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France’s ‘secret war’ against the IS group in Libya

Kenzo Tribouillard, AFP | French soldiers.

French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has launched an “investigation” to identify the source behind a newspaper article that alleged French forces are engaged in a secret war combating the Islamic State group in Libya.


French newspaper Le Monde reported on Wednesday that special forces and the military unit of France’s DGSE intelligence agency are engaged in covert operations against Islamic State (IS) group militants in Libya alongside the US and UK.

Le Monde also said sources had reported sightings of French special forces in eastern Libya since mid-February.

Although the French government has not confirmed the revelations, Le Drian has ordered an immediate investigation into "breaches of national defence secrecy" to identify the sources of the report.

“The investigation will establish whether elements pertaining to classified information have been revealed in this newspaper article,” a source close to Le Drian told AFP, confirming a report by French weekly magazine Le Point.

However, Libyan special forces commander Wanis Bukhamada told Reuters that "the French military group in Benghazi are just military advisers who provide consultations to the Libyan National Army in its battle against terrorism, but they are not fighting with our Libyan forces”.

The IS group currently controls the Libyan coastal city of Sirte, located between the country’s two main cities, Tripoli and Benghazi.

‘Discreet or even secret actions’

Paris has previously confirmed that French aircraft have conducted reconnaissance flights over Libya, where France took a leading role in a 2011 NATO air campaign that helped rebels overthrow the dictator Muammar Gaddafi. It has also confirmed that France has set up an advance military base in Niger on the border with Libya, but denied any further role.

France has said that it would only consider a military intervention in the country if the Libyan national unity government requested it. However, the government has yet to be formed. Perhaps this is why France feels the need to pursue covert operations. According to Le Monde, France’s strategy in Libya consists of “regular, targeted strikes, prepared by discreet or even secret actions”.

“We must avoid any open military engagement, we have to act with discretion,” Le Monde’s article cited a senior defence ministry official as saying.

A ‘default’ strategy

“The choice of a strategy of containment, which consists of constraining and eliminating the jihadist group’s leaders through targeted operations, sometimes secretly [using special forces], sometimes clandestinely [using the DGSE’s military unit], is, by default, the strategy best adapted to the complexities of Libya’s chaotic theatre,” Michel Goya, a military strategy consultant and former colonel in the French Marines, told FRANCE 24.

“Without legal authorisation for direct and open operations in Libya, it is impossible, for political and budgetary reasons, to deploy ground troops to control and occupy territory,” he added.

According to Goya, these alleged operations, which require “considerable intelligence legwork”, are likely facilitated by the presence of French troops already in Africa’s Sahel region for Operation Barkhane. “We can suffocate the enemy with this strategy, inflict physical harm by eliminating their leaders and maintaining psychological pressure,” he said.

But Goya added that he doubted the strategy would work in the long term, as it “rarely produces definitive and decisive results if the targeted group has a minimal local presence”. He said the operations might have an impact if local forces take advantage of France’s support to fight the IS group on the ground, like in Iraq or Syria.

President François Hollande declared France was at war with the IS group after it claimed responsibility for a wave of attacks on bars, restaurants, a concert hall and the national football stadium in Paris on November 13 last year, killing 130 people.

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