Fears are growing that Westerners could be targeted across the Middle East and north Africa after an Islamist splinter group kidnapped a Frenchman in Algeria, threatening to kill him unless airstrikes against terror group Islamic State cease in Syria and Iraq.
The kidnapping of a hostage at the behest of Islamic State in a country where they have no military presence appears to be a dramatic escalation of the group's reach.
Calling themselves Jund al-Khilafah, or Soldiers of the Caliphate, the group released a video saying it had captured a French citizen, with the hostage in the film identified as 55-year-old Herve Gourdel. A masked militant on the video said Gourdel would die within 24-hours unless France halted its strikes.
The Nice native appeared in the video flanked by two masked gunmen and said he was taken hostage on Sunday and reiterated the group's demands that French airstrikes end.
Jund al-Khilafah, which has its roots in al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb but has since switched its allegiance to Islamic State, said its kidnap was a direct response to 42-minute audio statement that same day from the Islamic State spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, which called on followers to attack Americans and Europeans and "especially the spiteful and filthy French."
On his Facebook page, Gourdel said last week that he was off to Algeria on a hiking and spelunking adventure and was looking forward to being guided himself for a change. He also joked about "if" he would return home from Algeria.
France's prime minister Manuel Valls said Tuesday on Europe 1 radio that French authorities are "doing everything" to try to free the hostage, but won't negotiate with his captors.
"If we cede, if we retreat one inch, that would hand victory" to the militants, he said.
Algerian authorities reported massive searches involving the army, gendarmes and village guards throughout the Djura Djura mountain range, part of the Kabylie region where Gourdel was kidnapped.
The US embassy in Algiers renewed its travel warning for Algeria Tuesday, urging Americans traveling there to "exercise vigilance" in their movements, and France has contacted 30 ambassadors asking for increased vigilance to protect French travellers to their countries. The UK Foreign Office warns of a "high threat from terrorism" and warns against travelling to various hostile regions. "Terrorists have been involved in kidnaps in Algeria and the wider Sahel region, and further kidnaps are likely," the advice states.
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"This threat to kill civilians, added to the execution of hostages and to the massacres, is yet another demonstration of the barbarism of these terrorists, justifying our fight without truce or pause," French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said on Monday.
According to the Algerian Interior Ministry, Gourdel and two Algerian companions were driving through the mountains near the village of Ait Ouabane when they were stopped by a group of armed men Sunday evening.
The gunmen released the Algerians and took Gourdel, who the ministry said was a mountain guide. The three had spent the night at a ski lodge near the town of Tikdjda, 65 miles from the capital, Algiers.
President Francois Hollande spoke with Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal by phone, the French president's office said in a statement, emphasizing the "total cooperation" between France and Algeria to try to find and free the Frenchman. It said authorities in the two countries were in constant contact.
French forces joined the US on September 19 in carrying out airstrikes against forces from the Islamic State group, which have overrun large swathes of Syria and Iraq. The group was also angered by foreign minister Fabius' insistence on calling the group ‘Daesh’, an acronym of their Arabic name - Dawlat al-Islamiyah f’al-Iraq w Belaad al-Sham. In Arabic, the acronym sounds like the Arabic word "to trample".
"I do not recommend using the term Islamic State because it blurs the lines between Islam, Muslims and Islamists. The Arabs call it ‘Daesh,’ and I will be calling them the ‘Daesh cutthroats," Fabius said at the weekend.
The rise of groups like Jund al-Khilafah claiming allegiance to the Islamic State group is the latest sign of al Qaeda's weakening influence in the face of its new rival's successes on the battlefield. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has remained loyal to the central al Qaeda movement, led by Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahri and located along the Afghan-Pakistani border.
Algeria has been battling Islamist militants since the 1990s and in recent years has confined them to a few mountainous regions in the north of the country and to the Sahara desert in the extreme south.
In January 2013, another al Qaeda splinter carried out a daring assault on an Algerian natural gas plant, taking dozens of foreign workers hostage, who were all later killed when the military retook the plant.