Officially, Souaïdia was jailed for stealing spare parts from a car pound a charge he has always vigorously denied. He maintains that his real crime was voicing doubts about the missions he was ordered to carry out. His book provides a firsthand account of life within the Algerian army as it wages a brutal civil war. For the first time, a member of the special forces which, along with the secret service, have had exclusive responsibility for anti-terrorist operations since the outbreak of hostilities in 1992 provides detailed corroboration of rumors that have been circulating for years: that many crimes attributed to Islamic terrorists were in fact the work of the armed forces. "The generals are up to their necks in killing, and their motive is to hang onto power and the oil revenues and business commissions that go with it," Souaïdia claims. "The real problem in Algeria isn't Islamic fundamentalism, it's injustice."
Souaïdia's story is that of an idealistic officer's descent into a murky netherworld of torture, murder and terrorism. As a volunteer in the Algerian army's airborne élite, he found himself drafted into the newly formed "anti-subversion" forces late in 1992. The country had been rocked by terrorist violence after the military high command that year canceled the second round of legislative elections to block an inevitable victory by the Islamic Salvation Front (f.i.s.). Souaïdia arrived at his new posting at Béni-Messous near Algiers resolved to serve his country by combating a terrorist threat to public order.
He soon discovered that the reality of army operations was far removed from his ideals. He describes how one night in March 1993, he was ordered to escort a truckload of paratroops to the village of Douar Ez-Zaatria, a pro-f.i.s. stronghold. Souaïdia and his men waited for the truck on the outskirts of the village and escorted it back to base when it returned an hour later. A soldier he knew climbed out and, seeing Souaïdia, drew a bloodstained dagger across his throat. In the morning, the papers announced that a terrorist attack had left 12 dead in Zaatria that night.
At the end of that month, Souaïdia's unit was transferred to Lakhdaria 70 km east of Algiers and a new billet in a villa dating from the colonial era. Five cells had been installed on the ground floor. In his book, Souaïdia paints a grisly picture of suspected Islamic sympathizers being systematically arrested, tortured and killed. Their corpses were left in the surrounding countryside and the crimes were attributed to terrorist violence. Souaïdia claims to have watched as a 15-year-old boy was drenched in fuel and burned alive. "Everyone taken there was tortured and liquidated," he says. "They were forced to drink bleach, tortured with electricity, set upon by dogs and attacked with axes. As far as the generals were concerned, all Islamic sympathizers were terrorists and had to be physically eliminated."
The Dirty War is more than an account of army brutality. It includes descriptions of heavy losses inflicted on Algerian forces. Souaïdia describes how one unit of 40 inexperienced recruits was abandoned by its officer during an ambush. After running out of ammunition, they were forced to hand their weapons over to their assailants before being executed. He claims that military commanders sometimes allowed such attacks to happen to encourage greater ferocity in their soldiers. "When you've seen your friends killed, you end up hating the people who did it," says Souaïdia.
He alleges that terrorist groups are infiltrated and manipulated by the Algerian secret service, enabling the military high command to portray itself as the last rampart against bloodthirsty lawlessness. That thesis may sound farfetched, but it has convinced respected figures like Ferdinando Imposimato honorary vice president of Italy's High Court of Appeal who contributed a preface. Now a political refugee in France, Souaïdia says he is ready to return to Algeria to testify to the crimes he witnessed. But so far, his country's leaders are not prepared to delve too deeply into the dark secrets of the war against Islamic fundamentalism.