May 21st is the date on which we remember the 1996 massacre of the monks of Tibhirine, in Algeria. In remembering Tibhirine on this occasion, I intend to connect that massacre to the kidnapping of Father Paolo Dall’Oglio, not only because of the vision shared by those who lived in the monastery of Tibhirine and those in the Mar Musa monastery, but also because of similarities in the ideology of followers of the Syrian Baath party and those of Algeria’s National Liberation Front. All this is not just about the role played by intelligence, by generals or the repressive apparatuses or the Soviet Union as the guiding lights in both countries following military coups in Damascus and Algiers.
The original Baath Party was founded by a Christian Arab, a man trained in the Marxist Left in France and the bearer of a vision of pan-Arabism as the world’s great proletarian movement against the imperialism of wealthy states. From this position it was then possible to progress to a vision of isolation from a corrupt and unjust world. Such a vision justified the siege culture with which the military persecuted all dissent. The Algerian experience followed a very similar path, confirmed by the 1966 bilateral agreements between the Baath party and the Algerian FLN. Salah Boubnider, at the time a member of the executive secretariat of the Algerian Front, spoke of this in great detail.
The military deviation only emphasized the transformation of the socialist vision into persecution of all dissent and this could only hide an agent paid by the outside world and working for its corruption. It is this isolation from the corrupt world that will help us understand the real reasons for which we were unable to understand the massacre of the Tibhirine monks and the expelling and later kidnapping of Father Paolo Dall’Oglio. All this despite one of the Algerian victims, Father Luc Dochier, telling one of the few people continuing to seek the truth, his fellow missionary Armand Veilleux, that, “If we were to die, be aware that it was not the Muslims, but those wearing regular uniforms.” It was he, the doctor of the Tibhirine group, who knew that the fact that he treated everyone was not appreciated by the Algerian regime’s secret services.
And what about Father Paolo? If the plan drawn up and approved by Kofi Annan allowed free expression of political dissent in Syria, why did the Syrian regime demand the local Church in which he operated to remove this fervent critic of the regime? One can however assume that the bishop did not want to engage in a quarrel with the regime in the name of peace and quiet. One could envisage the same quiet life, imagining what moved the steps of the Bishop of Algiers, Henri Teissier. It was only the tenacity of a great Italian reporter, Valerio Pellizzari, after many years and thanks to an interview with a Western diplomat who had been in Algeria at the time of the massacre and had access to those with real power but now lived in Finland, revealed that not only had it been a helicopter belonging to the Algerian secret services that had attacked the monks by mistake, but also the bishop’s conduct. “The local authorities had at least one authoritative external supporter who agreed with their version of the facts. Henri Teissier, archbishop of Algiers and an expert on the Islamic world, had from the beginning adopted a very cautious and prudent line regards to Tibhirine. He did not agree that the coffins should be opened or that the monks should be buried at the monastery. He did not want to damage relationships established over many years of patient work between the Catholic Church and the Algerian government, while the civil war that erupted after 1992 still raged.”
It is necessary to be clearer. That mistaken and casual government action had torn the victims to pieces as a witness had told Pellizzari. “The monks’ bodies were riddled with shots and for this reason, at the time of the funerals, only their heads were placed in the coffins. The authorities instead immediately spoke of “remains found”. And they would have continued with that ritualistic and deceptive formula if a monk, Father Armand Veilleux, at the time Procurator of the Cistercian Order, had not insisted on saying a last farewell to his confreres and obtained the reopening of the coffins. However, a French coroner had already seen those bodies and was well aware that the bodies were not presentable and had reported the matter to his superiors. Those battered corpses would reveal to everyone who had fired on seven unarmed men. This because those bullets could have belonged only to the regular army, they were certainly not supplied to the Islamic guerrillas, who often resorted to using knives when on their bloody raids, organizing fake checkpoints using the uniforms of the gendarmerie or parking car bombs in the most crowded streets.”
Not investigating matters and maintaining good relations seemed to be the same rationale that must have been followed in Syria when, despite the peace plan signed with Kofi Annan, a decision was made to expel the Roman Jesuit. Then, in 2013, there was the kidnapping. Anyone who has dealt with Paolo’s kidnapping, even just reading a single newspaper article, knows that he was kidnapped after going on his own will to the Islamic State headquarters in Raqqa when Islamic State still did not have control of the city. But we cannot be sure that it was the Islamic State that kidnapped him.
