Background of the Action Division
The Action Division is the clandestine wing of the French Directorate-General for External Security – France’s foreign intelligence service.
France’s covert intelligence capabilities and the Action Division came to bear in World War II, after the SDECE (External Documentation and Counter-Espionage Service) was formed and the “Service Action” was created. The DGSE was formed in 1981 after the reorganization of the SDECE. (Source)
The Action Division was subsequently reformed from the Service Action of SDECE, and is still referred to as that by many. Officially, the Action Division, has been organized as independent units like the 11th Shock Parachute Battalion and the Action Division’s airborne component, Escadrille de Liaisons Aeriennes 56 Vaucluse (ELA).
Tactics, Training, and Procedure
Action Division commandos are since based in three “training centres” which compose the CIRP, “Paratrooper Reservist Instruction Centre”, where they receive specialized and unconventional training under three separate wings. (Source)
- CPES, “Paratrooper Specialised Training Centre” in Cercottes for clandestine operations.
- CPIS, “Paratrooper Specialised Instruction Centre” in Perpignan for special commandos.
- CPEOM, “Paratrooper Training Centre for Naval Operations” in Quelern, which instructs combat divers.
CPEOM is unique in the sense that Action Division agents are trained in a variety of maritime transport methods. This includes kayaks, jet-skis, crude and improvised rafts, and miniature submarines.
Overall, the Action Division’s core specializations are sabotage, espionage, assassination, infiltration/exfiltration of persons into/from hostile territory and hostage rescue. The Action Division also routinely does security assessments of government and protected facilities, such as submarine bases and nuclear power stations. (Source)
DSGE and Action Division agents are outfitted with a variety of weapons at their disposal. Commonly agents of French special forces and reconnaissance groups are outfitted with an FN Scar-L or M16A2, drawing away from the service-issued Famas F1 and HK416 used by most French military personnel. DSGE agents most likely have access to the HK MP5 and MP7 as well as the FN P90, all of which are used by naval or special operations groups in the French military.
The DSGE and Action Division have been active all over the globe in many infamous operations up until recently under SDECE.
- In 1977, the SDECE was accused of aiding a failed counter-coup in Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya following the Jamahiriya reforms in the country. Another unsuccessful attempt was said to be made as well in 1980.
- In 1979, SDECE agents and the French military aided David Dacko in restoring the presidency and the Central African Republic from the Central African Empire and ousted Emperor Jean-Bedel Bokassa I.
- In the context of the Angolan Civil War, there are sporadic reports of French and SDECE involvement supporting UNITA rebels against the MPLA. (Source)
- In 1985, in a move titled Operation Satanique, 2 Action Division agents sank the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior in New Zealand. The ship was participating in protests against French nuclear activity in the region. One photographer died in the incident, the agents were arrested and charged by New Zealand, and France was faced with international backlash with accusations of state-sponsored terrorism by the DGSE and Action Division. (Source)
- Off the coast of Somalia in 2008, DGSE commandos rescued 30 hostages being held for ransom by local pirates. The French Military reports no one was injured, but local Somali outlets reported 5 locals dead in the aftermath. (Source)
- In 2011, the Action Division was involved in a number of operations in Libya, particularly at the second battle of Tripoli.
- Since 2016, the Action Division is suspected of being in a offensive-combat role against Islamic State forces left in Libya. France and Libya have both denied this, and state that any DGSE presence in the country is strictly an advisory one. (Source)
Denis Allex affair
In 2009, the DGSE had sent two agents in an “advisory role” to Mogadishu, Somalia for support of the Somali government. The two agents, under the aliases “Marc Aubriere” and “Denis Allex”, were soon captured by local al-Shabaab fighters and held captive. Aubriere was able to escape by sneaking out of the compound they were held in, trekking thru Mogadishu, and to the safety of the Presidential Palace. Allex was left behind in captivity. (Source)
Three years later, the DGSE attempted to rescue Allex. In short, the operation was a complete failure. Five helicopters and 50 Action Division commandos were sent to Bulo Marer in Somalia from a French Navy vessel in the Gulf of Aden. US signals intelligence forces and local Somali assets concluded Allex was being held the location in Bulo Marer, and the French swooped in. (Source) In a firefight that lasted under and hour, it was reported that a mix of al-Shabaab fighters and civilians were killed, an Action Division operative was killed, and another was missing. al-Shabaab later stated that they had captured the missing DGSE operative, but he later died from wounds from the firefight. In the end, it was reported that al-Shabaab executed Allex out of retaliation, and even taunted the French by implying he was never even at the location of the failed raid. (Source)
The aftermath of this operation soured ties with the French and Somali government, as the Somali’s condemned the military action as they were not made aware it was going to be carried out. Also, it was reported that civilians were shot without warning by the advancing Action Division operatives. Reports say that locals woke up to the sounds of helicopters landing nearby, when they turned on their flashlights to see, they were killed by DGSE operatives. In total, 8 civilians lost their lives to Action Division operatives. (Source) Overall, this operation combined with its relative recentness and the loss of a total of 3 operatives is a tragic reminder that not all operations go according to plan.
The Action Division is the covert wing of France’s Directorate-General for External Security, and it has some of France’s most elite operators within it’s ranks. The history of operations that the Action Division has is immense, and their roots stretch into World War II.