A French mountaineer in Algeria is the first Western hostage to have been seized by an Islamic State affiliate outside of Syria, underlining a chilling acceleration of threats by the terrorist organization and raising new concerns about the breadth of its reach.
Western nations have already been rattled by the expediency with which IS has recruited foreigners to join it in the march from Syria into Iraq this summer, largely through social media. Now that the group has moved to targeting Westerners as hostages, the reach of Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook is raising questions about how far IS and its affiliates will expand, and who is safe from their wrath.
French hostage Hervé Pierre Gourdel was setting off for a 10-day trek in the mountains of Algeria when he was captured by the Jund al-Khilafah (Soldiers of the Caliphate). The abduction reportedly occurred just hours after IS released a video urging members to kill the “filthy French,” spurred by France joining the US to launch airstrikes in Iraq against the IS.
“If you can, kill a disbelieving American or European – especially the spiteful and filthy French – or an Australian, or a Canadian,” IS urged its followers in a released audio message.
The group has already beheaded three Westerners – two American journalists and a British aid worker – and posted the videos online.
A second video has also appeared today, featuring a British photojournalist who criticizes the US and the United Kingdom for action that promises to be as messy as “Vietnam.” It surfaced just as the US and several allies from the Middle East conducted the first airstrikes in Syria.
The IS has kidnapped at least 23 Westerners so far, according to The New York Times.
The ability to reach a global audience through social media poses a profound challenge for Western powers. “This is a game changer in that social media and online tools are a catalyst, a tool to expedite the process of radicalization and also facilitate the movement of foreign fighters or [the execution of] attacks together,” says Erin Marie Saltman, an expert in radicalization at the Quilliam Foundation in London.
While other terrorist groups like Al Qaeda have long called for terrorist acts on enemies' home turf, IS has led the way with social media, she says, which compounds the problem. “When you had to wait for pamphlets or CDs, it slows down the process,” Ms. Saltman says. “A person has time to reflect on whether this is what they want to do or not.“
Another key difference is that appeals from Islamic State, with their promise to build a global caliphate, resonate more widely because people from afar – in Algeria or beyond – are more inspired to act. “They want to feel empowered,” she says, “not just be part of a terrorist organization but part of a state.”
Surveillance has been stepped up across Europe. Brussels, which headquarters the European Union, took new measures yesterday after a Turkish couple who had been in Syria were arrested under antiterrorism laws. France, which has the largest contingent of jihadis from Europe fighting in Syria, increased vigilance across the country. Authorities warned French citizens in some 30 countries, including North Africa and the Middle East, to take special caution.
The hostage, Mr. Gourdel, is a trained mountaineer and photographer from Nice. In the video, his captors promise to kill him within 24 hours.
Prime Minister Manuel Valls Tuesday morning said that threats issued by the IS would not make France back down. “That’s all the perfidy of terrorism, to resort to blackmail, death, and threats,” he told Europe 1 radio. “If we give an inch, we hand them a victory.”