Many rumors immediately claimed that he had left that ghostly palace on July 29th and was then approached by a car in Clock Tower Square. Then he disappeared. What should one think? I don’t know, but Maadab al Hassoun, one of the commanders of the Free Syrian Army who unfortunately only briefly defeated ISIS in Raqqa in 2013 and now lives in France, wrote a book published by the Raqqa Post in which he speaks of the Syrian intelligence general Abid Nemar Salamah, very close to the two men who led the Islamic State in Raqqa from 2013 onwards, Abu Luqman and Abdul Rahman Faysal Abu Faysal. Al Hassoun’s book states that in 2013 this Syrian intelligence general operated directly in the ISIS headquarters, the one Dall’Oglio is said to have visited on July 29th, 2013. Imagination? It could of course be imagination, although we do know that the Salamah operated precisely in that part of Syria, having been until 2016 at the head of the very important Air Force intelligence, the heart of the regime in Aleppo. And his work was considered satisfactory, since he was then promoted deputy commander and brought back to the capital, Damascus. This is a hypothesis that many refuse to take into consideration, but we do know that the nuns of the convent of the Syrian town of Maalula, famous because they still speak Aramaic there, were lodged in the villa of a businessman linked to the regime, the Christian George al-Haswani, when they were kidnapped by jihadists. This businessman then ended up on several blacklists because he was thought to have played the middleman role on oil deals between ISIS and his main client, the regime in Damascus. After their release, the nuns were unable to speak of the matter for years.
To seriously navigate meanders one must follow the very few reliable sources, in the Algerian case as did the only Italian journalist who addressed the matter with rigor and passion for many years. Valerio Pellizzari, in his very careful investigations also analyzed better than others all that Father Armand Vellieux remembered, who also in 2008, guaranteed that the secret services were also at the origin of the kidnapping, taking the monks to their base in Blida. It was there that after being interrogated, they were entrusted to the men led by Zitouni. And who was he? He is the emir of the GIA, the Armed Islamic Group, which, a week after the crime had claimed responsibility for killing the monks with press release number 44. The author was the same one as for the previous press release number 43, famous for having been withdrawn as the Koranic quotes it contained had been wrong. It was not strange that Emir Djamal Zitouni should be confused as his cursus honorum had been very fast, after coming into contact with Algerian intelligence when he was just a poultry merchant and then rising to the position of Emir of the GIA. This is a detail that clarifies why he waited a week to claim responsibility for a crime he probably had not committed. But this is not enough to explain the kidnapping. Why had the monks been kidnapped?
This question has three answers. The official one, requesting France for an exchange of prisoners and money; the secret one, because the regime needed the terrorist monster so as to legitimize its existence, and then the complex one, which, looking beyond headlines, was seeking the strength of nihilism and its ramifications; a modern Janus destroying many lives. In fact, one would be wrong to believe that terrorism does not exist in a dimension of its own and one not deviated from intelligence, just as we would be wrong not to see that intelligence is determined to use it and do so very successfully. What has helped Assad more than Islamic State so he can be perceived as the lesser evil? Did Tibhirine not achieve the same objective? But this is not enough, we must address the nihilistic issue.
One can see the authentic dimension of religious terrorism or jihadism thanks to Father Dall’Oglio in his book “Anger and Light”. Paolo had accepted the difficult task of seeking the release of some Syrian Christians, probably kidnapped by a jihadist group for extortion purposes or perhaps only out of religious hatred, or because they were considered complicit with the regime. While searching for them, the Italian Jesuit speaks of having arrived near Homs and writes with his natural vehemence – but also with indisputable logic – about the rebel city with its churches of course, bombed first by the besiegers and then by Assad’s army. His testimony is strangely still not quoted today, and many still believe that the city was bombed by the same people who were under siege. The story goes on, until he finds the jihadists with whom he negotiated the release of the Christian hostages. The prospects were immediately encouraging, but when the tribal channels that he followed led him to the end of the road, Paolo came face to face with the armed militias holding them, and then of course he also spoke of his own fear. But it was fear that allowed him to find the words to speak to that man; that key is called the book of the Apocalypse, the common hope that one day justice will triumph … That language made dialogue with the armed man possible, ending with the terrorist’s words: “You have touched my heart”. Paolo trusts his, believes in the promise made by his interlocutor: the hostages will be freed. And that is what happened. But 2012 was also the year in which nihilism emerged in Syria.
