ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) — In a late night operation, Algeria's army killed the leader of an Islamic State splinter group blamed for the kidnapping and beheading of a French hiker, the Ministry of Defense said Tuesday.
It took three months for about 3,000 Algerian soldiers to comb the mountainous Kabylie region that has long been a hotbed for militant groups, but in the end they caught up with Abdelmalek Gouri.
The operation demonstrates Algeria's continuing skill at counterterrorism since its decade-long battle against an Islamic insurgency in the 1990s that has made it a close U.S. ally in the fight against al-Qaida.
Gouri, who joined the ranks of the radical Islamists nearly 20 years ago, was a top al-Qaida commander in Algeria until he split off and formed his own group, Jund al-Khilafah (Soldiers of the Caliphate), and pledged allegiance the Islamic State group in Syria.
His group sprang to international notoriety when it kidnapped French hiker Herve Gourdel in September and threatened to kill him, if French participation in the U.S. led-airstrikes against the Islamic state did not end.
As Algeria scrambled to find the hostage, Gourdel was beheaded on video a few days later.
While kidnappings for profit were long common in the Kabylie region, the latest incident provoked a strong response and troops were poured into the search. In October and again in December, the army announced killing two members of the group.
After a few near misses, the search for Gouri came to an end in the small town of Isser, near the city of Boumerdes, 40 kilometers (25 miles) east of Algiers, where he and two of his associates were ambushed and killed, said the Defense Ministry.
"Intelligence services had information that he was coming to visit his parents so they set an ambush," a local security official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Gouri was briefly imprisoned by authorities in the late 1990s before being freed and leaving for Lebanon, where he trained and later fought against the state.
He is believed to have been behind some of al-Qaida's deadliest suicide bombings in 2007 in Algiers.