French Counterterrorism Operations in the Sahara

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 36

On the morning of July 22 at approximately 5 A.M., Special Forces of the Mauritanian and French armies commenced operations against an alleged al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) base in northern Mali designed to free French hostage Michel Germaneau, 78-year old dependent on medicinal drugs. To this day, ambiguity surrounding the operation and the role of French counterterrorism forces in Africa remains.

Reports seemed to indicate that Germaneau was either dying or may have already been dead at the time of the operation. [1] However, French intelligence agencies never appeared to have any concrete or corroborating proof of this. Though six AQIM members were killed in the joint operation, it ultimately failed to release Germaneau, who AQIM later claimed to have murdered as “revenge for our six brothers” (al-Jazeera, July 26).  Paris may have decided to join the Mauritanian operation as a precautionary and opportunistic measure, even if it meant only small-scale involvement.  Open sources reveal that the French did not wish to get directly involved in a large attack by the Mauritanian army. Meanwhile, the Mauritanian Groupe Special d´Intervention (GSI – the largely French-trained Mauritanian Special Forces) wanted to prevent the consolidation of AQIM’s small and well-dispersed mobile groups. In early July, Mauritania determined that an AQIM group was on the verge of attacking a military garrison on its territory sometime at the end of the month (Jeune Afrique, August 23). Mauritanian president Mohamed Ould Abd al-Aziz warned Paris that he would commence operations to deter this threat. However, sources critical of France and Algeria claim that the rescue operation was actually a smoke screen for a broader, more covert multinational operation involving Algerian and French forces. According to these sources, a simultaneous but politically sensitive Franco-Algerian assault on AQIM positions in the Tessalit region of Mali’s Tigharghar Mountains was the real operation (Le Républicain [Bamako], July 26; al-Jazeera, August 8). [2]

A meeting dedicated to planning the liberation of the French hostage took place in Paris on the evening of July 13. The Mauritanian president was received briefly at the Elysée, just before the traditional Bastille Day military parade. The Mauritanians, possibly helped by the French, had spotted an AQIM “camp” in the Mali desert, about 150 km from the border between the two countries. The modest and rather rudimentary camp served as a supply base for Abdulaman Yahia’s katiba, which is dependent upon on a larger AQIM formation led by Commander Abu Zeid. [3]

This attack can be considered a step forward in France’s counterterrorism policy in the Sahel. This is, by far, the most visible French action in recent times. Yet that does not mean that France will launch itself into an overt “war against terror” in the area. On the contrary, the whole idea is to act in ways that will prevent the crystallizing of a new land of jihad, such as Iraq, Afghanistan or Yemen.

The French approach can be analyzed using a circle theory:

• The broader circle concerns France’s territory and Europe: To prove its international credentials, AQIM regularly tries to infiltrate the Algerian Diaspora to recruit operational militants or establish logistical support. [4] Until now, the French security services, especially the Direction Centrale du Renseignement Intérieur (DCRI – Central Directorate of Interior Intelligence), have been successful in preventing an AQIM terrorist attack on French soil. Nevertheless, recent events in the Sahel have raised the possibility of such an attack, as the DCRI director himself recently claimed (Le Monde, September 11).
• The second circle is concerned with the Maghreb: Traditionally, France has strong operational cooperation with the states of the region – probably much closer than with any European or American allies. This cooperation includes intensive intelligence exchanges.
• The third and last circle covers the African sub-Saharan states: For decades much of this area was colonized by the French. Hence, France not only has detailed knowledge of the area gained over the long-term, but has also shaped the area in many ways (language, security, economy etc.). When it comes to cultural intelligence, for instance, or knowledge of local practices, norms and values, France certainly has a strong measure of expertise. In fact, many papers and research done during colonial times – though they might suffer from a partially biased colonialist approach – can still be used as historical background information. [5] Experience, here, is of the essence.