That year, the Syrian revolution had shown incredible popular strength and a total lack of leadership. The world, on the other hand, had shown a great lack of human solidarity. This because the cloak of the ‘clash of civilizations’ had a compact fabric and unlike what happened to Dall’Oglio, fear cannot lead us to understand one another, it only knows how to make us impenetrable.
A great Syrian intellectual, Yassine al-Haj Saleh, who spent over a decade in Assad’s concentration camps, understood many things in those years, the most amazing of which was that imprisonment had freed him from rigid ideologies. From the Syrian camp, where he deserved to be followed more closely in his chronicles, he immediately warned us that the mixture was producing a new Nihilism. And he told us that we too should have noticed it, looking more closely, because, knowingly or unknowingly, someone wanted to warn us …Until 2011, none of us had heard of the Syrian town of Kefranbel, but since 2011 all Western newspapers have spoken about it because of the large banners written in English and displayed in this small town. But they were not a game to capture the attention of the media, they were road signs, warning us about the new directions taken by history. After the first months of the people’s revolt, the song of the revolutionaries “Oh God, you are all we have”, which began at the end of summer 2011, should have already made it clear that mistrust in humankind rather than trust in God was rising. But when on October 14th 2011, Kefranbel’s young people showed the world a sign saying “Down with the regime and the opposition!” Down with the Arabs and the Islamic community! Down with the Security Council! Down with the world! Down with everything!” according to Yassine al-Haj Saleh we should have understood that the time for nihilism had come.
Explaining this does not apply only to Syria, but within the Syrian context it means taking note of the complexity of a revolution at its unarmed but also fragmented beginning, due to the fragmentation created in Syrian society and on it by a regime devoted to the old law of ‘divide and rule’. This fragmentation is combined with the insurgents’ lack of qualified, authoritative leadership, two factors that determined the failure of the Free Syrian Army. But all this must not overshadow the strange but real relationship that exists between nihilism and Islam.
Disappointed by the world, angry with the Arabs, with the Security Council, stunned by the silence of their brothers in humanity, many find jihadist violence as the perfect vehicle for expressing their nihilism. It is a shattered nihilism, divided into groups and still smaller groups that find their mantra in violence for the sake of violence. This aspect makes this terrorist nihilism culturally compatible, and therefore able to be infiltrated, by regimes that have similarly withdrawn from the corrupt world. It is here that the stories of Islamic State and the GIA in Algeria become infiltrated by secret services.
Let us try to imagine a body divided into three parts: the true jihadists are like the man in whose heart Paolo Dall’Oglio entered; steeped in apocalyptic lessons they dream of approaching Armageddon, the final battle, the one that will bring God’s justice and peace to earth. In their vision, time does not flow, but breaks like waves on the cliffs. Each impact will result in a stronger impact, until the final battle. So their words are not aimed at winning the battle, but to extend it, to broaden it, so as to lead us, speeding up the path, to the final battle. For those who like me who do not know Islam, this deviation is difficult to grasp due to the phonetic similarity between the word “martyrs” – shuhada – and “witnesses” – shahada. But we should be more concerned that the word “martyr” occurs 55 times in the Qur’an , but only on 3 or 4 of these occasions is it used in the sense of witness. The Koran then condemns any form of suicide (4, 29-30), making our interpretative reduction of “holy war” – the inner effort known as jihad – very difficult to understand.
