On June 29, 1992, a gaunt septuagenarian named Mohamed Boudiaf made his first and last trip beyond the capital as Algeria's head of state. A hero of the 1950s war for independence against France, Boudiaf had been handed control of the country only four months earlier. The same cohort of generals who had staged a coup in 1991, canceling Algeria's first fully democratic election and sparking an armed uprising by the Islamists who had won a plurality of the vote, thought Boudiaf might help bolster the military government's popular legitimacy. He did, though in part by challenging the generals for power, firing several of them and threatening to investigate others for corruption.
The new Algerian leader traveled that day to Annaba, along a beautiful stretch of the Mediterranean coast that was once a cultural center of the Roman Empire, to give a speech lamenting the mistrust between Algerians and their military. As he spoke, an officer assigned to his bodyguard shot Boudiaf in the back, killing him. The conspiracy theories – was the assassin motivated by sympathy to the Islamist rebels? an agent of the military putting down their enemy? – took root immediately, and they've never fully been settled.
Boudiaf's murder, committed during the opening months of the Islamist rebellion that soon became a years-long civil war, triggered a war within a war between his successors in the top ranks of the military. Both of those deeply intertwined conflicts, the legacies of which still weigh heavily on Algeria today, are crucial for understanding this week's hostage crisis and its disastrous course.