Guerrilla Warfare and its Role during the “Heroic Years” of the Algerian War

The Algerian War of Independence, and the tactics employed by both sides throughout the conflict, influenced the wars that would follow, such as that of Vietnam. One of its hallmarks was its extensive use of guerrilla warfare, but to what extent was this unique combat tactic truly central to the nationalist cause and its success? The early period of the National Liberation Front (FLN) between the years of 1954 and 1957 is often referred to as the “heroic years”, and is characterised by extreme hardship and seemingly miraculous survival. Through the combination of guerrilla warfare tactics, the polarisation of the Algerian communities, and political allure, the FLN managed to not only survive but succeed during this historic period.

The organisation made its first appearance on 1st November, 1954, as they claimed responsibility for coordinated bombings and assaults throughout the country and, in particular, Algiers. Its collective leadership was in the hands of nationalists Hocine Ait Ahmed, Ahmed Ben Bella, Mostafa Ben Boulaid, Larbi Ben M’hidi, Rabah Bitat, Mohamed Boudiaf, Mourad Didouche, Mohamed Khider, and Belkacem Krim.1 The FLN established five wilayats, or military zones, each to be headed by a designated leader.2 As an underground group, the FLN faced severe arms shortages3, having fewer than four hundred firearms.4 Despite the very harsh winter of 1954 and 1955 wherein Didouche died, Boulaid and Bitat were imprisoned, and the guerrilla networks deteriorated into ruins, the FLN surprisingly survived.5 How does one explain this seemingly miraculous survival of the nationalist independence movement? Many point to the use of revolutionary tactics – namely, guerrilla warfare.

Algerian geography is especially well suited to guerrilla warfare. The nation has a vast and varied terrain, from the mountain summits of over two thousand metres in the Aurès and the Djurdjura, to the High Plateaux; the landscape is remarkably different from region to region. In Kabylia, lush valleys of the Soummam region juxtapose the mountainous surroundings interspersed with openings to the Mediterranean Sea.6 Across the nation there are wild and undiscovered pockets very suitable for the hiding of a clandestine resistance movement. Unsurprisingly, the first wilaya, the Aurès, came to be the group’s ideal location for a “safe base” due to the mountainous terrain and was vital to the organisation’s survival.7 The majority of the leaders were from Kabylia and the Aurès, while most of the militants were peasants and, thus knew the territory inside-out. This put the French government at a disadvantage, as they were unfamiliar with the regions in comparison to the guerrilla militants. Furthermore, the French believed to have “pacified” the Kabylia region; this afforded some protection to the guerrilla fighters hiding in the area.8 The geography secured the secrecy of the FLN, and enabled the militants to attack French bases and make off with weapons to power their resistance until arms could be obtained from sources abroad via the “exterior” part of the organisation.

This “exterior” section of the organisation was central to the success and sustenance of the guerrilla networks. The FLN was strongly modelled after the French Resistance of World War II. Due to the ‘pied noir’ reprisals, the absenteeism of strong French political reaction, and the appealing aim of complete independence by the FLN, the organisation managed to garner popular support by mid-1956 with the absorption of alternative political parties such as the MNA, the Algerian Communist Party (PCA), and the Union Démocratique du Manifesto Algéria (UDMA). The FLN movement thus achieved an active strength of 20 000 organised into the Army of National Liberation (ALN), eventually taking the form of a regular army organised in exile in Tunisia (having itself received independence from France on 20th March 1956).9 Morocco also gained independence on 2nd March, 1956, and it was with the aid of its independent neighbours that Algerian nationalists were able to launch attacks on the French from these countries and air its own clandestine radio station, La Voix d’Algérie, via Cairo.10

