Action Division: French Intelligence’s Clandestine Group 


    1.0 Service Action

    Action Division (Service Action, abbreviated SA) is the clandestine division of France’s foreign intelligence service, Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure (DGSE). The Action Division largely constitutes service members from the military, primarily special forces who form the bulk of operators. In addition, operators within this group are largely responsible for the intelligence service’s black operations. This includes assassination, sabotage, kidnapping, infiltration, and extraction. The Action Division is largely comparable with other Western intelligence clandestine groups such as the CIA’s Special Activities Center. This also includes SIS’s highly elusive E Squadron

    1.1 Motto

    The Action Division motto, more specifically the CPIS is: ‘Nul ne verra, nul ne saura’. This translates to ‘none will see, none will know’. (Source)

    1.2 Symbols / Patches

    The SA insignia decals a French imperial eagle representing the honour, strength, and pride of the unit. Such symbolism originated from the Napoleonic era. Additionally, the insignia features a star split between red and black. Finally, there is the parachute signifying the division’s role as a paratrooper unit and history from the 11e Choc Battalion.

    2.0 History and Raison de L’état

    In the aftermath of the Second World War, the French Fourth Republic reorganized their intelligence services. As such, the Service de Documentation Extérieure et de Contre-Espionnage (SDECE) materialized. This engulfed all pre-existing agencies into one organisation, giving France a centralized and professional intelligence structure.

    2.1 A British lineage

    In 1946, Colonel Jacques Morlanne formed the Action Division to be the clandestine group of the intelligence service upon the establishment of the SDECE. The original pool of operators came from the now-integrated intelligence services. Some operatives served in foreign clandestine and intelligence groups during the war, such as Britain’s Special Operations Executive

    3.0 Organisation

    Operatives and Commandos within the Action Division are formally grouped into three distinct units, each with their own specialisation in service of the DGSE when conducting clandestine operations. Additionally, they work in conjunction with other special operations forces (SOF). This includes the Brigade des Forces Speciales Air (BFSA) and Commandos Marine Hubert to achieve operational superiority.

    3.1 DGSE and the Action Division

    DGSE’s organisational and hierarchical structure draws more from the military rather than the workforce of a ministry’s civil servants or civilian agency. Unlike the UK’s SIS or the US’s CIA, the DGSE ultimately answers to the Ministère des Armées (Ministry of Defence) along with their sister agencies the DRM and DRSD. Consequently, SA members have access to a more centralised command structure close to military superiors and resources. When recruiting SA operators, they can draw from the pool of French servicemembers.

    3.2 Centre Parachutiste d’Entrainement Spécialisé (CPES)

    Today, CPES has settled their headquarters in Cercottes, Loiret, France. The SA’s Paratrooper Specialized Training Centre (CPES) specialises in clandestine operations tailored for intelligence-related missions for the DGSE. In an interview published in 2015, a CPES operative recalls their time training and conducting clandestine activity. Noted as being anything unlike the army, CPES assists the DGSE in the collection of intelligence in a militaristic manner. However, unlike other intelligence officers, CPES is trained in clandestine activity and direct action with combatants. (Source) (Source)

    ‘J’ai la meme mission qu’au sein de l’armee de Terre, mais les modes d’actions sont differents’

    ‘I have the same mission as our armed forces, but the way we do things are different.’

    CPES Officer ‘Alix’

    3.3 Centre Parachutiste d’Instruction Spécialisé (CPIS)

    Motto: ‘Nul ne Verra, Nul ne Saura’ 

    Being the most disclosed unit, CPIS or in English: The Paratrooper Specialized Instruction Centre, trains in clandestine and unconventional warfare tactics (UW). They constitute the secondary group of Commandos within the Action Division. Headquartered in Perpignan, France, the main purpose of CPIS is to exert covert action against groups and states alike in the DGSE’s interest. (Source)

    ‘Nos agents agissent hors du cadre législatif. C’est la principale différence avec les forces spéciales ou armées en général’

    ‘Our agents work outside the legislative framework. This is the principle difference between us, the special forces and the military.’

