In late September, the news came that Hervé Gourdel, a 55-year-old French mountain guide who had been hiking in the Djurdjura in northern Algeria, had been executed by Jund al-Khilafah, an armed group claiming to be part of ISIS, or, in Arabic, Daesh (Islamic State in Iraq and Sham, or Syria). Gourdel had worked in the French Alps and trekked in Southeast Asia, Jordan and Morocco, where he also trained Moroccan mountain guides. After meeting Algerian hikers through Facebook, he planned his first trip to Algeria, where he hoped to discover new beautiful mountain landscapes. (For a country where tourism is dramatically underdeveloped, online contact was by far the easiest and obvious way to organize the trip.) On September 22, during his exploration of the Djurdjura, he was kidnapped by Jund al-Khilafah. Two days later, his abductors, following the example of recent assassinations of American and British journalists in Iraq and Syria, filmed his execution and posted the footage online. Gourdel was made to kneel in front of four armed men with covered faces—the viewers can only imagine from his face how he struggled to retain his self-control—while a voice read a long text accusing France of waging war against Muslims and pledging allegiance to the ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The trees in the background of the image have been blurred, presumably to avoid disclosing the location of the execution. But the perpetrators didn’t manage to expunge the sound of birds twittering in the background. Western media reported the story of Gourdel’s murder as retribution for the French bombing of regions of Syria under the control of ISIS. That may be so, but the murderers’ choice of locale had a very particular and sinister meaning for Algerians.
In the 1990s, the Algerian state and armed Islamist groups fought a decade-long civil war that claimed perhaps 100,000 lives. For ten years, kidnappings, executions, beheadings, throat-cuttings and the public exhibition of dead bodies or severed body parts were among the acts routinely committed by armed Islamist groups, though back then images of these macabre deeds were not posted online. But the resonances go deeper. The Gourdel tragedy unfolded in the Aït Ouavane forest at the edge of the Djurdjura national park in the Atlas mountain range, a region where a strange contest between violence and tourism has been under way since the 1930s.
Hearing the Aït Ouavane mentioned in the news reports about Gourdel brought me back to a hike I’d taken there in 2011. I had an idea for a research project about the present-day national park, of which the Aït Ouavane is only a section, and before diving into the archives I wanted to explore the terrain, especially the spectacular forest of cedar and pine surrounding a resort named Tikjda. It still felt daring to be hiking in the mountains. For some Algerians who had known the park before the civil war, the sense of apprehension was still too great. There was talk of small groups of terrorists—dubbed by the authorities “residual terrorism,” a highly criticized concept—and theft-related kidnappings in the region. On the weekends, families and large parties visited Tikjda, but out of worry or habit they never wandered very far into the woods, creating a strangely overpopulated patch in the middle of the forest. A few feet away, the woods were peaceful and translucent.
I was walking with a friend who knew the area well, and when we strayed deep into the woods, it was only in areas that he knew to be safe. He recalled an occasion several years earlier: while hiking in the area, he stumbled upon a man rolled up in his sleeping bag, a firearm by his side. My friend slipped away quietly. He also remembered that for several years during the “black decade” of the 1990s, the entire park was unsafe for hikers and visitors. He and his companions had hiked instead on Tala Guilef, another massif in the Atlas range. But there, too, the boundaries of available terrain constantly shrank as the civil war dragged on. Terrorism has a way of barring people from places formerly their own, restricting spaces of leisure and community as well as of daily life and work.
In 2011, however, the forest around Tikjda was perfectly safe: in retrospect, it felt more adventurous to me to be there than it actually was. The forest floor was littered with the traces of several wars, harmless but inescapable. Small flasks of brandy from French Army food parcels could still occasionally be found, remnants of the French military presence during Algeria’s war of independence (1954–62). More numerous were empty food tins of the ANP (or Armée Nationale Populaire, the Algerian Army), which had fought the Islamist groups, with use-by dates indicating that they were from the black decade. Tins were under our feet at almost every step.