This does not mean that the Islamic-apocalyptic vision (not the only one) has increased and has a history both in Sunni and Shiite circles. Nowadays this story is joined by the story of a nihilistic mass capable of adapting it to the Islamist model, especially the Sunni one, not by nature, but by de-structuring it. In fact, this discourse abolishes all cultural, traditional and political mediation, thus touching the deeper elements of nihilistic destruction. No to culture, no to politics, no to traditions built by people over the centuries. The world down below, the dunya of a certain Islamic theology, a world that is distant or rejected by God, is also a world without God, which must be destroyed in order to bring God back there. The two forms of violence, although separate, daughters of disconnected visions, can both be understood. The nihilists who make them the black banner of jihadists, are fascinated by the global nihilism of Islamic State. They remember those young Russians who in 1862 shared Petr Grigorevic Zaicnevskij and his “Proclamation to Young Russia” with which he called the people to conquer power through violence, shedding streams of blood. In that proclamation one read, “kill them in the squares should these pigs dare to show themselves in public, kill them in their homes, in the streets of the cities, kill them even in the villages! Remember that anyone who is not with us is against us and that all enemies must be exterminated!” And finally we have the other form of nihilism, that of the regime, of regimes, equally true and sincere, but that attracts other extremisms, in particular the red and brown ones, because of its challenging characteristics, brought from the world to the corrupt world, without bowing to any religious standards.
Yassine al-Haj Saleh wrote pages of great relevance and importance on this subject. Reading them, one comes to think that the design of new jihadist leaders really knows how to look far, to final victory, but taking into account the present and the need to keep nihilists tied. They long for violence and destruction. That thirst will be functional to the plans, which however need to advance in a reality in which they are provided by intelligence agencies. We have said that the dominant culture also clearly appears to be nihilistic, therefore there is a common feeling in diversity. And it is here small stories, such as that of Emir Zitouni, are useful. Let us take him as a model for a poor infiltrator, starting off as a poultry farmer he finds himself a leader. Obviously this becomes possible because the apocalyptic objective has nothing to do with the war on regimes, in Algeria, in Syria or Iraq, but there are concrete interests at stake that demand people who will dirty hands. Let us make an example, one that dates back to 2003. At the time Damascus had to bog down the marines in Iraq, because if they had been organised they would have continued their march on Damascus. Who else could they turn to, to stop the Marines? When Saddam’s followers and the jihadists enlisted by Assad met in American prisons in Iraq, the Islamic State was born. They could coexist, the real enemies for the religious wing, as in many other stories, are the “internal” ones. The story seems identical to itself in Algeria, with the clash between the GIA and the Islamic Salvation Front, and in Syria with the conflict between Islamic State and the Free Syrian Army. Like the more widely known Muslim Brotherhood, these forces do not definitively reject earthly mediation, be it political, cultural and traditional. So the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic Salvation Front, the Free Syrian Army, are the real enemies, the internal ones, because in the end they would limit the clash, and would not expand it. But the secret weapon of terrorists lies in the persistence of the violence of regimes, which weaken the real enemy, the Islam of the people and its openness to the world, shattering things, giving radical Islam the strength of a sense of guilt with which it destroys traditional communities and continues western public opinion’s readiness to show solidarity thereby making the nihilistic phenomenon unstoppable.
This deviation concerns and has concerned the Sunni world, but in Syria we cannot address the subject without also considering the other less contagious jihadism that is a deeply Shiite heresy. Less known, this form of jihadism brought the most extreme forces of Khomeinism to Syria, imbued with its apocalyptic vision. Apocalyptic Shiite martyrdom has been explained by few and I believe it is worth reading one of the best sources available to us, the Lebanese professor Antoine Courban.
“In the context of jihad, martyrdom would be a real way of allowing believers to join the alpha and the omega points, to go directly from life down here to that of the afterlife, without experiencing the stages of death, without interrupting the continuity between time and eternity, between the contingent and the transcendent, between the relative and the absolute, the visible and the invisible, between the sensitive world (molk) and the intelligible world (jabarût). Here we are fully entering an intermediate time, a “time between times”, as Leili Echghi says. Spiritual literature calls this place Malakût, an Arabic term the literal meaning of which is “kingdom”; however, it is understood as the world of ideals reminding one of Plato’s ideas… Malakût is the place of events not set within a sensitive space-time reality. It is the place of the Imam, it is an inter-world world (here we refer to the well-known Shi’ite theory of the hidden Imam who will return with Jesus at the end of time, Editor’s Note.). […] The place of Malakût is a psychic moment distinct from chronological time and a snapshot of eternity. It is the world of daydreams, in which “pattern homologies” collide and merge, released from each other, dissolving to then reappear and can have more than one identity. Ayatollah Khomeini, author of the Iranian Islamic Revolution, used to say, “There is no difference between Malakût and here”. With this statement, it is undoubtedly necessary to understand that the revolution has already taken place in the inner world, that Malakût is already there and that no one needs to go there anymore. In other words, the Islamic revolution flooded the world with the divine and completed a process involving the total spreading of immanence. It opened history to the direct immanence of the divine through revolutionary violence that nothing can absorb more than putting an end to time itself. This is the reason for which revolutionary violence is also a source of expectation, hope and desire for the epiphany of the messianic entity that would restore order to the world and return it to its original fullness after having purged from violence all that contaminates it and alters its purity.”