    CPIS Corp Commander (Source)

    3.4 Centre Parachutiste d’Entraînement aux Opérations Maritimes (CPEOM) 

    The final unit and unique training centre, the Paratrooper Training Centre for Maritime Operations (CPEOM) stationed in Quelern, acts on behalf of the Action Division’s naval and aquatic-based missions. Also referred to as ‘FrogMen’, CPEOM descends from the CINC (Combat Swimmer Centre). However, following Operation Satanique it was subsequently disbanded and replaced with CPEOM. Additionally, service members within CINC were originally composed of both SA and personnel from Commandos Marine Hubert. Hence, once CINC dissolved Hubert officially remained with the Commandos. 

    3.5 Joint Air Group 56 (Vaucluse)

    Belonging to the BSFA, Joint Air Group 56 or Vacluse is an aerial combat group. Deployed alongside SA teams, Vaucluse assist in aerial engagement and insertion during operations. Vaucluse falls under the DGSE as a specialised unit, hence their personnel being from the BSFA. In continuation, Joint Air Group 56 comprises Transall C-160 and DHC-6 Twin Otter transport aircraft, along with EC725 Caracal helicopters. (Source) (Source) (Source)

    3.6 FS Alizee

    French Ship Alize is the DGSE and Action Divisions diving support vessel used on deployment with CPEOM operators. The vessel is over 60 metres long, capable of deploying an NH90 helicopter, and caters to 30 passengers. In 2023, Alizee conducted operations across the Mediterranean, assisting in training and deployments with the CPEOM. (Source) (Source) (Source)

    4.0 Training

    Enlisting within CPES, CPIS, or CPEOM at CIRP otherwise known as the Parachute Reserve Training Centre is mandatory for candidates applying to become operators within Action Division. Little is known as to what conditions those in CPES and CPEOM train under, demonstrating how secretive the group is. However, some information is known and publicly disclosed.

    4.1 CPIS Training

    • Candidates who join are mandatory to hold a position as either a non-commissioned or commissioned officer within the military. As such, candidates can originate from any previous unit or branch.
    • The SA carries out security clearance checks on candidates. SA do this to establish a clear background and mental understanding of individuals joining the division.
    • Physical and mental training is around 18 months concluding in a 1-month exam.

    In 2009, an explosion killed two operators whilst conducting an exercise at the CPIS centre. Although an accident, it demonstrates how dangerous and volatile being within the SA can get. (Source) (Source)

    4.2 CPEOM Training

    • Candidates wishing to join CPEOM must endure 15 months of training in aquatic and maritime-based warfare. 
    • The first stage is done at Saint-Mandrier in the Var, South of France. Candidates will undergo mental and psychological testing to deem them fit for service at CPEOM. 
    • Candidates who have passed will move on to the second stage. This involves physical training in clandestine activity at Cercottes. 

    In order to join the CPEOM, candidates must place their interest to join by April or May each year. Then, those at the CIRP examine each candidate’s application and rigorously select who to take on. At a minimum, candidates must have served for two years, with them being no older than 28 for non-commissioned officers and 32 for commissioned officers. Regarding their training at CPEOM, operators are paired with their instructors in maritime and underwater combat. This makes the training process intimate and highly intensive, given the high level of attention to each individual. (Source)

    4.1 Protection of Key Sensitive Sites

    In addition to its clandestine operations, the Action Division uses its knowledge and extensive training to assist in testing and safeguarding important high-value targets in France. Such locations include Nuclear facilities such as power plants and, submarine bases which house nuclear submarines as well as other military installations.

    5.0 Equipment 

    Not much is known about the weapons or equipment that those in the Action Division utilise. However, based on their affiliation with the DGSE and subsequently be attached to the military chain of command, it is safe to say that a wide and versatile array of weaponry and equipment is available to their operators to which other SOF groups have access. 

    Known weaponry available online is as follows:

    • MP7
    • Glock 17
    • FN Scar platform
    • M16A2
    • MP5
    • FN P90
    • AK pattern rifles observed in the CPIS training photos

    (Source) (Source)

    6.0 Known Operations: A Cause For Failure?

    Within the Action Division, operations are split into two distinct categories. These include: Arma Operations, typically oriented around sabotage and destruction of material. Homo Operations (homicide), involving assassination and neutralisation of individuals and groups. Overall, such activities are carried out in clandestine ways away from the public eye. At times, hidden from government acknowledgement, designated black operations. The Ministère des Armées estimates that over 200 missions are carried out every year by the Action Division. (Source) (Source)

