Since September 11, I have spent a great deal of time in interviews with all sorts of media people, who range from the well informed to the abysmally ignorant. One question that occurs with deadly predictability concerns the mindset of the terrorists: Just what kind of warped alien creature could possibly crash a plane into the World Trade Center? And, more broadly, what on earth do they hope to achieve by this? Don’t they know they can never defeat the United States? As I go through the same explanations time and again, I often wish that there were a handy Guide to Terrorism to which I could refer them—a comprehensive Cliffs Notes. And then it occurs to me that such a thing does exist. Rather than a thousand television chat programs on terrorism, in which experts like myself float their half-baked nostrums, it would be much more useful for American television networks to show just one film—ideally every night for a month or so, until the whole nation can lip-synch the lines. It really is that crucial: When someone has seen and understood the 1966 film The Battle of Algiers, they have acquired an expertise in matters of terrorism and counterterrorism far superior to that of virtually all media pundits.
The Battle of Algiers is set in 1957, amidst the anti-colonial struggle waged by the Algerian people against their French masters from 1954 to 1962. Though the war began as a rural struggle by the National Liberation Front (the FLN), in 1957 the revolutionaries moved their war into the great capital city. There, they waged a terrifyingly innovative kind of urban guerrilla warfare, characterized by brutal bomb and machine-gun attacks against soldiers, police, and European civilians. This was unashamedly a race war. In response, the French sent in their finest troops, the Paratroopers, who fought the prototype of modern dirty wars using torture, assassination, provocation, and infiltration to destroy the FLN’s hitherto devastatingly effective network of insulated cells. By the end of 1957, the Paras had won a decisive victory, and all FLN cells in the city were either destroyed or so thoroughly penetrated that they were under French control. Algiers seemed secure. Nevertheless, in 1960, the revolt broke out again, and Algerian resistance combined with the French failure of political will to permit the creation of a new, independent Arab nation.
To repeat what is normally a publicist’s cliché. The Battle of Algiers is literally like no other film ever made. It tells the story from the point of view of the terrorists, some of whom are actually played by the real-life senior leaders from the 1957 battle, men and women with much civilian blood on their hands. The film makes no pretense of the militants’ innocence and offers no argument that innocent people were only killed in tragic accidents. At the same time, the film makes no attempt to demonize the French—even the Paras. The Para leader, Colonel Mathieu, is portrayed as an attractive figure, a sensitive and cultured man, who realizes that he must fulfill his historic role as the defender of capitalism in terminal crisis. Most astonishingly, this pro-terrorist film celebrates a battle in which—at least to non-ideologues—the terrorists seem to lose decisively. The film provides a detailed manual for how to defeat a terrorist movement, which supplies the precise model and precursor for the Islamist cells currently operating in New Jersey and New York and—who knows—maybe in every state of the union. Every federal and city agency should own a copy of the film.
Once you have seen The Battle of Algiers, you have learned a great many things, which is why the film has, for 30 years, been used as a training text for both urban guerrillas and counter-subversive forces. For our present purposes, it is most informative in what it tells us about concepts of defeat and victory. The FLN guerrillas in the film know that they are going to die and that their cause will fail in the short term—indeed, the film begins and ends by showing a decisive French victory, as the Paras root out the last effective cells in the Algiers Casbah. Yet the guerrillas have faith in the future—not in a Muslim paradise (these terrorists are secular socialist nationalists) but in the idealized vision of a general rising of a radicalized people, inspired by the heroism of their revolutionary suicide. The guerrillas know implicitly that death leads to victory, a lesson internalized by all subsequent generations of European and Middle Eastern terrorists who cut their teeth on this film. If you want to understand the “terrorist mindset,” watch this film, which might be one of the most influential works of cinema ever made.