Saadi Yacef, Algerian independence fighter who starred in ‘Battle of Algiers,’ dies at 93
By Phil Davison,
Saadi Yacef was an Algerian guerrilla leader who fought for and eventually helped win the North African nation’s independence from colonial France in 1962 after a bloody eight-year war against the French, who had ruled Algeria for 132 years.
Mr. Yacef was in charge of the National Liberation Front (best known by its French abbreviation, FLN) in the capital, Algiers, and led the group in what became known as the Battle of Algiers, a campaign of deadly urban guerrilla warfare in his native, labyrinthine Casbah district of the city in 1956-57.
The French labeled the FLN “terrorists,” a term justified by the group’s killings and bombings of French civilians and pieds-noirs (literally “black feet” but referring to French people or other Europeans who had been born in Algeria). But French paratroopers also used — and had long used — tactics against Algerians that would also fit the description of “terrorism.”
Mr. Yacef insisted he used terrorist tactics to free his country, unlike later guerrilla fighters, including those of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, who he said used terrorism and “faux Islam” in an attempt to export their extreme religious views around the world.
Captured by French paratroopers in 1957, he was first sentenced to death — by guillotine — but later had that reduced to life imprisonment and eventually was pardoned in 1958 by French President Charles de Gaulle, who had spearheaded resistance to the German occupation of France during World War II.
The 1956-57 battle became immortalized in the 1966 movie “The Battle of Algiers,” directed by the Italian Gillo Pontecorvo. Based in large part on Mr. Yacef’s memoir, the drama was nominated for three Academy Awards and won the 1966 Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. The director and original producers had seen the film as a possible vehicle for Paul Newman, but in the end, Mr. Yacef himself helped produce it and starred in it as a guerrilla commander with a fictional name but based on his real-life role in the battle.
He died Sept. 10 at 93, according to an announcement by Salah Goudjil, an FLN political leader and speaker of the Council of the Nation, the Algerian senate. At his death, of which no further details were given, Mr. Yacef had been a serving senator for the FLN, which became a political party after the independence war. No details of survivors were immediately available.
Estimates of those killed during the Algerian War of Independence vary from 700,000 to 1.5 million Algerian civilians, as well as 18,000 French soldiers and 2,788 French civilians.
“The Battle of Algiers” movie, and Mr. Yacef’s 1962 memoir, “Souvenirs de la Bataille d’Alger,” which he had dictated to a friend in prison because he was barely literate, became a major influence on later guerrilla movements: The Irish Republican Army used FLN tactics in its war to get British troops out of Northern Ireland, then as now a British territory separate from the independent Republic of Ireland to the south.
In the United States, the Black Panthers distributed copies of the movie among its members, and supporters of the Palestine Liberation Organization used it as a training film on how to beat a powerful enemy.
White House national security advisers screened the film for President George W. Bush in early 2003, as U.S. forces began to invade Iraq, to warn him of the kind of urban guerrilla warfare American forces might face. In April this year, executive producer Sev Ohanian and film director Shaka King said “The Battle of Algiers” inspired their 2021 movie “Judas and the Black Messiah.” “All I could think about was another group of tiny underdogs fighting for their advocacy, their rights, their right to self-determination against an impossibly large machine,” Ohanian told Esquire Middle East.
Saadi Yacef (whose name was sometimes rendered Yacef Saadi) was born in the bustling Casbah district of Algiers on Jan. 20, 1928, to illiterate ethnic Berber parents — they spoke Berber rather than French or Arabic — who had moved from the Kabylia region of northern Algeria.
Mug shot of Mr. Yacef dated June 6, 1955.
He was a 17-year-old apprentice baker when he joined the leftist Algerian People’s Party (PPA) until it was outlawed by the French colonial authorities, and he joined the Movement for the Triumph of Democratic Liberties, known by its French abbreviation, MTLD.
Between the ages of 21 and 24, he lived in France, where he felt firsthand the racism against North Africans that to a large extent still exists. When he returned to Algiers, he committed himself to fighting for a free Algeria. He joined the FLN as soon as the War of Independence started in 1954 and, within two years, became the group’s military chief in the capital.
As his character in “The Battle of Algiers” shows, he was involved in killings and bomb attacks against French soldiers and civilians, as well as Algerian pieds noirs. Perhaps most famously, or infamously, Arab Muslim women put on makeup to look French and mingle with European women before blowing up several targets, including a milk shake parlor full of women and children, as dramatized in the movie.
Although Mr. Yacef and the director Pontecorvo were clearly pro-independence and anti-French colonialism, both were credited by film critics for steering away from outright propaganda and showing the human face, even the humanity, of the French they considered the enemy. The French were portrayed not as monsters but as decent people who failed to understand that occupation was bound to face resistance.
The main French character in the film is the charismatic paratrooper Col. Mathieu, played by Jean Martin, the only professional actor in the production, who fights fire with fire in the Casbah through torture, mass arrests and blowing up the homes of “terrorists” before handing out candy to children. In cool French style, he calls his dirty war with the FLN “Operation Champagne.”
As for Mr. Yacef, he told Bloomberg News in 2007 that the FLN’s tactics were “part of a whole strategy that included mass participation. It was specifically targeted at occupiers, not just anybody. . . . We killed women, yes, and took fetuses out of their wombs. But ours was for liberation. This was our only means against a cruel enemy.”
In the same interview, he said the FLN, as a political party, had “botched” its rule in Algeria after the war, opening the door to the rise of Islamic extremists, including many inspired by al-Qaeda and its 9/11 attacks. “Through mismanagement, we created the monster,” he told Bloomberg.
Mr. Yacef in 2012.
When a re-release of “The Battle of Algiers” was being shown in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 2007, Mr. Yacef told an interviewer from the Sunday Herald newspaper that he had “pissed my pants” during some of his urban guerrilla operations but that these were “les plus belle années de ma vie (the most beautiful years of my life).” He recalled that French paratroopers had blown up his fellow fighter Ali La Pointe in a nearby house.
“When I was arrested, I thought I would be killed there and then because I was so high up in the FLN,” he told the Sunday Herald. “The executions were always done at dawn, so when I saw the sun coming through the prison bars, I knew I was going to live through another day. But I was very certain that I would be executed.
“I wasn’t frightened of dying,” he continued. “What frightened me was that when I was led to the guillotine I wouldn’t be lucid enough to say the words, ‘Long live Algeria!’ ”
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