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Organisation Armée Secrète (Secret Army Organization)

Organisation Armée Secrète (Secret Army Organization)

In January 1961, after more than six years of war, a popular referendum held by the government of France showed that extending the right of self-determination to the French colony of Algeria was favored by 75 percent of voters in both France and Algeria, but by only a small minority of colons (French colonists). The following month a group of colons created the Organisation armée secrète (OAS, or Secret Army Organization) determined to use all means necessary, including the most violent, to prevent the government of President Charles de Gaulle from granting Algeria independence.

The emergence of the OAS and its extremism represented the culmination of a roughly three-year process during which elements of the officer corps and colons turned increasingly against a government they believed was inept at protecting European rights and fighting the Front de libération nationale (FLN), the dominant revolutionary coalition in Algeria. In 1958, the military, led by Commanding General Raoul Salan, received a government reprimand for killing scores of civilians in the unauthorized February bombing of Sakiet, a western Tunisian town harboring FLN fighters. Colon riots in May of that year triggered the collapse of the Fourth Republic and the return of the World War II hero Charles de Gaulle to the presidency. Even though a great patriot, de Gaulle increasingly recognized the determination of the FLN to maintain the struggle for independence. Subjected to growing domestic and international pressure, he moved away from strategies of repression and toward proposals for reconciliation, including the integration of racially excluded Muslim Algerians into the colonial system, followed by self-determination. By the fall of 1959, angry colons had created the Front national français, whose leaders set up barricades in the heart of Algiers in January 1960 and fired at police while the army looked on. In the fall of 1960, many officers joined them in creating the Front de l’Algérie française, which almost succeeded in driving the governor general out of office before it was defeated and dissolved in January 1961.

The OAS took its place the next month. Key leaders were colon activists Jean-Jacques Susini and Pierre Lagaillarde who were joined on the military side by former commanding general Raoul Salan, General Marie-André Zeller, General Edmond Jouhaud, and the newly retired general Maurice Challe, who had been appointed by de Gaulle to replace the intransigent Salan in 1958. Challe agreed to coordinate a military putsch in Algiers that was launched on April 21, 1961. Using a Foreign Legion parachute regiment as its main instrument, the OAS seized control of all key governmental, communications, and security facilities in Algiers and detained many officials, including the commanding general and governor general. Unfortunately, the movement had mobilized less effectively outside the capital city. After a stirring appeal by de Gaulle to the troops for loyalty, the putsch was defeated four days later. Challe surrendered, and hundreds of other insurgents were arrested or fled into hiding. Although the coup failed, the movement survived and spread underground. There were attempts to undermine government authority through bombings and targeted assassinations of officials, leftists, liberal intellectuals, and prominent Muslim leaders. As negotiations with Algerian emissaries proceeded at Evian, in eastern France, the organization switched to a campaign of terror against Muslims in general. Finally, after France agreed to independence, they reverted to a policy of massive destruction of Algerian infrastructure. On June 17, 1962, just two and a half weeks before Algeria received its independence, the OAS and the FLN signed a cease-fire.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Horne, Alistair. 1977. A Savage War of Peace: Algeria, 1954–1962. London: Macmillan.

Ruedy, John. 2005. Modern Algeria: The Origins and Development of a Nation, 2nd ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

John Ruedy

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