The Algerian extremist group Jund al-Khalifa – Arabic for Soldiers of the Caliphate – was little known before it released a video message showing the execution of French hostage Herve Gourdel on September 24.
The obscure Islamic cell abducted the 55-year-old French mountain guide days earlier while he was hiking with five Algerian friends in Kabylie, a mountainous region in northeastern Algeria. The abduction was announced on September 22 via a YouTube video showing Gourdel flanked by two hooded men with Kalashnikov rifles, who said they were responding to the call of Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, spokesperson for the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
Earlier that same day, Adnani appeared in a 43-minute video calling on ISIL’s supporters around the world to kill Westerners “in any manner” – “especially the spiteful and filthy French” because of their support for military action in Syria and Iraq against the group. It is still unclear whether ISIL coordinated with the Kabylie-based Jund al-Khalifa group, who pledged allegiance to ISIL on September 14.
“Adnani might have released his statement only after he made sure that the French tourist fell into Jund al-Khalifa’s hands,” Wassim Nasr, a journalist covering terrorism-related issues, told Al Jazeera. “This way, ISIL showed it has gained an increasingly worldwide attention.”
More than two weeks after Gourdel’s death, the Algerian army continues to rake the region where the abduction occurred. The army has mobilised 3,000 troops to both search for Gourdel’s body and crack down on Jund al-Khalifa. In a statement last month, the Algerian Ministry of Defence declared it would pursue “these criminals wherever they are until their total elimination and purification of the land”.
Jund al-Khalifa, previously part of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), was founded in September when top military commanders of AQIM’s central region officially broke away from al-Qaeda’s North Africa branch and sided with ISIL. In a communique, Gouri Abdelmalek, whose nom de guerre is Khaled Abu Suleimane, accused AQIM of “deviating from the true path”.
While the terrorists used to hang the heads of their victims from the bridges in the 1990s, in order to intimidate the local population, now they broadcast the public executions on YouTube to take direct aim at a worldwide audience.
“You have in the Islamic Maghreb men if you order them they will obey you,” Suleimane told Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, ISIL’s self-professed “caliph”.
Abdelmalek, who was condemned for a bomb attack that killed four people in 2008, also said his crew was “available” to help to “consolidate the caliphate”.
“We don’t know exactly how many criminals operate under the label of Jund al-Khalifa. Yet this is certainly not a large group,” an Algerian soldier recently deployed to Kabylie told Al Jazeera.
Geoff Porter, head of North Africa Risk Consulting, pointed to a third video posted on September 30, which shows about 30 men of varying ages affirming their loyalty to al-Baghdadi. Some even bared their faces. “In the video, only one individual spoke, so it is difficult to ascertain where they are from. In addition, he spoke in poor fusha, classic Arabic, which made identifying his accent even more difficult,” Porter told Al Jazeera.
According to a local security source, fighters from the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), who were active during the civil war, as well as foreign extremist militants have joined Jund al-Khalifa. “Jihadists originally coming from Tunisia, Mauritania as well as Western countries such as France and the US, were identified as members of Jund al-Khalifa,” added the Kabylie-based Algerian soldier.
Jund al-Khalifa, analysts say, must be equipped with sophisticated materials that allow the terrorist cell to hide in Kabylie’s Djurdjura Mountains. Last week, the Algerian army announced it had destroyed one of the camps of Gourdel’s kidnappers and seized Kalashnikov rifles, ammunition and mobile phones.
The hideout, located in the Djurdjura Mountain, 150km southeast of Algiers, was empty. “The weapons come from Libya, although they may have been in circulation in the Sahel for the last years and did not come from Libya in the immediate past,” Porter said.
Observers argue, however, that this newly-formed group does not pose a bigger security threat for Algeria’s security than al-Qaeda’s northern African branch. “AQIM has always been concerned about its longevity, whereas Jund al-Khalifa seems more concerned about expediency. AQIM is more established and Jund al-Khalifa may be a short-lived phenomenon,” Porter said.
The splinter group, experts say, does not have the capacity to pull off a big terrorist action such as the attack of AQIM-affiliated supporters on the In Amenas gas plant that killed about 40 employees in 2013, among them foreign workers. But this does not mean that Jund al-Khalifa is irrelevant. Indeed, the intention of ISIL is not to establish an Islamic state in Algeria, but to use Jund al-Khalifa as a scare tactic to spread fear across the Maghreb and by extension into Western countries.
“ISIL wants to have a worldwide psychological impact and it is succeeding,” Malika Rahal, a senior fellow at the French National Centre for Scientific Research, told Al Jazeera. “The decapitation of Gourdel is a horrible reminder of the black decade [civil war], when the Algerian Salafist fighters used these acts of barbarism to scare people. While the terrorists used to hang the heads of their victims from the bridges in the 1990s, in order to intimidate the local population, now they broadcast the public executions on YouTube to take direct aim at a worldwide audience.”
Jund al-Khalifa is not the only group operating in the mountains of Kabylie; several similar groups roam the densely-forested area. The regions of Boumerdès, Tizi Ouzou and Bouira in Kabylie are historical strongholds of religiously inspired extremist groups, like AQIM, as well as smugglers. Attacks on security forces and civilians, fake roadblocks and kidnappings are common across Kabylie.
Since December 2005, almost 80 Algerians have been kidnapped in Kabylie with the kidnappers demanding ransoms. “The residents avoid driving in certain roads, especially at night,” head of the Tizi Ouzou’s local parliament, Hocine Haroun, told Al Jazeera.
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Locals, largely hostile to Algeria’s ailing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, blame his administration for abandoning the region to both mercenaries and extremist groups. “There are two possibilities,” according to Rahal: “Either the national army does not have the capacity to control the whole area, given the topographic features. Or, the government is not truly willing to resolve the security issues in Kabylie in order to justify the national authoritarian rule.”
The Bouteflika administration finds it difficult to eradicate religiously inspired forms of extremism because of a “communication breakdown inside Algeria’s information-sharing system”, a former intelligence official told Al Jazeera.
During the black decade, the government, the national army and the state intelligence service (DRS) worked closely together to fight the militant groups, but a conflict between these three institutions has been running since Bouteflika’s 1999 election. This conflict, the intelligence official said, puts Algerian national security at risk. In September 2013, Bouteflika shifted some responsibilities from the DRS to the regular army in order to curb the influence of the powerful chief of intelligence security, General Mohamed “Toufik” Mediene.
“As a result, President Bouteflika, who has made security his most important theme, allows terrorist cells such as Jund al-Khalifa to emerge,” the retired intelligence official said.