the matter.' In the second part of the letter he said, 'Mezrag is our brother and when I get out of prison, God willing, I will bring you together.' But the letter did not satisfy the group and the relationship with the FIS leaders was severed. We also received a letter from Sheikh Abbasi Madani about the dialogue, but it was incomprehensible."
At the end of Cherif Gousmi's term Mahfouz Tajin (Abu Khalil) took over for a very short period. Djamel Zitouni led a trend in the GIA called the 'Salafists' and he took over as Emir by himself. What is the truth of what happened?
Omar Sheikhi said, "When Cherif Gousmi was killed in September 1994 it was known that Mahfouz Tajin was his first deputy. Nevertheless, differences existed as Mahfouz Tajin was accused of being a Shiite and an Algerist (a reference to the Algerisation trend). There were too many accusations against him. Even in some compounds (GIA compounds) there were discussions about Mahfouz. Abu Abdallah Ahmed (Cherif Gousmi) considered that some of the accusations against Mahfouz can be untrue. However, he was eventually convinced that what is being said against him is true: It is true that he belongs to the Algerisation trend and to the Shiites. He was ready to open an investigation about him, but his fate was sealed. When Gousmi was killed members of the Shura Council, such as Khalid al-Sahili, Ayub and Ali al-Afghani held a meeting. There was the Emir and the deputy Emir. Naturally if the Emir is killed his deputy replaces him. But a large number of brigade commanders in the capital, as well as in some areas, were not satisfied with Mahfouz. A group met in the 'first region' and Zitouni accompanied them to the GIA's base where Mahfouz Tajin relinquished the leadership to Zitouni.
Al-Hayat: What is the background of the accusations against Mahfouz of being 'Shiite'?
Omar Sheikhi says, "His step to send fighters to be trained in Lebanon was one of the reasons that raised doubts about him. Kouasmi asked him about this. He literally replied, 'We use the Iranian Shiites, but do not follow their approach.' Kouasmi said, 'You can't use the Shiites, they will use you. Beware and beware! I've sent a delegation (to Hezbollah in Lebanon) beware of sending another delegation.' But Mahfouz paid no attention to this, so he prepared another group to go to Lebanon. An investigation was made with the people who went to Lebanon. I was one of the people who investigated them. It was an ordinary investigation. They were not satisfied with the exercises. (They said) their approach is at loggerhead with ours.
They used to go to Syria and head from there to Lebanon. Their representative was called Rashid A, he based himself in Syria. In fact, he was Mahfouz's representative, but he was serving as a representative of the GIA. In the period when Zitouni was the Emir, (the Emir) told him to return from Syria to Algeria, but he refused, saying 'My Emir is Mahfouz'."
Al-Hayat: How did the relationship between Mahfouz and the Iranians begin?
"Mahfouz went to Lebanon himself, where he remained for nearly six months. This was in 1991, when he wanted to go to war in Iraq (there was a large group of Algerians, who had prepared themselves to go to Iraq for jihad against the US forces during the Gulf War in 1991). Mahfouz went to Syria with a view of going to Iraq, but he met leader of the Islamic Jihad Organization in Palestine, Fathi Shikaki, by accident (in Syria). Shikaki said to (the Algerians), 'What are you doing here?' Both spoke for a short while, and then Shikaki (who was assassinated by Israel in the 1990s) told him that if he wanted to go to Lebanon they would facilitate this for him.
Mahfouz said, "There was no problem, let's go to Lebanon." Shikaki arranged everything for them. He left them in a villa and after some time, they were admitted to a hospital in Lebanon where they stayed six months. They were admitted to the hospital through Fathi Shikaki. He told us that he performed prayers with the Shiites and did so and so with them. But we did not blame him for entering Lebanon at the time. Later on, we started to see messages coming to him from Shiite clerics in Syria, which scared the GIA. They (the Shiite clerics) dealt with Mahfouz directly (not through the GIA leadership).
Sheikhi relates a story that took place on the mountain after Mahfouz Tajin had stepped down from his position as Emir, "Mahfouz remained a member of the Shura Council of the GIA after he had stepped down in favor of Zitouni. I remember that we were riding a car on the road to Boukra (the GIA's stronghold) and we met some of the brothers. The place was dark, so we thought that we were locked in an ambush by the army. But our brothers were from among our group. They knew us, even though we did not recognize them. So, we opened the car and jumped out. Mahfouz threw himself out of the car and (his leg) was fractured. He was splinted for a long time. He stayed in the capital until he recovered. We used to send someone to him when we needed him."
Al-Hayat: Who was Djamel Zitouni, the Emir at whose era the GIA started to adopt a takfiri attitude and 'Inquisitions' against members of the GIA themselves took place?
Sheikhi says, "His real name is Djamel Zitouni. He was born in 1968 in Birkhadem in the capital. His education was average, but he mastered Arabic and French. His Islamic background was average. He learned at the hands of Sherif Kouasmi and read about Sharia with him. He started a business (a store for selling chickens). He was married with no children. He was Deputy Chief of the Executive Office of the 'Islamic Salvation Front' (FIS) in Birkhadem. He was arrested in the 1991 incidents and detained in prison in the Sahara for approximately five or six months. When he was released he engaged in armed action. He was a friend of Jaafar al-Afghani (the third Emir of the GIA). He was a courageous fighter, liked and respected religious scholars and Islamic officers. (...) In the beginning, he was appointed emir of a brigade in Birkhadem. He was the founder and emir of the 'Green Battalion'. He used to select its fighters from other battalions. He chose the best elements in terms of morals, obedience and fighting. The battalion started with 40 fighters, but this number used to increase and decrease, it was directly affiliated to him, as it included the Diwan of the Emir and his own guards.