Nonetheless, support was also needed from the “interior”, and the hosting peasant populations often provided it. The FLN bands occupying villages – particularly in Kabylia, (Wilaya IV) – subjected the very susceptible poor fellah to pressure and blackmail in order to obtain money from the locals to fund the organisation’s activities. According to Jean Servier in 1956, there was a “terrible silence” in the Kabyle village he visited. Each village was held in fee to the local FLN representative to collect “taxes” and food supplied for the alternative government. According to Mouloud Feraoun’s journals, a Kabyle schoolteacher, the situation was “truly terror, as each of [them] is guilty just because he belongs to such a category, such a race, such a people.”11 The FLN also killed all moderates that would potentially serve as a mediatory or bridging role in the war, and thus imposed an extreme state of terror on the local population. Added to this was the intense warfare between the FLN and Messali Hadj’s National Algerian Movement (Mouvement Nationaliste Algérien, MNA) in Kabylia, as the MNA attempted to regain political support in the region.12 From the autumn of 1954 up until the summer of 1956, the FLN largely depended on rural guerrilla warfare and the organisation of local populations in the more rugged and inaccessible wilayas such as Kabylia and the Aurès.13 By terrorising the rural populations, the FLN secured control in the regions that would benefit it the most.

However, other viewpoints suggest that the population was not terrorised; instead, the FLN had installed an alternative form of government that was organised with judiciary systems and a head leader, as well as several central services such as social services and health care by November 1957.14 The organisation was able to obtain the goods it needed such as food and money from the supporting peasants, ensuring the FLN’s survival during its upstart. Due to the belief of baraka in Islam, the FLN gained greater support from the Muslim community because the group’s remarkable survival through the harsh winter was deemed by some as God’s will.15

Considering the grand scale of the French army, it is unwise to deem the FLN’s guerrilla warfare as the reason for success; rather, the guerrilla tactics only allowed the organisation to barely get by. The French military was incomparably superior to the FLN’s military sector, but it was the inability of the French to completely quell the sporadic low-intensity attacks that ensured the revolution’s continuation and survival.

Equally contributory to the movement’s success was its ability to polarise communities and its political appeal. At the outset of the Algerian War, most people were of mixed sentiment and did not have a firm stance on the issue. Many implicated in the independence movement had complex identities, which served to further complicate matters. With the polarisation of political opinion, the FLN managed to increase their number of adherents. The organisation had major recruitment successes in 1955 as the French provoked anger from the oppressed population with the excessive intensity of its repressive measures.16 A good example of this is the French military’s reaction to the uprising by thousands of Algerian peasants, or fellahs, on 20th August, 1955, which was initiated by the head of the FLN’s wilaya of Constantine. Possibilities of French political reforms that would integrate the Muslim population were then abandoned in order to revenge the killing of 123 pied noirs in Philippeville.17 Reminiscent of the Sétif massacre of 1945, the French military set to work forming private militias18, and pied noirs vigilante groups set out to attack the native population.19 The official death toll from the repression was 1,273, however the FLN came forward with the figure of 12 000 victims after some investigation, and this figure has never been disputed. An increase in military presence with the recalling of 60 000 soldiers and the 30th August decree that 180 000 dischargeable soldiers would remain in the military further evidences the increased repressive measures.20 The massacre of Philippeville and the ensuing repercussions for the revolting fellahs furthered the success of the FLN as the event marked a “point of no return” through the extreme polarisation of the pieds noirs and Muslim communities. The massacre provided motivations for both sides to seek revenge on one another, and thus convinced those who were formerly hesitant within the native population to support the FLN. The French government ceased considerations for reform, making both sides unwilling to accept the status quo thus prolonging the struggle.

The FLN also managed to garner greater support during this period due to its political appeal, with the aim of independence uniting leftists, radicals and oppressed peasants alike. Through newcomer Ramdane Abane, the group managed to re-focus its attentions onto its political actions at the Soummam conference in 1956, thus working towards political unity within the indigenous populations. Newly-independent neighbouring countries such as Morocco and Tunisia played vital roles in enabling the FLN’s survival and providing aid for the organisation’s struggle in a united Maghrebi anti-colonial front (though official announcements were not made of this aid in order to avoid conflict with France).21

In conclusion, the guerrilla networks were ideal for the national terrain but depended on both interior and exterior support networks. Yet even then, one cannot attribute the movement’s success during the period of 1954 to 1957 wholly to the guerrilla warfare employed, though the sustained violent resistance to French forces managed to maintain the movement’s survival. By polarising the communities of Algeria and providing a strong political allure, the FLN managed not only to sustain itself but also to popularise the nationalist movement during the “heroic years”.