Hi-Tech and Low-Tech

Having said that, counterterrorism, in practice, can be very basic, and at the same time, high-tech as well. The Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure (DGSE – France’s external intelligence agency) acts in traditional fashion by collecting human intelligence (HUMINT), which consists mostly of paid or unpaid informants in local tribes, among traditional authorities or in French expatriate communities. It also discretely patrols sensitive areas to check AQIM movements. [6]

The recent defense White Paper recommended the enhancement of signals intelligence/satellite capacity. [7] French involvement in the launch of the MUSIS and CERES surveillance satellites shows how the Sahara remains a strategic priority for France. [8] This dual approach provides an operational capacity that is well-shaped for Africa. Thus, in just two weeks, the DGSE was able to track down the al-Qaeda murderers of four French tourists through Mauritania and Senegal, finally leading to their arrest in Guinée-Bissau (Libération, January 12, 2008; see also Terrorism Monitor Briefs January 9, 2008; June 12, 2010). [9] Special units are used as a complementary field-tool. In the Germaneau case, Service Action, the DGSE armed branch, is reputed to have intervened jointly with the Mauritanians. However, other Special Forces derived from the French army also have a counterterrorism capacity and could have been involved. They are incorporated in the Commandement des Opérations Spéciales (COS):

• The Thirteenth Régiment de Dragons Parachutistes (13e RDP or 13th Parachute Dragoon Regiment) specializes in Africa and can intervene far behind enemy lines to provide intelligence on the adversary. It can also assess the nature, size and capacity of the adversary in targeting operations. [10]

• The First Régiment Parachutiste d’Infanterie de Marine (1er RPIMA or 1st Naval Infantry Paratrooper Regiment), created during the Second World War on the SAS model, has operational know-how in assaults, hostage rescue, infiltration and exfiltration. [11]

• The Détachment ALAT [Aviation Légère de l’Armée de Terre] Opérations Spéciales (DAOS), consisting of two special operations helicopter squadrons.

French assets are ready to assist in local operations, with the most recent example being the response to the kidnapping of seven mine-workers (five of whom were French) from the French Areva uranium operations near the Niger town of Arlit on September 17. Eighty French military personnel were sent to Niger to assist in the search for the hostages using a long-range Breguet Atlantique surveillance aircraft and a Mirage F-1 jet fitted with specialized monitoring equipment (AFP, September 17; September 20).

Military and Police Cooperation

Like the United States, France began training African military forces in the 1960s to enhance their counterterrorism skills. The aforementioned Mauritanian GSI was trained by the French military within the framework of a bilateral assistance agreement. [12] Such cooperation occurs regularly. These interactions can have political consequences and can be hazardous for the personnel involved. For instance, in July 2009, two French security advisers posing as journalists were kidnapped from their hotel in Mogadishu, Somalia by gunmen of Hizb al-Islam (AFP, July 16, 2009; July 19, 2009; see also Terrorism Monitor Brief, July 30, 2009). The hostages were later divided between Hizb al-Islam and al-Shabaab, with one of the men escaping on August 26, 2009 (Shabelle Media Network, July 16, 2009; AFP, July 16, 2009).

Counterterrorism cooperation and assistance are also responsibilities of the police. The Service de Coopération Technique Internationale de police (SCTIP – International Technical Cooperation Service of Police) was created in Africa in 1961 to provide assistance to the newly independent African states. While its action was originally restricted only to training, it now covers operations including narco-trafficking, organized crime and counterterrorism. It now appears that the DCRI might be much more involved with its African counterparts than was earlier estimated.


France’s counterterrorism operations in the Sahara are based on long-standing regional co-operation, intelligence exchanges, police and military training programs, the use of Special Forces and autonomous high-tech capacities. If the use of force was, and still is, the traditional choice, that does not mean that the option of negotiation is totally neglected. President Sarkozy has claimed to be a negotiator in many famous hostage-taking situations (Nouvel Observateur, May 24). This approach has its advantages – in the best case scenario the hostages can be freed without revealing the actual circumstances involved in their release. The downside is that attempting to ransom the hostages may violate the policies of France’s African security partners. Ransoms also provide funding for terrorism. Clearly, it is pragmatism that must prevail in such sensitive matters under the Sarkozy presidency.