The Algerian army said on Tuesday that it had killed the leader of Jund al Khilafah (Soldiers of the Caliphate), an al-Qaeda splinter group which pledged allegiance to the Islamic State before kidnapping and beheading French tourist Hervé Gourdel in September.
Abdelmalek Gouri, the head of the Islamist group, died along with two of his men in an army assault on Monday night, according to Algerian media reports.
El Watan, a French-language Algerian newspaper, reported that Gouri were driving a car in the town of Isser, about 80 kilometers east from Algiers, when they were ambushed by the People's National Army (ANP) on Monday night. Guns, ammunition and explosives were also seized during the operation, France 24 reported.
El Watan tweeted: 'Emir of Jund al-Khilafah and two of his men killed near Boumerdès.'
In early December, during an official visit to France, Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal declared that 3,000 members of the security services had been tasked with finding Gourdel's killers. One or two suspects had already been killed in October, according to the Algerian government and local media.
Gourdel, a 55-year-old French hiker, was kidnapped and killed in the region of Kabilye in the east of Algeria in September. His abduction — and subsequent beheading — was intended as retaliation for French military action against the Islamic State in Iraq, the Soldiers of the Caliphate claimed in a video released on September 22. In that video, Gouri, also known as Khaled Abu Souleiman, introduced himself as the leader of the group.
The Soldiers of the Caliphate had then recently pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. In a previous statement issued on September 14, Gouri said his troops were "available" to help "consolidate the caliphate." A week later, an IS spokesman issued a call to affiliates and supporters around the world to attack citizens of countries who had joined a US-led military coalition against the group, including France. A few days after that, Gourdel was dead.
Before commanding the Soldiers of the Caliphate, Gouri was the regional head of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in Kabylie. He has been sentenced to death several times by the Algerian authorities, which has charged him with a string of terrorist acts committed between 2007 and 2011.
A trial for 41 members of AQIM suspected of terrorism was postponed by an Algiers court on Tuesday. Gouri was among the defendants.
Follow Melodie Bouchaud on Twitter @meloboucho