We are in a state of shock over the beheading of a French tourist in Algeria on Wednesday. There is no doubt about it: ISIS has brought terror directly into the hearts and minds of the French people.
Hervé Gourdel, a 55-year-old mountaineering guide from Nice, was kidnapped on Sunday by Jund al-Khilafah, a jihadist group with links to Islamic State militants (ISIS). He’d just arrived for a long-awaited hiking trip in Algeria’s northern mountains.
He didn’t get to climb any mountains. And the last memories his family will have of Hervé is from the grim video recording posted online shortly after his death. Holding his severed head to the camera, a militant announced: “The Soldiers of the Caliphate in Algeria have decided to punish France, by executing this man.” The group’s 24-hour deadline for France to stop its airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq had just expired.
French President François Hollande, attending the United Nations General Assembly in New York, held an impromptu news conference to condemn the execution as a “cruel and cowardly act” for which “the perpetrators…must be punished.”
He’s good at talking tough. And his willingness to take speedy military action in Iraq is gaining him respect in certain quarters; a development he must welcome given his dire popularity rating of 13%. But I can’t help thinking of the perversity of the whole situation France finds itself in.
If research carried out earlier this year by The New York Times is correct, then the French government has much soul-searching to do. The results of interviews of former hostages, negotiators, diplomats and government officials in 10 European countries, Africa and the Middle East reported in July, suggest that France, and indeed other European countries, have been effectively bankrolling Al Qaeda (and in turn ISIS, which until this year had strong ties with Al Qaeda) by adopting the practice of paying ransoms to secure the release of its abducted citizens. This clandestine practice has been vehemently denied by French officials, including François Hollande who claimed in Wednesday’s address that: “France will never give in to blackmail, to pressure, to barbaric acts. Quite to the contrary, France knows what is expected.”
If the findings are accurate, then France has actually paid a total of more than $58 million in ransom money over the past five years to release 8 French nationals. That’s roughly $7 million per person. It has been suggested that some of these payments were made under the guise of “humanitarian aid” using state-controlled companies, and with the assistance of Turkish secret service agents. Read the report and see what you think.
America and the United Kingdom are two of a handful of countries who have resisted this practice on the basis that it perpetuates the terrorist problem, and their stance, as we know all too keenly, has resulted in very sad outcomes: two US journalists and one British aid worker have suffered the ISIS trademark beheadings, the aftermath of which is posted online for propaganda purposes. A kidnapped taxi driver from Manchester, England is next in line.
The dilemma faced by these countries is massive: pay the ransom or lose your citizen, in a very public and gruesome way. France, Spain, Italy and others arguably took quick short-term fixes, risking high and deadly stakes for the long-term. The total amount of ransom money picked up by Al Qaeda and its direct affiliates (includes ISIS) since 2008 is estimated to be $125 million.
Some of this money has been used to train and arm prospective jihadists that have travelled willingly from Europe to the Middle East to do so. Current estimates suggest there are approximately 500-600 ISIS trained fighters living in France. The killing of a French civilian in Algeria has shown, all too clearly, that ISIS’s reach extends far beyond its homelands of Syria and Iraq. It’s now on a crowded metro station, a busy cafe in Paris, on the doorstep.
Today, one family will wake up asking themselves: “Why Hervé?” The rest of us living on French soil will be asking: “What next?”