The Ninjas Crack Down

Montasser al-Zayyat, an Egyptian lawyer, represents members of the radical Gamaa al-Islamiya (Islamic Group), who are linked to terror attacks from Cairo to the World Trade Center in New York. In the United States, such Islamic fundamentalists get their day in a civilian court. In Egypt, says al-Zayyat, "They are being sent to death, or they are being murdered in the streets, or they are being tortured inside prisons, or harassed and followed."

That marks a change. Not long ago, radical Islam in North Africa was the West's nightmare. In 1998 alone Egyptian fundamentalists bombed the interior minister's car, attacked the prime minister, attempted to gun down the information minister and all but mined the tourism industry with random attacks on cafes, tour buses and Nile cruise boats. Algeria seemed even more precarious after a discredited military clique seized power to stop the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) from taking power through elections in 1992. Soon a fierce guerrilla war was raging there. A radical Islamic regime in Egypt would be disastrous for efforts to forge a comprehensive Middle East peace. Such a regime in Algeria could send hundreds of thousands of secular-minded refugees fleeing across the Mediterranean to Western Europe--where immigrants are already unwelcome. Instead, radical Islam is now on the defensive, the victim of a ruthlessly effective crackdown. "Bit by bit, we are getting there," says Algerian Interior Minister Ab-derrahmane Meziane Cherif. The government's forces, Cherif told NEWSWEEK, now go where they want, when they want. "There are no places that cannot be taken."

Both Egypt's and Algeria's leaders have learned a simple lesson: repression works. The governments' hard-line policy isn't pretty. In Algeria, members of special "Ninja" units, named for the black hoods over their heads, flaunt their power on the streets. They cruise in bulletproof Toyotas, brandishing Kalashnikov assault rifles, searching anyone they deem suspicious. After curfew falls on Algiers at 11:80 each night, the Ninjas reportedly act as death squads. By the interior minister's estimate, the violence has cost at least 12,000 lives since 1992; other sources triple that figure.

And despite the Ninjas' best efforts, the killing goes on. Last week guerrillas reportedly seized the town of Larba, south of Algiers, for several hours. Those few foreigners who live in unprotected houses are still targets: 84 have been killed since 1993, including a French couple in an Algiers suburb last week. Diplomats in Algiers work behind high walls, concertina wire and scores of heavily armed guards. But foreigners say they are no longer concerned about an imminent victory by Islamic revolutionaries. True, for most Algerians, terrorism has become an unwelcome feature of daily life-but daily life goes on. In Egypt, meanwhile, near normalcy has returned. Thousands of suspected fundamentalists have been jailed, and there has not been a single terrorist attack in Cairo this year. Tourism is reviving. Shoot-outs with fundamentalists are still reported dafiybut are mainly limited to the sugar-cane fields of Upper Egypt, 150 miles away from Cairo. European governments and the U.S. State Department fret about human-rights abuses; in private, however, officials will admit feeling relief that something has worked.

But repression doesn't get at the root cause of radicalism. Western observers argue that, long term, North Africa won't have stability without economic growth, political stability and a respect for human rights. Moderate opposition parties in both Algiers and Cairo agree. They cite the case of the Shah of Iran, who was repressive - and lost.

In North Africa, those on the ground read history. differently. They think the shah could have roughed it out if he'd ignored Washington's second-guessing on human rights. "It was a mistake to persuade the shah to leave," Mubarak told Lally Weymouth last week (box). "[The United States] was thinking Khomeini would be a man to befriend? The first thing he said about the Americans was that they were devils." In Algeria, says an official, former president Chadli Bendje did watched the fall of Romanjan dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989 and concluded that brute force alone would not guarantee his regime's survival. But army officers disagreed, deposed Bendjedid and opted instead for the Ninjas.

That choice of repression may yet work. Even Negad el-Barai, of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, complains only about the methods, not the objective, of curtailing terrorism. But el-Barai counsels caution. "We can't call it a final victory," he says, pointing out that previous Egyptian regimes crushed Islamic radicals in the 1940s and 1960s. "There is no final victory until we deal with fanaticism and hate." But in the interim, defeating terrorism on the streets will do.