We are at the end of a journey that has taken us among the heresies of apocalyptic Islam and the new nihilists, a journey that touches on frustrations and does not justify talking about terrorism without a cause, but justifies an idea of the uses and abuses of Islam, a religion that a fervent Muslim, Professor Muhammad Sammak, adviser to the great imam of al Azhar and secretary general of the Spiritual Islam Summit called “the religion that believes in all religions.” Islam believes all biblical prophets, calls Jesus the Messiah, the new Adam, Word of Truth, defines Mary the first among all women, believing in her virginal motherhood. How did Paolo Dall’Oglio and Christian de Cherg, prior of Tibhirine, refer to this Islam?
I found great similarities in the story of the Trappist friar born in Algeria to a French family and who returned to Algeria to devote himself to that land and its people and the story of Paolo Dall’Oglio, born in Rome and who left when he was very young, not to go and study Arabic but to become an Arab. The Roman Jesuit said many surprising things, even describing himself in the title of a book as “Faithful to Jesus, in love with Islam.” This meant that such love was enlightened by his loyalty. It is a complex book about eschatology, filled with philosophical and theological obstacles, and summarized in an article about the Algerian monk Christian De Chergé, in which the Muslim Soufiane Zitouni quotes him as follows: “Then one day, all of a sudden, he asked me to teach him to pray, Mohammed (who lived in the village of Tibhirine) got into the habit of coming to have a regular chat with me. He was a neighbour. We also have a long history of sharing. I often had to cut things short with him, or spend weekends without meeting him, when the guests became too numerous and absorbed my time. One day he found the right formula for getting back to me and requesting an appointment: “It has been a long time since we dug our well!” The image has remained with me. We use it when we feel the need to talk in depth. Once, as a joke, I asked him the question: “And what will we find at the bottom of our well? Muslim or Christian water?”
He looked at me, slightly amused and a little distressed: “What? We have been walking together for so long and now you ask me this question! … You know that at the bottom of that well, what we will find will be God’s water.” In these lines of a book entitled “Theology of Hope”, De Chergé speaks of the theology of dialogue of a Jesuit who I do not think he met. It is not surprising that they attacked those two men, and even less surprising that it is hard to understand which nihilists attacked them, those belonging to regimes or others? Unfortunately, we don’t really want to understand this point. Regimes, as Paolo explained to me several times, do not protect Christians, they use them as shields to protect themselves. Perhaps they use them to organise massacres, as in Egypt, to then blame the perpetrators, hence the terrorists. Thus, after invoking for centuries the overcoming of the system involving the protection of religious minorities, Christians are now calling for the protection of the extremist regimes. Obviously they did not like being told by Father Paolo with great simplicity – simplicity that is worth more than entire encyclopaedias addressing Eastern issues – that Christian monasteries in the land of Islam are the best proof that there is no better protection than being good neighbours. His kidnapping ended in silence because of this and De Chergé explains all this in his spiritual testament.
“My death, obviously, will seem to prove right those who so quickly treated me as naive or as an idealist. Now tell me what you think of that. But these people must know that my most excruciating curiosity will finally be rewarded. God willing, I will now be able to immerse my eyes in those of the Father, to contemplate with Him His children of Islam as He sees them, all enlightened by the glory of Christ, the fruit of His Passion, filled with the gift of the Spirit, whose secret joy will always be to establish communion, playing on differences.” I am sure that Paolo saw them lit by the same light, disliked by many Muslims who are trapped in a theology that, as the great Muhammad Sammak says, does not know how to show them Islam as a religion that believes in all religions. These are different ways of digging the well that leads to God’s water.
Photo: FAYEZ NURELDINE / AFP
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