Islamic State's battle with al-Qaeda for jihadist hearts and minds


The brutal execution of French climber Hervé Gourdel by a little-known terrorist group in Algeria has thrown the spotlight on attempts by Islamic State (IS) to extend its network of influence across North Africa and beyond. The Algerian group Jund al-Khilafa kidnapped and beheaded the French mountaineer as a gruesome and public sign of allegiance to the Iraq and Syria-based group. But so far Islamic State has failed to win the allegiance of any other group in Africa as it competes with al-Qaeda for dominance among the jihadist groups of the world. As Pierre Puchot reports, its attempt to be the global leader in jihadism may depend on lasting control of Iraqi oil wealth.

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The beheading of French climber Hervé Gourdel in Algeria provoked outrage around the world, and notably in France. But the murder of the Frenchman by jihadist group Jund al-Khilafa ('Soldiers of the Caliphate') also sparked anger in the Kabylie region of northern Algeria where it took place. Local people gathered on September 25th and September 28th to pay homage to the murdered hostage and to express their anger at the lack of security in their area.

The Algerian authorities have also been forced to respond in the wake of the execution. The website Tout sur l’Algérie ('All about Algeria') reports that the army has been deployed in strength in the immediate area where the mountaineer was kidnapped, and the country's justice minister claims they have identified some of the killers. Kabylie is an economically-deprived region that has been largely abandoned by the central authorities. Algerians themselves rarely venture into its mountains because of the number of terrorist groups based there since the end of the Algerian civil war at the end of the 1990s.

Key questions arise after the group's murder of the French mountaineer. How was such an act possible given the decades of attempts by the Algerian authorities to wipe out terrorism in the country? And why did Jund al-Khilafa, which in common with other such outfits in Kabylie appears to be a small group rather than a major organisation, abandon its stated support for Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and instead pledge allegiance to the Iraq and Syria-based Islamic State (IS)?

Despite the break-up of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) in Algeria after the civil war and the general amnesty granted to terrorists who agreed to leave their hideaways in the Algerian maquis and rejoin mainstream society, several groups have continued their struggle in Kabylie's rugged mountains. The most likely hypothesis is therefore that Jund al-Khilafa is a group that emerged out of the GIA. This underlines the fact that Islamic State has developed no structure in the Maghreb in its own right.