By Patrick Markey and Lamine Chikhi
ALGIERS (Reuters) - When a little-known group of Algerian militants beheaded a French tourist last week, they were not only lashing out at the West, but also staking an unmistakable claim in the shifting ground of jihadist power politics.
Herve Gourdel's murder by the Caliphate Soldiers, ostensibly to punish France for Western military strikes on Islamic State forces in Iraq, was testament to the pull now exerted by the al Qaeda-offshoot in the battle for the loyalties of jihadists.
A week before Gourdel was kidnapped and killed, the Soldiers' Algerian commander Abdelmalek Gouri, also known as Khalid Abu Suleiman, had split with al Qaeda's North African wing to support Islamic State, whose battlefield successes and declaration of a "Caliphate" in Iraq and Syria have stolen al Qaeda's thunder.
"It seems the mother organization Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has taken a wrong turn, we can no longer follow their guidance," the Caliphate Soldiers announced.
By executing a Westerner under the "new shield" of Islamic State, Gouri was challenging al Qaeda's aging leadership under Ayman al-Zawahri, and specifically the AQIM chief Abdelmalek Droukdel, for recruits and support.
"This was a message to Droukdel: 'Your territory of influence and operations from now on will be ours'," said Algerian security analyst Khalifa Rekibi.
Droukdel's AQIM issued a statement calling for an end to divisions, but his authority had already been undermined by the veteran militant Mokhtar Belmokhtar, whose splinter group "Those who Sign in Blood" last year brazenly attacked Algeria's Amenas gas complex, where 39 foreign contractors were killed.
"Abu Suleiman is a well known AQIM commander. He wanted to follow Belmokhtar's path to set up his own armed group," said another Algerian security analyst, Anis Rahmani. "Sources say he clashed with Droukdel over how to pursue the fight."
VETERAN OF ALGERIAN WAR
Belmokhtar, an Algerian veteran of jihadist battles in Afghanistan who security analysts believe may be sheltering in southern Libya, has yet to declare his hand on the ascendancy of Islamic State.
Gouri is a former head of AQIM's central region who began his militant career in Algeria in the 1990s, in the war that followed the government's cancellation of an election that appeared certain to be won by the Islamist FIS party.
He was a member of the Armed Islamic Group, known by its French initials GIA: the most extreme of the Islamist guerrilla groups that sprang up to fight the army-dominated state.
Noted for attacking civilians whom it considered to be collaborating with the government, the GIA was blamed for massacres such as one in the village of Sidi Youssef, when at least 50 men wielding knives and machetes attacked homes, dragging people into the streets and slashing their throats.
But even with his GIA history, little is known about Gouri, or the size of his following, or the ability of his Caliphate Soldiers to carry out any sustained campaign.
Security experts say the group may number as few as 15 to 20 men from the core of AQIM, who have hardly had time to formulate a strategy and looked to benefit from Islamic State's rise.
Gourdel's abduction just two days after he arrived in Algeria to go trekking in the mountains, and the rapid release of a poor quality video and subsequent execution, suggest that Gouri's men had to react fast after perhaps getting a tipoff.
With Algerian helicopters, troops and gendarmerie flooding in to hunt for Gourdel, in what one local resident said looked like a "military invasion", the Caliphate Soldiers knew they would have little time to act.
"The video's quality and its mawkish symbolism seem to indicate a hasty gesture to jihadi Islam: Gourdel was a 'target of opportunity'," said Geoff Porter, a North Africa security analyst and researcher at the Countering Terrorism Center at the U.S. military academy at West Point.
"It will be important to watch the evolution of the quality of future communiques and the group's use of imagery in order to gauge the group’s development."
For years, men like Gouri have held out in the inaccessible forested mountains east of Algiers, known during GIA's years of blood in the 1990s as the "Triangle of Death", refusing government amnesty offers and living off the kidnapping of businessmen for ransom.
But reviving any significant jihadist campaign in Algeria will be extremely tough for a small splinter group, given the army's deep experience in fighting Islamist militancy.
Against them is also a history of deadly infighting among Algeria's jihadist guerrilla groups that allowed the security forces to infiltrate their ranks and break them up.
That should be little consolation, however, to governments across North Africa and elsewhere being harried by rising Islamic militancy.
For one thing, the Caliphate Soldiers' high-profile act of slaughter may prompt an AQIM attempt to reclaim authority with attacks of its own.
"Competition will increase between both organizations," said Rekibi.
And then, by raising the profile of Islamic State at al Qaeda's expense in North Africa, already a major source of jihadist fighters traveling to Syria and Iraq, the Caliphate Soldiers' act could boost recruitment still further.
Neighboring Tunisia is already fighting against Ansar al-Sharia and other Islamist militants holed up in the Chaambi mountains bordering Algeria. Both Tunisia and Algeria have seen several militant attacks on security forces in recent months.
"We knew that after the American intervention, we may face more kidnappings and maybe attempts on embassies," said one Tunisian security official. "Terrorists will try and give new life to their followers and try spectacular attacks."
(Additional reporting by Tarek Amara in Tunis and Aziz El Yaakoubi in Rabat; Editing by Kevin Liffey)