Beckett, Ian Janke, Peter Morris, Eric Pimlott, John Rees, David Orr, Michael Willmott, H.P.. War in Peace: An Analysis of Warfare since 1945. London: Orbis Publishing, 1981.

Feraoun, Mouloud. Journal: 1955-1962. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1962.

Gillespie, Joan. Algeria: Rebellion and Revolution. London: Ernest Benn Limited, 1960.

Horne, Alistair. A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962. New York: The Viking Press, 1978.

Hutchinson, Martha Crenshaw. Revolutionary Terrorism: The FLN in Algeria, 1954-1962. Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 1978.

Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2009, “The Algerian War of Independence”, Microsoft Corporation, (accessed April 20, 2009).

Polk, William R.. Violent Politics: A History of Insurgency, Terrorism, & Guerrilla War, from the American Revolution to Iraq. New York: HarperCollins, 2007.

Stora, Benjamin. Algeria, 1830-2000: A Short History. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001.

1 Alistair Horne, A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962. (New York: The Viking Press, 1978), 83-94. return to main text
2 Ian Beckett et al., War in Peace: An Analysis of Warfare Since 1945. (London: Orbis Publishing, 1981), 121. return to main text
3 Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia, “Algerian War of Independence”, Microsoft Corporation, (accessed April 20, 2009). return to main text
4 William R. Polk, Violent Politics: A History of Insurgency, Terrorism, & Guerrilla War, from the American Revolution to Iraq. (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), 137. return to main text
5 Beckett et al., 121. return to main text
6 Benjamin Stora, Algeria, 1830-2000: A Short History. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001), 1.. return to main text
7 Ian Beckett et al., War in Peace: An Analysis of Warfare Since 1945. (London: Orbis Publishing, 1981), 121 return to main text
8 Polk, 138. return to main text
9 Beckett et al., 124-25. return to main text
10 Stora, 27. return to main text
11 Mouloud Ferraoun, Journal: 1955-1962. (Paris: Édition du Seuil, 1962), 33. return to main text
12 Horne, 133-36. return to main text
13 Martha Crenshaw Hutchinson, Revolutionary Terrorism: The FLN in Algeria, 1954-1962. (Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 1978), 12. return to main text
14 Joan Gillespie, Algeria: Rebellion and Revolution. (London: Ernest Benn Limited, 1960) 107-08. return to main text
15 Horne, 129. return to main text
16 Horne, 128-29. return to main text
17 Beckett et al., 121-22. return to main text
18 Stora, 43-44. return to main text
19 Beckett et al., 122. return to main text
20 Stora, 43-44. return to main text
21 Horne, 130-146. return to main text

4 responses to “Guerrilla Warfare and its Role during the “Heroic Years” of the Algerian War

  1. Thank you so much for this article. I have been struggling in vain to find a text on Algerian guerrilla tactics that was specific, detailed, and yet simple enough to share with my students. All of our textbook sources focus heavily on French failures rather than on Algerian successes. This is a perfect supplementary source of information for my students.

  2. Excellent article. Well organized and researched.
    It is hard to find literature on this.
    The sources provided are also very useful.

  3. I came across this article bu coincidence. I enjoyed it very much. It is well written and at an academic level.
    The author must be a Historian to write such a good article.
    I agree with the comment of Nathalie that it is difficult to find information on the Algerian war of liberation.
    This article is specific, detailed and the resources provided are very useful.
    I know that the Algerian war was famous throughout the world, and the tactics of the guerilla was taught by the CIA in the US.
    Thank you for writing a good article on it.

  4. Well written article.
    The author must be a historian or someone soecialized in war history.
    I enjoyed reading it and learning more about the Algerian war as there are few resources available.
    I know it was a famous war of liberation in the world, and that the CIA used to teach the Algerian Guerilla methods and included them in their manuals.

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