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French hostage crisis: Islamic State finds extremist partners in Africa (+video)

An obscure Algerian extremist group that abducted a French alpine guide has threatened to kill him. The group broke from Al Qaeda earlier this month and vowed allegiance to the self-declared Islamic State.

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    The snow capped peaks of the Djura Djura mountains in the Kabylie region of Algeria, May 8, 2012. A splinter group from Al Qaeda's North African branch kidnapped a French citizen and said Monday, Sept. 22, 2014 that it would kill him unless France halts its airstrikes against the Islamic State group in Iraq.
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Africa may be a different continent. But the videotape released Monday is familiar: Hooded jihadists parade a Western hostage who faces death in retaliation for his country’s fight against the self-proclaimed Islamic State.

The abduction in Algeria of French tourist Hervé Gourdel by a splinter cell of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is a clear sign of what security experts in Africa have been monitoring for months: the adoption of Islamic State messages and tactics, and the changing and fracturing of terror groups such as AQIM as they spit out new factions. 

The Algerian group, called Soldiers of the Caliphate, split from AQIM earlier this month and pledged allegiance to Islamic State, the extremist group against whom France carried out airstrikes in Iraq last week. The group said it answered a call from Islamic State to attack foreigners. Mr. Gourdel was kidnapped on Sunday while driving through Algeria's mountainous Kabyile region. 

Islamic State's rise loomed over a recent African Union meeting in Nairobi to discuss the continent's growing terrorism threat. 

The Sinai-based Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis has started beheading people. In northeast Nigeria Boko Haram has added to its guerrilla hit-and-run tactics and has begun to occupy towns and territory. Libya's Ansar al-Sharia has declared what it calls the Islamic Emirate of Benghazi, bolstered by Libyans sent home from Islamic State’s fronts in Iraq and Syria. 

Monday’s kidnap video is a departure from standard AQIM tactics. While the Magreb affiliate of Al Qaeda has taken hostages for ransoms – used to finance its operations, as The New York Times reported this summer – a high-publicity execution threat is something new. 

“Usually it would all be kept very quiet and we wouldn’t necessarily know that we had a hostage until that hostage was released,” says Simon Allison, a senior reporter at South Africa’s Daily Maverick and author of a recent paper for the Institute for Security Studies of the Islamic State’s effect in Africa. “AQIM wasn’t necessarily looking for publicity. They were looking for money. These new guys seem to be doing it mainly for publicity.”

At such geographic distance from the Middle East, it’s unlikely that African groups are getting a great deal of direct attention or direction for their actions, Mr. Allison says.

Islamic State is likely to have a stronger influence among fringe groups of sprawling organizations like AQIM or among small unknowns “who use the mantle of the IS to give their own little causes a more noble, global cloaking,” Allison says. Smaller groups are also more likely to adopt Islamic State’s brutal tactics.

The Islamic Emirate of Benghazi, declared at the end of July, may be the greatest inspiration to jihadi groups on the continent, by showing that it can mimic Islamic State’s territory grab in the Levant.

Citing Boko Haram as an example, Allison says, “Before they were fighting this huge battle to overturn, say, the entire Nigerian state. Now they’re just fighting to occupy a bit of territory that can be part of something bigger. It’s a much more achievable target.”

“What we’re looking at, potentially in a few months or years’ time, is a… noncontiguous state that doesn’t belong to any of the world institutions or subscribe to any of the world norms. It gives a lot of like-minded groups an end goal.”

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