Egypt received French military intelligence support to target and kill civilians suspected of smuggling on its western border with Libya, a new report by investigative website Disclose TV said on Monday, November 22. The report, based on hundreds of leaked classified documents, sheds light on the project codenamed Operation Sirli that was started in February 2016 during the French presidency of Francois Hollande. The operation was originally meant to provide intelligence about militant threats along Egypt’s western border. However, one document found during the investigation revealed that the “terrorist problem has never been raised.” The report claimed that the operation was continued even though there were repeated reservations from the French military intelligence (DRM) and air force about the way Egypt was using the intelligence, and that French military staff had regularly notified their superiors about the abuse of the information.
According to the report, “in principle, the mission… consisted of searching the Western Desert to find possible terrorist threats coming from Libya using a light aircraft designed for surveillance and reconnaissance. But very quickly, the (French) members of the team understand that the intelligence supplied to the Egyptians are used to kill civilians suspected of contraband.”
The operation was reportedly carried out from a military base inside the town of Marsa Matruh on Egypt’s northern coast. On several instances, Egypt used small military planes such as the Cessna 208 to target suspects based on French intelligence. This included a convoy of pickup trucks whose location was provided by a French surveillance plane. One of the vehicles was on fire 43 minutes after the information was shared. The French military intelligence liaison officer in the case said that “the strike was very probably perpetrated by the Egyptian air force Cessna 208.”
Disclose TV noted that “the presence of the armed Cessna alone testifies to the will of the Egyptian air force to use the [supplied] information for repressive ends against local traffic. By supplying the information about their location, the French state had in effect made itself an accomplice of arbitrary executions.”
As per the report, between 2016 and 2018, French forces may have been involved in at least 19 bombings against civilians, in which several hundred people were killed and many vehicles destroyed. In response to the report, the French defense ministry has said that the two countries have cooperation in the fields of intelligence and counter-terrorism, but did not divulge any additional details citing security reasons, only adding that an investigation is being launched into the allegations in the report.
Meanwhile, the report’s revelations have sparked shock and outrage in France, with the main left-wing opposition France Unbowed party issuing a statement calling for a parliamentary inquiry and for the then defense minister and current foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, to appear before the parliament to answer questions regarding the report. France’s current defense minister, Florence Parly, said that she is ordering her own investigation into the report’s claims. Other opposition deputies in the parliament also called for the setting up of a parliamentary committee to investigate the entire military operation. The leaked documents were until now kept ‘confidential’ under the ‘national defense secrecy’ regulations (“le secret de la défense nationale”) in France, and reportedly originated from the services of the presidential office, the Élysée Palace, the French armed forces ministry, and the French military intelligence services.
France and Egypt continue to maintain close and extensive military relations. Egypt has bought a wide variety of French military equipment, including the Rafale fighter aircraft, a frigate, four corvettes, and two Mistral helicopter carriers. News reports state that the sale of French military hardware to Egypt has significantly increased since 2014 following the military coup by incumbent Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi against then president Mohammed Morsi, the first democratically elected president of Egypt,. Since capturing power, el-Sisi’s government has been condemned and criticized worldwide for its human rights abuses, violations of civil liberties and politically motivated crackdowns against thousands of citizens, including human rights activists, writers, lawyers, journalists, government critics, political dissidents and opposition figures. But despite the repeated censures and international criticism over the years, the el-Sisi regime has continued its policies of violence and abuse unabated, partly owing to the close relations it enjoys with western countries especially in the spheres of arms trade, military relations and counter-terrorism.
In its report, Disclose TV went on to say that the revelations show “how this military cooperation exercise, kept secret from the public, was diverted from its original mission, that of reconnaissance of terrorist activity, in favor of a campaign of arbitrary executions.”
“It involved state crimes about which the French presidential office was kept constantly informed, but which took no action,” the report said, adding that the French military staff regularly told their superiors about the abuse of information but it was ignored. Amnesty International in a statement on Twitter said that “the facts revealed by Disclose TV, if true, are extremely serious,” and demanded explanations from both the French and Egyptian governments.