Herve Gourdel - the ordinary hero beheaded by jihadists

The body of French mountaineer Hervé Gourdel was recovered by Algerian troops Thursday 15 January, four months after he was abducted and beheaded by jihadists. The army had mobilized 3,000 troops to find him. Excavations were carried out in Akbil and in the neighboring town of Abu Youssef, following a tip-off by an Islamist detainee.

After his remains were found, genetic tests were conducted to formally identify the body. At the time of his execution, so much was happening in the world that I was not immediately able to delve into that latest episode in a string of public beheadings of foreigners by Islamists. On 22 September, a meeting of world leaders in New York was dedicated to the ominous threat posed by the Islamic State for global security. In the night of 22-23 September, coalition airstrikes began against Islamic State’s strongholds in Syria, amid declamations at the world forum, and my eyes remained riveted onto my TV or laptop screens. On the 24th, Gourdel was executed in the mountains of Kabylie by an Islamist group - ‘Jund al-Khilafa’ - which had recently pledged allegiance to IS.

I briefly read the online analysis of a horrific video, not shown on TV and said to last for 4 minutes 46 seconds. The report indicated that it started with pictures of François Hollande at the press conference where he announced France’s participation in the campaign of strikes against IS. It then showed the hostage kneeling with his hands behind his back, surrounded by four armed men with hidden faces.

The video was entitled ‘Message in blood for the French government.’ Under duress, still according to the analysis, Hervé Gourdel then delivered his last words: "Hollande, you walked in the steps of Obama the ass." One of the men then read a message in which he denounced "the French criminal crusades" against Muslims, in Algeria, Mali and Iraq.

Herve Gourdel’s tragic story was very close to home for me for more than one reason. He was from the South of France, where I had lived for years with my parents. And he was killed in Algeria, where I was sent on a UN investigative mission during its decade-long civil war, to look into the security and human rights situation generated by the Islamic threat, underestimated by the West at the time. The investigators wanted to interview the rebels - including the GIA, the banned Islamist terrorist group. The only member to fiercely oppose that stance was - ironically – a Muslim, aware as he was of the growing threat of radicalization not only in Algeria, but the entire Middle East, and that playing the Western liberal card would be suicidal.

One month later, Hervé Gourdel was brought even closer to home for me by a chance encounter with a man who knew him well. It may have been the Arabic script of a paper I was reading that sparked the conversation.

Before long, the revelation came that he had been Gourdel’s close friend. I jumped at the opportunity to get additional insight from someone with intimate knowledge of the tragic hero. I was interested in knowing who was Hervé Gourdel the man. His friend - Henri Picard was his name - told me that Hervé was “great, a man universally appreciated for his human qualities, who loved the mountain and put his heart into what he did.”

 Why such a love for the mountain? “Because it enabled him to escape from office life.” He was a “lover of heights” and had “started to train mountain guides in the Moroccan Atlas, where he went for years before switching to Algeria”. But what motivated the choice of Algeria? I guess I was searching for clues of some sort of prescience, some fatal attraction that could have pulled Gourdel towards his tragic fate. Picard was more prosaic: “ Nothing, he just had this desire to explore something

new, a place renowned for its cliffs. It was his first time there. He was kidnapped while hiking in the company of Algerian friends met through Facebook.”

All red warning lights came on. What? He had taken off with total strangers? Had he been set up? “No”, said Picard, “the guys were subsequently cleared - they even tried to save him, speak to his captors. But it didn’t help, he was paying for France’s

involvement in the air strikes, announced just the day before. The timing was awful.”

And so was surely the choice of a remote mountain that had become a known sanctuary for armed Islamist groups in the 90s. The questions begging to be asked were racing through my head. Had Gourdel died a victim of his own imprudence? More tragically, had he been drawn to his fate like the moth to the deadly light? Why did Hervé Gourdel die? Back home after that serendipitous encounter, I frantically scoured the web in search of clues.

"Hervé Gourdel died because he was French," declared the French President when the news broke, according to one report.  For Hassane Zerrouky, editorialist at the Algerian online paper ‘le Matin’, Gourdel died because Bouteflika (the Algerian President) had “allowed Islamist criminals to regain the freedom to kill... Gouri Abdelmalek, the Jund al Khilafa Emir who murdered Gourdel, had definitely benefited [from blanket amnesty laws] when he was released in 1999.”

And because some, “in France and outside Algeria had chosen to look away during the terrible 1990s, while tens of thousands of Algerians were massacred by the GIA – some even squarely laying these mass crimes at the doorstep of the security forces.”

These perfectly valid explanations left me hungry for more...

"Hervé Gourdel died because he cherished openness towards other people – he was a humanist eventually caught up in the scum of hatefulness, who learned the lesson the hard way,” commented someone in ‘Boursorama’, an online political forum.

The American and British hostages executed by IS came to mind - Foley, Sotloff, Haines, Henning. It wasn’t just the mode of execution, but the fact that the victims were either selfless aid workers who had come to help the local populations, or journalists who so loved the local culture that they even embraced Islam and adopted Muslim names. Hervé Gourdel, too, loved the region and its people, so much that he did not fear going on a trek to the remote heart of Kabilye, with natives of the country he had just met on Facebook. Love and trust killed him, just as they had killed American and British hostages before.

If love and trust killed, what was the lesson to be drawn, I wondered? Life is a profound mystery - its message not easily fathomed. I found a possible layer of meaning in Zerrouky’s editorial, again: ”I watched the video. Hervé Gourdel remained dignified till the end, never begging his executioners. It is this image that I shall keep of a man who came to Algeria because he loved this country and its people.”

Whatever life lesson was learned from such a tragic end by Hervé Gourdel’s own soul, we will never know for sure, though we may speculate to no end. To the rest of us, he probably showed how to live a spirited life, then face up to one’s fate with grace and dignity.

Yesterday’s exhumation of his body and its imminent repatriation to his village of SaintMartin Vésubie, will allow his family and community members to mourn him and finally come to closure. So long as his body wasn’t recovered, the pain had remained like an open wound and the story of his life, like an unfinished symphony.

Here is a French language report on the reaction to the recovery of his body in his native village in France.


Michele Antaki was raised in Egypt and France. LLM of Law - France. PG Diploma of Conference Interpretation in Arabic, English, French - UK. She was a UN interpreter in NY for 27 years in 4 languages.