(...) Zitouni chose the stronghold of the GIA in Boukra, which is a vast mountainous area. The army discovered and stormed the GIA strongholds in Blida, but there were some strongholds at Boukra, which the army failed to reach. That is why Zitouni chose it as headquarters of the GIA in agreement with some elements of the 'Green Battalion'. They told him, 'Choose an area or we'll choose it for you'. He chose it himself. It was decided that the members of the Shura Council and members of the 'Ahlul Hal Wal'aqd' (people of power and influence) should always accompany him, at a time when the people who moved frequently used not to come to the center (headquarters of the GIA). When they used to come, they did so in a way that did not allow them to recognize the site, i.e. blindfolded or at night in a closed car. That was his way, and we agreed on it. We set up some three command centers in Boukra and Zitouni used to move from one area to another. The advantage of Boukra is that it is a mountainous area similar to the Sharia and the Medea areas. The army failed to know the command areas of the GIA in Boukra at the time; that is why it did not attack us."
Conflict with the Takfiris
Al-Hayat: The GIA detached itself away from the takfiri ideology in the 1990s and described itself as 'Salafist Jihad'. This was before its leader, Antar Zouabri, took over as Emir in 1997 to declare the Algerian masses as 'infidels' in his 'public apostasy' statement. Was not the GIA takfiri?
Sheikhi says, "The GIA was at loggerheads with the takfiris. Clashes began when the takfiris assaulted the family of a man from Alonchris and swore at his daughters. The man complained to the GIA, which in turn raided their command and found a jumble of arms, including Iraqi weapons. The second time, a coincidental clash took place between the two parties, in which the GIA killed all the takfiris, who were in the confrontation. But from time to time clashes with the takfiris took place at Alonchris Mountains."
Al-Hayat: At the end of 1995 and the beginning of 1996, the GIA began to disintegrate, as Djamel Zitouni and a group of Emirs, who allied with him, killed the leader of the 'Algerianization' trend, Sheikh Mohammed al-Saeed (along with Abdurrazzaq Rajjam) on a charge of 'conspiracy' over the 'Salafist approach' of the GIA. What happened in that period?
Sheikhi says, "Before his death, Zitouni was commissioned by Radwan Abuseer (External Relations Officer in the GIA) the task of persuading the groups to stay within the framework of GIA, in light of the rifts that occurred following the murders of Mohammed al-Saeed and Abdurrazzaq Rajjam. However, Radwan's failure to persuade the people not to leave the GIA caused substantial differences between him and Zitouni. The latter felt that Radwan - called Mcador, a title which he did not like because it was the name of a European soccer goalkeeper - abandoned him. Zitouni felt isolated. Antar Zouabri fled to Bufariq and rested. I told him that I would not come to him, and went to the capital where I rested for a while. He used to tell me, 'I'm with this brigade, so let's meet.' However, I said I couldn't involve myself in these problems (in light of the murder of al-Saeed). Zitouni asked me to go the battalions to persuade them not to depart from the GIA. But how could I persuade them? I told him, 'If Mcador failed to persuade the people, how can I? You start trouble, and Antar starts trouble too (by killing the Algerianization group). I will not do this.' Zitouni began to cry profusely. In an attempt to involve me, he asked me to take over external relations (in place of Radwan Mcador). I told him that I wouldn't. Abdurrazaq al-Bara, who is currently detained, and I took a tour from Blida to Medea. On the road, I met Sakhr al-Libi (from the Afghan Libyans who fought with the GIA). Zitouni spoke to him and gave him powers. But I told Sakhr, 'Go to Libya. You should not remain here with the battalions to explain that they should remain within the framework of the GIA and not depart from it.' I returned to the headquarters of the GIA, but I did not meet Zitouni. I sent him a letter. During that journey, I was wounded on the road, as I fell in an ambush by the army. I was hit in the leg and could not walk. The Diwan Officer came (in July 1996) and told me that Hassan (one of Djamel Zitouni's epithets) was killed, as he fell in an ambush by the GIA's dissenters. Therefore, Antar Zouabri took over as Emir. At that period, individuals and groups began to break away from the GIA. Among the dissenters was Abu Khaled (Chouakri), who has been in Afghanistan, and Abu Lubaba, who was the bodyguard of Djamel Zitouni. Both broke away from the GIA. Abu Khaled had a good relationship with Sakhr al-Libi. Immediately after Abu Khaled broke away, Antar Zouabri followers went to Sakhr and tortured him severely (they plucked out a platinum rod that was implanted in his hand while he was still alive). Antar was not present during the torture session. He was at a remote center in al-Broakiya. He was with a battalion that was completely loyal to him. They forced Sakhr to make depositions, but I do not know what he told them.
Zouabri killed Radwan (Mcador) in 1997. Radwan was in the third year at the university when he joined the GIA. His brother Sofian was also killed in the mountain in a confrontation with the army in 1993 or 1994."