war on the rocks

Rock the Casbah: Tales of a Female Bomber

March 7, 2018

Inside the Battle of Algiers: Memoir of a Woman Freedom Fighter, by Zohra Drif-Bitat (Just World Books, 2017).

Late on a September afternoon in 1956 a young woman entered the Milk Bar, an Algiers cafe popular with European youth. She looked like an average well-to-do French-Algerian, who had stopped off after a day at the beach. In reality, however, she was an Algerian Muslim, her appearance altered to blend in with café’s clientele. After eating ice cream, she departed. No one noticed that she had left behind a beach bag at the foot of the stool she had occupied. Minutes later, a bomb in the bag exploded.

The terrorist attack on the Milk Bar is a key moment in the iconic Battle of Algiers, the docudrama that portrays a pivotal period in the National Liberation Front (FLN) insurgency to wrest Algeria from France. The film has always fascinated me as an entry into understanding the insurgency and the French counterinsurgency. I have assigned it for a class on insurgency that I teach at Georgetown University. Other scholars I know also include the film in their courses. Counterinsurgency practitioners too have gravitated toward the film. It was screened in the Pentagon in 2003 as the insurgency in Iraq deepened, and it remains a feature of formal and informal U.S. government training. I suspect security professionals from other nations similarly study the film, seeking lessons for how to counterinsurgency and terrorism.

Terrorism was one of the main tactics of the FLN. RAND researchers have concluded that “the FLN’s main strength revolved around its expeditious use of terror to alter the political context of the Algerian conflict.” The Milk Bar bombing and other FLN bombings depicted in film illustrate how the insurgents employed terrorism instrumentally — that is, as a means to further their strategic goals. Noted historian Alistair Horne, commenting in 2004, asserted that the Battle of Algiers “is very important … because it has lessons for, about, terrorism and the winning over of — you might call it — the silent majority [by the FLN].”

Neither the target — the civilian patrons of the Milk Bar — nor the effects of the bombing are fiction. Neither is the Francophone, European-appearing character who placed the bomb. Sixty years after the events portrayed in the film, the Milk Bar bomber, Zohra Drif, has published Inside the Battle of Algiers, an English translation of her memoir of the period (the original volume, in French, came out in 2014). Drif has led an extraordinary life. She joined the FLN as a young law student and planted bombs that killed and maimed on the FLN’s behalf. Arrested by the French Army and condemned to death, she was spared execution but instead spent only five years in a French prison. Liberated in the wake of French acquiescence to Algerian independence, Drif has since enjoyed a successful career in law and politics, culminating in her tenure as Vice President of the Algerian Senate. Although she vehemently disagrees with being labeled a terrorist, her book has much to say about terrorism, especially the FLN’s moral and strategic justification for targeting European civilians. It also provides insights into a range of issues attendant to individual participation in terrorism and insurgency.

As an academic and as a now-retired intelligence analyst, I regularly read first-person accounts by militants, seeking insights into their mindsets and strategic decision-making. I wholeheartedly concur with terrorist scholars who suggest that militant autobiography can provide windows into the personalities and motives of terrorist participants and the operational challenges that militant groups face. Drif’s memoir delivers on those expectations.

First, Drif’s account provides a rare perspective on a woman’s participation in an insurgency. Although women have played and continue to play prominent roles in militant groups, biographies and autobiographies of militants are overwhelmingly focused on the male participant perspective. There are only a handful of narratives published by female members of the FLN, and Drif’s is the only account that has been translated into English. Drif highlights the critical role that female militants played in couriering weapons, conducting pre-operational surveillance, organizing the Casbah’s population, and, of course, carrying out terrorist attacks.

The portrayal of the motives, actions, and emotions of Drif and her fellow bombers Djamila Bouhired and Samia Lakhdari are particularly well-drawn. Drif was, in modern parlance, self-radicalized. She came from an Algerian Muslim family with nationalistic sentiments, but was not an activist. The outbreak of the insurgency in 1954 spurred her to action. Drif was not so much recruited by the FLN as she sought it out. Her goal from the outset was to be a combatant. It was Drif, along with Lakhdari, who chose the Milk Bar and a cafeteria near the university as the targets for their attacks.

