Jund al-Khalifa: The IS-linked group that shot into the spotlight
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Seated on a blanket flanking the hostage, the two hooded militants averted their gazes from the camera, cradling their assault rifles and staring down through most of the video clip.
When one of the captors issued a threat to execute the hostage within the next 24 hours if their demands were not met, the statement in Arabic was read without any of the rhetorical flourishes of seasoned jihadist figures. The second militant in the video seemed overweight.
But appearances hardly mattered. The Jund al-Khalifa in Algeria had captured a Frenchman hiking in the northeastern Tizi Ouzou area and this was their spectacular media moment.
In a video released Monday night, barely 24 hours after Frenchman Hervé Gourdel was kidnapped, the 55-year-old hostage pleaded with French President François Hollande to “do everything” to get him out of this horrible situation.
Halting oratorical skills or a little militant corpulence could not negate the significance of the message. Gourdel’s abduction marked the first time a Westerner was kidnapped by an Islamic State-linked group outside Syria.
The Jund al-Khalifa fi Ard al-Jazayer – variously translated as Soldiers of the Caliphate in Algeria or Caliphate Soldiers of Algeria – had shot from obscurity into the international jihadist spotlight.
A little-known group that split from al Qaeda’s North African branch, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Jund al-Khalifa announced its allegiance to the Islamic State organisation in a statement released on September 13. The leader of the group, Abdelmalek Gouri, who goes by the nom de guerre Khaled Abu Suleiman, said he had broken away from AQIM because the al Qaeda branch had “deviated from the true path”.
“At first sight, this group seems to have emerged from nowhere, a new organisation. But in fact that’s not true,” explained Wassim Nasr, FRANCE 24’s expert on jihadist groups. “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.”
Breaking away from al Qaeda
Originally an AQIM brigade that operated around Algeria’s Tizi Ouzou area, the group “approached Islamic State in March, when differences began to publicly appear between the two major jihadist movements," said Romain Caillet, a researcher at the Paris-based IFPO (Institut Français du Proche-Orient), in an interview with FRANCE 24’s French language TV station.
At that time, the Islamic State group was known as ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, had not yet rebranded the territory under his control as an Islamic caliphate.
Baghdadi, who declared himself “the caliph of all Muslims” in June, fell out with al Qaeda in 2013 over his decision to expand his group’s operations into Syria.
By the time the Jund al-Khilafa formally declared its allegiance to the Islamic State group in September, a number of breakaway groups were abandoning al Qaeda affiliates in Yemen and Africa to join the new jihadist superpower that had seized control of large swathes of Iraq and Syria.
AQIM itself is no stranger to splinter groups. One of the group’s most notorious commanders, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, broke away from al Qaeda’s North African branch in 2012 to form al-Mouwakoune bi-Dimaa (“Those Who Sign with Blood”). Months later, Belmokhtar gained notoriety when his group staged a deadly attack on a southern Algerian gas facility in January 2013, which ended in a bloodbath with 38 people – including British and Norwegian nationals – killed.
But while Belmokhtar has pledged allegiance to al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of Jund al-Khilafa, the latest AQIM breakaway group, swore loyalty to Islamic State militants. "You have, in the Islamic Maghreb, men – if you order them, they will obey you," declared Abu Suleiman in the September communiqué.
The new group trying to make some noise
The announcement was largely overlooked or dismissed by most terror experts, who noted that AQIM has mostly operated in the remote, hardscrabble Sahel region of Africa rather than Algeria, a gas-rich regional power.
"The new group will try hard to make some noise, but it will be very difficult to execute big terrorist actions as Algerian security forces have knocked out most of the armed groups in Algeria," security analyst Anis Rahmani told the Reuters news agency shortly after Jund al-Khilafa swore loyalty to the Islamic State organisation.
The latest kidnapping and subsequent high-profile video statement has proved the experts wrong.
Coordination between Iraq and Algeria
The timing of Gourdel’s abduction has also raised eyebrows among terrorism experts.
The Frenchman was kidnapped on Sunday evening, according to Algerian news reports, and the video claiming the abduction appeared just hours after the Islamic State group issued an audio statement calling on Muslims worldwide to kill citizens of nations that have joined the fight against the jihadist group in Iraq.
In a nearly 42-minute audio statement released online late Sunday, Islamic State group spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani called on 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 jihadists.
A portion of Adnani’s speech was quoted in the Jund al-Khilafa video released Monday night.
“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.”
Since the end of the brutal 1990s Algerian civil war, the state’s security forces have been engaged in ongoing counter-terror operations against jihadist threats across the vast North African nation.
The violence may have declined since the end of the civil war, when the Algerian security forces led a brutal, murky counter-terror operation that Algerians call “the dirty war”. But the 2013 attack on the In Amenas gas facility in southern Algeria and the latest kidnapping has proved that the jihadist threat remains in some of Algeria’s remote Saharan areas as well as the rugged Atlas Mountains of the Kabylie region, where Gourdel was kidnapped.
While the Islamic State group’s extraordinary gains have attracted thousands of foreign jihadists, Gourdel’s abduction raises the alarming prospect of splinter groups linked to the Islamic State militants attacking Western nationals and interests, thousands of miles away from the battle zone in Syria and Iraq.