French involvement in airstrikes in Iraq brought an unexpected response thousands of miles away in Algeria's Atlas Mountains this week, as a little-known group that has declared allegiance to the Islamic State released a video threatening to execute a French hostage if Paris did not halt the raids.
In Monday's video, Hervé Gourdel, a 55-year-old mountain guide, urged the French president, François Hollande, to help him. Another voice says: "We, Soldiers of the Caliphate in Algeria, following the orders of our leader the caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi … give 24 hours to François Hollande, president of the criminal French state, to cease hostilities against the Islamic State, otherwise the fate of its citizen will be execution.To save his life you have to officially announce the end of your operations against the Islamic State."
Less than 48 hours later, the group appeared to have carried out their threat. A second video released on Wednesday — the veracity of which has not yet been confirmed by the French government, showed what seemed to be the beheading of Gourdel.
In this video, titled "Blood message for the French government", four armed men stand behind Gourdel. The hostage says in French: "Hollande, you followed the path of Obama." Then the image disappears, returning to show a man beheaded on the floor.
Earlier in the afternoon, before France's national assembly, Prime Minister Manuel Valls defended France's military involvement in Iraq "because our national security is at stake, more so than it has ever been during the past years."
Gourdel, a married father of two, was kidnapped on Sunday in Tizi Ouzou, in the east of Algeria while hiking with Algerian friends. His companions were later released.
An al-Qaeda splinter organisation, the Soldiers of the Caliphate (Jund al-Khilafah in Arabic) has only recently pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. In a statement issued on September 14th, Gouri Abdelmalek, also known as Khaled Abu Souleiman, introduces himself as the leader of the group and says his troops are "available" to help "consolidate the caliphate".
Abdelmalek, the former al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) regional commander in the Algerian region of Kabylie, was in 2012 condemned in absentia to the death sentence for a bomb attack against the police department of Thénia, 30 miles from Algiers, in 2008 that killed 4 people. But the strength of his forces and their level of military sophistication are still unclear.
"At first sight, this group seems to have emerged from nowhere, a new organisation. But in fact that's not true," Wassim Nasr, an expert on jihadist groups told FRANCE 24. "Abdelmalek Gouri is well known to the Algerian intelligence services, he is wanted for several terrorist acts. These militants are familiar figures and now, with this kidnapping, they have proved their operational capabilities."
More and more al-Qaeda members are leaving the terrorist group to join the Islamic State, following the example of self-proclaimed caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who broke away from al-Qaeda in 2013. The Soldiers of the Caliphate is not the first group to leave AQIM: in 2012, Mokhtar Belmokhtar created his own group, "Those who sign in Blood" (Al-Mouthalimin in Arabic), which is known for kidnapping over 800 people in 2013 at the In Amenas gas facility in eastern Algeria.
Al-Qaeda disagrees with the Islamic State on how to treat hostages : they recently asked the latter to send the British hostage Alan Henning free.
The timing of the announcement indicates the speed with which far flung affiliates are responding to edicts from the Islamic State. The Soldiers of the Caliphate kidnapped Gourdel on Sunday evening, according to local reports - possibly after an Islamic State spokesman released an online audio statement urging followers to "kill a disbelieving American or European — especially the spiteful and filthy French — or an Australian, or a Canadian, or any other disbeliever from the disbelievers waging war" against the group.
Jund al-Khalifah quoted part of the IS statement in its video released on Monday.
"It proves that there's a real coordination between the jihadist chiefs in Iraq and this group in Algeria," said Nasr. "This proves their operational capacity and it shows that there are still jihadists in this region of Algeria and they are still active - even if we don't hear much about them."
A former French colony, Algeria won its independence after the Algerian War (1954-62). From 1991 to 2002, Algeria became mired in civil war, a decade of harsh armed confrontation between government forces and Islamist groups, among them the Armed Islamic Group of Algeria (GIA). Abdelmalek, the leaders of the Soldiers of the Caliphate, is identified by several French media as a former GIA member.
A security campaign by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika - a controversial authoritarian figure - has weakened terrorist groups in the country, but the south remains extremely volatile. The furthest southern reaches fall in North Africa's Sahel, a semi-desert region home to several groups of Islamist insurgents known for both criminal and political kidnappings.