    6.1 Operation Satanique: Rainbow Warrior Incident

    In 1985, the Action Division undertook an arma operation, known as Operation Satanique. The objective was to sink the Greenpeace vessel the Rainbow Warrior in New Zealand (NZ). The vessel in question was berthed in Marsden Wharf and was to be used in a protest against French nuclear testing in the Mururoa Atoll. On 10 July 1985, two SA operators destroyed the vessel resulting in the death of journalist Fernando Pereira. However, during the two agents’ escape, both were subsequently caught by NZ police and later tried for murder, causing international embarrassment and backlash on France and the DGSE for state-sponsored terrorism. 

    6.2 Denis Allex and the Bulo Marer Operation 

    In 2009, two DGSE operatives sent to Somalia to help train and consult the Somali Transitional Federal Government forces were kidnapped. Both men were taken by armed men who were later handed over to Hizbul Islam and transferred to Al-Shabaab. The two agents: Denis Allex and Marc Aubriere (pseudonyms) were split up and tortured with Aubriere managing to escape fairly quickly. In 2012, President Francois Holland gave the green light for the Action Divisions CPIS to launch a 50-man operation known as Bulo Marer to retrieve Allex. However, the operation resulted in two operatives killed during a 45-minute gunfight and Allex was subsequently killed as a result of the hostage rescue attempt. (Source) (Source)

    6.3 ‘France’s secret war in Libya’

    Following Operation Harmattan in Libya in 2011 which saw a NATO coalition conduct airstrikes against Colonel Gaddafi’s regime, French media outlet Le Monde managed to gather evidence that the DGSE and the Action Division were continuing to conduct clandestine operations in the country against the Islamic State. An ex-service member, according to Le Monde, believed it to be the CPIS who were present on the ground. The premise for such action in 2016 when the report was released came after a wave of terrorist-related incidents by ISIS in France shocked the country, leading to France and its intelligence community to specifically focus on Islamic extremism. As such, France acknowledged their ‘open secret’ in July 2016 when Holland confirmed that more than over three operatives were killed whilst on deployment in Libya. (Source) (Source) (Source)

    6.4 Public Perception of Renseignement in France 

    In France, the public perception of intelligence or ‘renseignement’ has been historically largely poorly received. This is due to the majority of media coverage being orientated towards scandals and uncovering hidden truths amongst the French intelligence community (IC). Subsequently, as for the Action Division, such harsh truths are present as well, with many media headlines focused on the unit’s discrepancies. Additionally, much literature written as a result lacks depth or clarity given their secretive nature, meaning much knowledge of the Action Division is at face value. (Source)

    7.0 Future Outlook

    Given the global climate and France’s recent withdrawal in 2023 from many West African nations across the Sahel, it is largely unclear as to the direction in which the Action Division will find itself in France’s future interests. Ultimately, the Action Division will continue to orchestrate clandestine operations hidden from the public eye, given recent global trends, that could either be in protecting the remainder of French influence in Africa or France’s energy interests elsewhere in nuclear energy. Either way, the DGSE will always have a need for shadowy figures who know how to move in silence. 

    For those who have retired from the force, many have been observed to move on into private security in senior positions or consultancy-based roles. Additionally, creating their own firms or take up intelligence-related roles abroad for other large corporations and nations. Ex-Action Division agent Pierre Martinet for example relates the wealth of experience DGSE agents have in consultancy within Africa given France’s historical presence there. (Source)

    8.0 Conclusion

    Overall, the clandestine wing of the Action Division is one of the most secretive and discrete secrets of the DGSE. Their use in clandestine and black operations on behalf of the intelligence agency signifies their borderline illicit and ‘third option’ like tendency to protect France by any means. However, it is clear that those within the Action Division are France’s elite pool of military talent, coming from a broad range of knowledgeable backgrounds. Ultimately, you would not wish to be on the receiving end of one of their infamous groups hunting you down. 

    This article has been rewritten and has updated information.
    The original article was written by Wes Martin.

    Joseph Balodis
    Joseph Balodis
    Is a recent graduate in MA Intelligence & Security Studies, completing the H4MoD program in 2023 and holding a BA in Contemporary History & Politics at the University of Salford. His interest focus is on Sahelian and West African security, French intelligence, and international relations.

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