Their name is “Soldiers of the Caliphate in Algeria” or “22” in Arabic, a small but well-armed terrorist group stemming from the al-Qaeda North African cell and now ally of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). They were not well known by the international community before they broadcasted a video on the web showing the beheading of the French mountain guide Hervé Gourdel on 24 September 2014.
The leader, Khaled Abu Suleiman, nom de guerre of Gouri Abdelmalek, had sworn allegiance to the ISIS’s self-proclaimed “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi after splitting from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). “You have in the Islamic Maghreb men, if you order them they will obey you”, declared Suleiman to the chief of the extremist organization, believing that AQIM diverted from the “right path”.
In order to fight the Jund al-Khalifa threat, the Algerian Government launched a military operation in the areas of the country controlled by the jihadists. In October, the Army killed a man who was responsible for the execution of the French hostage, while on 11 December the Justice Ministry announced the death of two other terrorists suspected of being involved in the same murder. On 20 December, Algerian soldiers killed two members of the group near Sidi Daoud, a mountain zone in the North of Algeria. The number one of the group, Gouri Abdelmalek, died on 22 December in an ambush close to Boumerdes, about 50 km from Algiers.
Algeria began to tackle terrorism many years ago. As a report released by the U.S. Department of State suggests that in 2013, the Government succeeded in reducing the number of successful terrorist acts. The main target of the military campaign funded by the Algerian State has always been the AQIM which keeps representing the major threat for institutions, society, peace and democracy. The jihadists of AQIM have been relegated in an area to the east of Algiers and in the southeast of the country, after the vast operation sustained by the security and military forces. These efforts conducted to seize a large amount of equipment and arms caches, and to undermine AQIM capabilities in the North of Algeria. Although the group is now isolated in rural areas, it has strengthen its power obtaining a benefit of regional political instability. Thus, kidnappings, bomb attacks, fake roadblocks are still very common in several parts of Algeria, especially in the southeast and east of the capital. At least 196 terrorist attacks have been carried out in 2013, says the Algerian press, many of them during the sacred month of Ramadan.
AQIM is not the unique organization active in the northern regions of Algeria. There are many other similar groups hiding in the mountain region of Kabylie which has always been a shelter of religious extremists. In the provinces of Tizi Ouzou, Boumerdès and Bouira in particular, it is very dangerous to drive at night because of the high presence of smugglers and jihadists. In certain roads, kidnappings and fake roadblocks are a constant peril, Al Jazeera refers. According to local residents, the president Abdelaziz Bouteflika is abandoning these zones to themselves. As Algerians noted, there are two different explanations for negligence of the Government. One could be the physical inability of the Army to control the region due to its topographic configuration; the second, and the more disconcerting, could be that the Algerian State does not want to protect its citizens in order to legitimate its authoritarianism.
The cruelest terrorist attack happened on 16 January 2013 when 39 foreign citizens were killed by the militants of al-Mulathamun Battalion (AMB) a separated organization once affiliated of AQIM. The terrorists attacked the Tiguentourine gas plant of In Amenas, taking hostage about 800 people for four days. In the gas facility at the moment of the assault were working several people from Algeria, United Kingdom, United States and Norway. The responsibility of that terrorist act was soon claimed by AMB and its sub-battalion “Those who sign in blood”.
The U.S. Government analysis also informs that Algeria has adopted a “no concessions policy” with regards to organizations or groups abducting hostages. Moreover, Algerian administration had a key role within the Global Counterterrorism Forum (GCTF), the consortium of nations founded to prevent and combat terrorism all over the world and to reduce the vulnerability of people to terrorist attacks. As a member of that multilateral forum, Algeria increased global awareness to keep other nations from paying ransoms to terrorist organizations.
The 55-year-old French guide Hervé Gourdel was abducted by Jund al-Khalifa during a hike with some Algerian friends in Kabylie. The Islamic cell claimed the kidnapping on 22 September 2014 via a YouTube video showing the hostage and two men with their faces covered and armed with Kalashnikov rifles. The men announced in the video that they were answering to the call of Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, spokesman of the Islamic State. Some days before, Jund al-Khalifa announced the abduction on YouTube, al-Adnani released a 43-minute video message to incite the ISIS followers all over the world to kill people from Occidental countries “in any manner”, especially French people for their support to the international coalition fighting the ISIS. To gain a greater consideration worldwide, al-Adnani might have spread the video after making sure that the French tourist was kidnapped by Jund al-Khalifa militants, said the terror expert journalist Wassim Nasr. Indeed, it is also possible that ISIS collaborated with Algerian cell based in Kabylie.
Jund al-Khalifa fighters come partly from the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), who tried to overthrow the Algerian Government and create an Islamic State during the civil war. Like their predecessors, the Soldiers of the Caliphate’s jihadists use acts of beheading to intimidate people. Also during the black decade of the civil war in the 1990s, salafists used to decapitate hostages and to hang their heads from the bridges to scare the population. The difference from the past is that executions are now broadcasted on the internet to reach a bigger audience.
The group has recruited combatants also from Tunisia and Mauritania, as well as foreign countries such as France or the United States. It is still unclear how many combatants fight in the name of Jund al-Khalifa, but it does not seem to be a large group. It has been estimated that the organization counts around 30 members operating mainly in the North of Algeria. Nevertheless, it poses a relevant threat to the security of the Maghreb region.
In October 2014, the Algerian Army destroyed a headquarters of the group in the mountains of Kabylie finding sophisticated materials, like equipment, mobile phones and weapons. Many of the Kalashnikov rifles confiscated in that camp probably came from Libya, analysts have pointed out. Jund al-Khalifa does not have the ability to carry out terrorist attacks such as AQIM’s or AMB’s, but anyway is at number 15th in the ISPI list of the most dangerous jihadist groups around the world.
The small and obscure organization has demonstrated the capacity to strike civil targets. In March 2012, Jund al-Khalifa’s sympathizer Mohamed Merah, a 23-year-old French Algerian, shot dead seven people and seriously injured five others in Toulouse and Montauban. After killing three French paratroopers, a rabbi and three children at the Ozar Hatorah Jewish day school, Merah was killed by the police. Soon after the death of Merah, Jund al-Khalifa men posted this comment on an Islamic website: “Our brother carried out an operation that shook the foundations of the Zionist Crusaders. We claim responsibility for these operations”. Jund al-Khalifa is well known in Kazakhstan where between October and November 2011, the police arrested 47 persons accused of planning bomb attacks against Government buildings. Two bomb blasts occurred in the oil city of Atyrau, acts later claimed by the jihadist group.
The close ties between Jund al-Khalifa and ISIS are the real issues to take into account about terrorism in Algeria. The Islamic State group is not interested to set up any rule in the country, but it is employing the extremist cell to expand its leadership to Western countries and to disseminate panic across the Maghreb. Since January 2015, the organization has been banned under British terrorism legislation. Despite the international condemnation, Jund al-Khalifa still continues to use social media such as Twitter or YouTube to spread words of hate and intolerance, and to report its crimes in the warzones.
Master’s degree in International Studies (University of Naples “L’Orientale”)