Five years after it ended an eight-month military campaign in Libya in November 2011 called Operation Harmattan, France is reportedly back on the ground in the North African country, according to information published by French daily Le Monde. But this time, France is allegedly carrying out discreet, potentially secret, operations against a new threat — the expansion of the Islamic State's (IS) influence in Libya, which descended into chaos following the fall of former dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
Under the headline "France's secret war in Libya," Le Monde reporter and French defense expert Nathalie Guibert writes that she has received information suggesting that France is currently involved in Libya. According to Guibert, French special forces are carrying out "unofficial military actions," and the DGSE, France's military intelligence agency, is leading "covert operations" in the country.
"If a French operation is indeed underway in Libya, then it is a covert operation, as France does not, in theory, have a presence in the country," explained Pierre Martinet, a former agent in the Service Action division of the DGSE, who today runs private security firm Corpguard.
The former secret agent explained that this type of action often serves as a "preamble" to a larger intervention, even though in this case, conventional military deployment remains unlikely.
"On the one hand you have the special [forces] actions, that are carried out officially by civilians or servicemen, who answer in part to France's Special Operations Command," he explained. "But there are also covert operations that are mainly carried out by DGSE agents, who can take on assumed identities and remain in an area without drawing anyone's attention."
Martinet noted that in Libya, the French forces on the ground were likely to be DGSE agents — for example, those trained at the Paratrooper Specialized Instruction Center in the southern French town of Perpignan.
"They can infiltrate urban, rural areas, penetrate the ranks of a guerilla, and free hostages in either a friendly or enemy country," he said.
The Service Action division of the DGSE recruits servicemen "of all ranks," and trains them "to identify targets and neutralize them in various ways," explained Martinet. "It's possible that some agents carry out laser aiming missions, to guide missiles during airstrikes, for example."
Responding to VICE News Wednesday about Le Monde's revelations, a spokesperson for the DGSE said that the agency never comments "on ongoing operations, either real or assumed."
The office of the chief of defense of the French military said it would not comment on the claims.
For Patrick Haimzadeh, a former French diplomat stationed in Libya from 2001 to 2004, the revelations of France's covert operations are no accident.
"These are probably orchestrated leaks," Haimzadeh said. "In short, it allows France to show that it's doing something to stop IS in Libya, without having an official presence there."
On February 19, the US announced that it had killed more than 40 suspected members of IS in an aerial raid against a building near Tripoli, in the west of the country. The Pentagon said it had targeted Noureddine Chouchane, a Tunisian senior IS operative who allegedly masterminded two deadly attacks in Tunisia: the Bardo museum attack in March 2015 and the Sousse beach attack in July 2015.
The US had already carried out strikes in Libya in November, in the eastern town of Derna, to kill Iraqi national Abu Nabil — the leader of IS in Libya, according to US intelligence. According to Le Monde, the US acted on French intelligence to wipe out Abu Nabil.
The international community has been eyeing a military intervention for some time to stop the expansion of IS in Libya. But the political context in Libya is fractured, and ever since summer 2014, the country has been divided between two rival authorities: one that is based in Tobruk and is recognized by the international community, the other in Tripoli. Each has its own parliament and government.
The lack of a single, central government means there is no authority at present that can invite an international intervention.
Last week, the UN-backed Presidential Council announced it was in talks to form a national unity government. But on Tuesday, the Tobruk parliament said that it had failed to hold a vote of confidence to approve of the new government. The vote has been postponed until next week.
Haimzadeh said that, faced with the rising chaos in the country, the international community has been left with two choices. Plan A: To swiftly set up a national unity government in Libya and stage an official intervention in the country. Plan B: To intervene unofficially, pending the introduction of a national unity government.
According to Le Monde, France did not hold out for Plan A, and instead went with Plan B.
On Tuesday, the eve of the publication of Guibert's article in Le Monde, Huffington Post Arabi wrote that French special forces had arrived in Benghazi to support the Libyan National Army (LNA), which is under the command of General Haftar, who is loyal to the Tobruk government. The LNA is currently battling jihadist insurgents in the eastern Libyan city.
According to the Huffington Post, an unknown number of French troops are currently stationed at the Benina air base to the east of Benghazi.
For Martinet, the supposed presence of French forces in Libya does not necessarily imply a looming French intervention. "We're not there yet, because a covert operation can very well pave the way for a series of targeted, small-scale special operations."
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