Drif is unwavering and unapologetic over her role in killing and maiming pied noir civilians. According to Drif, “I was one of the armed partisans. I know my cause was just, and I fought with the means at hand.” To French-Algerian civilians who died in FLN bombings and attacks she asserts “you died because you were among the hundreds of thousands of Europeans [that] were used to subjugate and occupy a foreign country.” She even rejects the term “civilians,” claiming that the so-called “civilian population” were “European settlers who their army brought to colonize our country.” She also believes FLN terror attacks were just retribution for French actions that killed Algerian civilians, which she maintained were many times worse that the bombings the FLN carried out. In a 2004 documentary that accompanied a re-issue of Battle of Algiers, Drif asserted that “all we did was respond to their [European] violence. So honestly, for us, we were at war, and these were acts of war. No more, no less.”

Drif was more a foot soldier than an insurgent strategist, but she crossed paths with Larbi Ben M’Hidi, one of the founders of the FLN, and spent considerable time with and was captured alongside Yacef Saadi, the political-military leader of the FLN Algeria Autonomous Zone. It was from these men that Drif learned the strategic purpose of her acts: to jar the European community out of its “indecent tranquility,” and awaken it to the “bitter reality” of “total war” that was being waged on Algerian civilians. Drif claims that the FLN aimed to demonstrate to the Algerian populace — and especially the residents of the Casbah — that it could defend them by retaliating for French attacks.

Drif reveals much about the psychological burdens of life as an underground operative, especially through her recollection of the weeks she spent on the run dodging French raids that were rolling up the FLN Algiers infrastructure. Upon going underground, Drif confessed she felt “a deep sense of loneliness….” The recognition that “my life would never again be the same, that my daily routine would never again be so reassuring, made my throat clench up.” The book’s tensest passages are Drif’s account of nightly moving from safe house to safe house, sweating out raids in cramped, hidden compartments and mourning as her comrades fell into the French dragnet.

Drif also lays bare the emotion attendant to infiltration and treachery — the “glowing torments of hell that is betrayal.” Confronted with the fact that the FLN’s Algiers military chief was a French informant and that his treachery led to her capture, Drif describes this realization as “the most bitter humiliation of my life. It was not that I was arrested, but that I was arrested because of the betrayal of one of our own.”

Given the tremendous pressure Drif endured and her deep sense of loss as her comrades were arrested or killed, it would be natural for her to have had second thoughts over her participation in the insurgency. But the reader will find no such sentiments. There are no misgivings and no regrets. Her account suggests many factors sustained her motivation. The FLN’s Algiers network became her second family. Membership in this group sustained her will.

Drif’s account also reveals the deep patriotism that drove her participation in the insurgency, as well as a certainty of eventual victory that buoyed her fellow militants. At several points, Drif asserts that the French could not comprehend the determination of the Algerian people to gain their independence. Her account validates the observations of the late scholar J. Bowyer Bell who asserted that that counterinsurgents find it difficult to credit rebel optimism and determination and the advantage they convey in insurgency. As he puts it, the “rebel vision makes a difference in the correlation of forces.”

Bell also cautioned that memoirs written by “old rebels” have limits. These former combatants “tend to remember only the glory and excitement, not the brutality. […] Old rebels … have their agendas to fashion.” Despite the insights Drif offers, readers should take Bell’s warning into account when reading her narrative.

Like the Battle of Algiers, Drif’s account is laudatory of the FLN. It is essentially organizational hagiography. Criticism of the FLN and its actions is largely absent. Drif does credit a “vile power struggle” within the FLN for the assassination of a senior FLN figure who had journeyed to Morocco. Yet, she is silent on far greater internal FLN bloodletting. A vast purge swept the FLN, especially near Algiers, which largely unfolded after Drif’s arrest. Nevertheless, if Drif had escaped Algiers to join the rural insurgency, she almost certainly would have been among the thousands of FLN activists killed by their own, as the purge specifically targeted French-speaking, French-educated urban youth such as herself. Ironically, Drif was likely saved by her imprisonment.

