On the night of March 27, 1996, seven French monks living in Algeria were abducted from their monastery, as a brutal civil war raged between the Algerian government, which had declared martial law, and Islamist militants. The monks' severed heads were found two months later on the side of a road. Their bodies have never been recovered, and the murders have never been solved.
Over the course of the last decade, witness statements and various investigations by journalists from both sides of the Mediterranean have sparked different theories. The monks' story was the basis for a film, Of Gods and Men, which won the Grand Prix at the Cannes film festival in 2010.
In 2014, the case was reopened.
On Thursday new evidence was made public. An inquiry has revealed that the monks were killed a month before the date claimed by the Algerian authorities, according to AFP. The results also suggest that the monks may have been decapitated after they died to hide the real cause of their deaths.
The Cistercian Trappist monks were abducted from the monastery of Notre-Dame de l'Atlas in Tibhirine, near the town of Medea, 50 miles southwest of Algiers, the capital.
Almost two months after the abduction, on May 21, the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) released a statement claiming responsibility for the killings — an explanation that was endorsed by the authorities. The GIA also claimed it had sent "an envoy" to the French embassy on April 30 to "confirm that the monks were still alive" and to start negotiations.
According to the latest results of the inquiry, the monks appear to have been executed between April 25 and 27, prior to the dispatch of the GIA messenger.
This is not the first time the official version of events has been challenged.
In June 2009, French anti-terror judge Marc Trévidic recorded a shocking testimony by a former French army officer, who revealed that the monks may have been killed when Algerian soldiers opened fire from a helicopter on what they suspected was a guerrilla camp.
Once on the ground, the soldiers allegedly discovered the monks among the dead, then beheaded them to disguise their mistake as a GIA execution — a version now discredited by the recent inquiry, which found no traces of bullet wounds on the heads.
Another hypothesis involves an operation conducted by the Algerian secret service. According to investigative journalist Jean-Baptiste Rivoire, an expert on the civil war in Algeria and the author of Le Crime de Tibhirine, the Algerian government directed the GIA to kidnap and murder the monks.
"My assumption is that, between 1994 and 1996, Djamel Zitouni, the main chief of the GIA, was manipulated," Rivoire told VICE News in October. "The GIA might have been used by authorities to eliminate the monks, who were considered troublesome."
Rivoire explained that the regime saw the monks as "a disturbance" partly because they cared for injured Islamist insurgents who showed up at the monastery. He thinks the Algerian government faked the kidnapping by the Islamists to get rid of the monks and deal a blow to the insurgents.
The monks were initially going to be sent back to France, Rivoire told VICE News, but the plan went awry when the French secret service raised suspicions that the monks were actually in the hands of the Algerian government. "In order to hush these rumors, the Algerian secret service would have been forced to eliminate the monks," the historian said.
According to the results made public Thursday in the long-running investigation, the heads were buried once before being exhumed and buried again by the side of the road, where they were eventually discovered. Forensic experts analyzing the remains noted "marks consistent with decapitation on three of the seven heads — decapitation sufficient to have been the original cause of death."
The possibility that the monks could have been beheaded after they were killed lends credence to the theory that the murderers were trying to hide the real cause of their deaths. But without access to the rest of the remains, experts say they are unable to confirm how the monks died.
On top of the missing bodies, forensic efforts are hindered by the Algerian authorities' refusal to let experts bring samples back to France for further autopsy. Patrick Baudoin, the lawyer representing the victims' families, has asked the Algerian authorities to "stop obstructing" the investigators' efforts.
Speaking to AFP Thursday, Trévidic confirmed that experts needed to take samples to move the investigation forward. He also praised the work of experts, and noted, "Sometimes the date of death allows us to find out who caused the death."
The victims' families fear that the investigation could stall again when the case gets handed over to Trévidic's successor in September 2015. According to French law, magistrates must change post every 10 years, and in two months, Trévidic will be transferred to a court in Lille. Trévidic has reassured the families that he would remain available to his successor for any advice concerning the investigation.
Follow Pierre Longeray on Twitter @PLongeray
Image of Tibhirine monastery via Ps2613 / Wikimedia Commons