PARIS — Pinpointed strikes, carried out covertly: This is France's strategy to face down the threat of ISIS in Libya. A senior French official has confirmed to Le Monde that "the last thing that should be done is to intervene in Libya. Avoiding any open military engagement, we must act discreetly."
In Libya where France has closely monitored ISIS for months, the goal is not to win a war but to disrupt the structure of the terrorist group in order to undermine its spread. This is done through coordinated actions between Washington, London and Paris, like the Feb. 19 U.S. raid against a Tunisian ISIS cell in Sabratha in northwestern Libya.
French President Francois Hollande's current policy is based around "non-official" military actions. French special forces were spotted in eastern Libya last week by specialist bloggers. But that's not all: Several sources told Le Monde that the fight against terrorism includes covert operations conducted by the Action Service of the General Directorate for External Security (DGSE), France's foreign intelligence agency. These forces are also provided by the military but remain invisible.
In military doctrine, clandestine special forces are considered "precursors," conventional tools in the absence of a framework for an open war. This strategy, commonly referred to as a "theater opening," does not necessarily presuppose a future open war.
An international intervention has been discussed for months behind closed doors, but has so far been shunned by the Libyan authorities who have indicated that they would tolerate targeted actions but oppose a foreign coalition on their soil. The main Western players that could put together such a force — France, U.S. or Italy — have a meager appetite for war after the 2011 operation that overthrew Col. Muammar Gaddafi and caused chaos in the region, especially as the intervention was carried out in the absence of a United Nations mandate.
Still, exerting pressure on ISIS in Libya would risk further diverting the threat to the ever-fragile Tunisia, or even bring the threat northward to southern Europe. Due to their advances in Libya, "for the first time, ISIS has a coast," notes a senior French Navy source. "We are preparing for scenarios at sea."