Drif’s portrayals of her FLN companions are sympathetic to the point of stretching credibility. Readers familiar with the Battle of Algiers may well have difficulty believing the highly-educated and refined Drif could so easily interact with Ali la Pointe, a central character in that movie. In the film and in real life, Ali was an illiterate, itinerant mason, as well as petty criminal. His “conversion” to the FLN cause while in prison and his death at the hands of the French are key moments in the film. Despite his cinematic portrayal, Ali was a thug — a pimp and a drug pusher, according to Alistair Horne. Yet Drif describes him as “the most just of the just” and “right and good.” Drif heaps similar praise on other FLN figures she encountered.

The reader should also keep in mind that the events related by Drif are more than six decades in the past — a distance too vast for precision. The exceptional detail she provides on her personal interactions and her conversations with comrades, friends and family simply stretch credibility. At the same time and despite the copious verbatim dialogue presented, Drif glosses over much operational detail, including her own actions — the Milk Bar bombing being a key exception.

Drif’s portrayal of French counterinsurgency is, as you would expect, one-sided. All French actions are portrayed as abusive, intended to punish potential FLN supporters as much as the FLN. Drif labels the French methods — incessant raids, checkpoints, bombing of French villages, collective punishment, and torture of suspects — as terrorism for their impact on Algerian civilians. She never describes her own actions as such.

Despite Drif’s portrayal, she obliquely reveals French counterinsurgency success. French intelligence achievements, including penetrating FLN structures, led directly to Drif’s arrest and the arrest or death of the FLN’s senior Algiers cadre. Drif admits that by the time of her capture at the end of the Battle of Algiers “[t]he French Army had virtually decimated our political political-military organization and dealt fatal blows to the officer corps.” Constant French pressure, arrests, and raids devastated FLN logistics in Algiers, leaving the group incapable of mounting high profile terrorist attacks, according to Drif. Most telling, Drif relates an episode late in the Battle of Algiers in which locals refused to shelter fugitive FLN militants. Their refusal led to her realizations that “the fear and terror inspired by the French army had surpassed our people’s hatred of them. Terror and annihilation were stronger than people’s real and sincere commitment of the ideal of independence and the FLN.”

Drif is, however, mum on the FLN’s role in provoking the French violence she condemns. Provocation of repression and excess is an insurgent strategic approach employed across regions and eras. Its purpose is to spark ultimately counterproductive violence on the part of the counterinsurgents or the part of the population aligned with the counterinsurgency. This violence can diminish the image of the counterinsurgents in the eyes of domestic and international audiences, as well as drive the local population into the arms of the insurgency. Of course, the population, caught between insurgent violence and counterinsurgent excess, pays the price, but the insurgency itself can make tremendous gains. The FLN’s actions — for example attacking French civilians in Philippeville in 1955, which triggered a massacre of thousands of Algerian Muslims — played a critical role in swinging many Algerians towards the FLN. Despite her silence on the matter, Drif surely knew about — or subsequently learned about — the FLN’s provocation approach.

Any historical military campaign is a mosaic, best told from many viewpoints. Each will carry biases. Even well-regarded histories such as Alistair Horne’s Savage War of Peace have limitations. Despite standing as the definitive history of the conflict, Horne’s work provides only a glimpse into the emotions attendant to the life and death struggle. Zohra Drif’s memoir, despite its biases and deliberate omissions, provides a useful viewpoint to more fully understand the events of 1956 and 1957 in Algeria, especially the hopes and fears of the FLN combatants immersed in the Battle of Algiers.

 

Lincoln Krause recently retired after a 36 ½ year career as an intelligence officer. He served in the U.S. Army, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and the Central Intelligence Agency. He is also an Adjunct Professor in the Security Studies Program of Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service.

Image: Michel Marcheux/Wikimedia Commons