A helicopter carrying three French soldiers crashed near Benghazi, Libya earlier this week. The French government subsequently confirmed that all three soldiers, along with their Libyan counterparts, were killed. The circumstances surrounding the crash remain murky, but jihadists and Islamists inside Libya have been rattling their sabres ever since the presence of French special forces was confirmed.
A new front calling itself the Benghazi Defense Brigades (BDB) quickly claimed credit for downing the helicopter. On July 17, the BDB’s propaganda arm posted an infographic (seen above) indicating that the chopper was downed with a shoulder-fired missile. The infographic was published on the BDB’s official web site and Twitter feed.
The BDB subsequently produced four photos (seen below) purportedly showing the wreckage of the helo, which it identified as a Russian-made Mi-35. (The Long War Journal cannot independently verify the type of helicopter shown.)
Two anonymous officials quickly confirmed to the Associated Press that the helicopter had been shot down. The AP described the officials as “an air force officer who knew of the helicopters’ passengers” and “an official working for Western missions in Libya.”
The French government initially declined to comment on the incident, given the clandestine nature of France’s role in Libya. The Western nation has special forces embedded alongside fighters loyal to General Khalifa Haftar, who has been waging a fierce campaign against jihadists in Benghazi and elsewhere. However, the French have not advertised the relationship, which generated controversy as soon as it was revealed.
During a speech on July 20, French President Francois Hollande blamed the deaths on an “accident.”
“At this moment we are carrying out dangerous intelligence operations [in Libya],” Hollande said, according to Reuters. “Three of our soldiers, who were involved in these operations, have been killed in a helicopter accident.”
Ahmed Masmari, a spokesman for Haftar, echoed Hollande’s statement. Masmari said it was “probably a technical problem” that caused the crash. He also claimed that the French were “gathering intelligence on fighters from Boko Haram” who had relocated to the area. Boko Haram swore allegiance to the Islamic State last year and was rebranded as the Islamic State’s “province” in West Africa.
The BDB rejected Hollande’s claim. And within hours of his speech, the group threatened France. Libya will turn into a “graveyard for you as it was for your three soldiers” and just as it “was for Italy before,” a July 20 statement from the BDB read. One of the BDB’s threats can be seen on the right.
According to two unnamed Libyan officials and a militia member cited by the Associated Press, a French warplane retaliated by bombing an area outside of Benghazi on Jul. 20.
Then, earlier today, the BDB tweeted a photo allegedly showing one of the dead French soldiers, reiterating its claim to have shot down the helicopter carrying them.
The Islamic State isn’t the only jihadist, or Islamist group in town
The Islamic State’s presence in Sirte and elsewhere has garnered much of the international media’s coverage of jihadists inside Libya. But other jihadist and Islamist organizations are also prolific actors.
While the BDB may cooperate with fighters in Benghazi who are loyal to the so-called caliphate, it is not part of the Islamic State’s international network. The BDB appears to draw from other Islamist groups. And it is likely allied with the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council (BRSC) and Ansar al Sharia, both of which have known ties to al Qaeda.
For example, one post on the BDB’s official website features a short article praising BRSC commander Wissam Ben Hamid, who has fought alongside Ansar al Sharia for years. Ben Hamid earned international infamy after he was linked to the security failures surrounding the Sept. 11, 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi, which left four Americans dead. Ansar al Sharia Libya, which is affiliated with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), has trumpeted its close relationship with Ben Hamid in its propaganda.
An August 2012 report published by the Library of Congress, in conjunction with a Defense Department shop named the Combating Terrorism Technical Support Office’s Irregular Warfare Support Program, connected Ben Hamid to al Qaeda’s network inside Libya. [See LWJ reports: Al Qaeda’s plan for Libya highlighted in congressional report and Ansar al Sharia ally a key figure in Benghazi security failures.]
Beginning in June, Ben Hamid’s BRSC stopped posting propaganda for one month. The group has been under heavy fire and has probably sustained significant losses as Haftar’s forces closed in. But this past week the BRSC began disseminating photos from the battles once again. The images and accompanying messages indicate that the BRSC and the BDB are fighting against Haftar’s men in the same areas of Benghazi and its outskirts.
Al Qaeda officials have sought to rally the troops in Benghazi in recent weeks. Both an AQIM official and Sheikh Abdullah Muhammad al Muhaysini, who is based in Syria, released messages trying to boost morale. Muhaysini is, at a minimum, a pro-al Qaeda ideologue and closely allied with al Qaeda in Syria. Muhaysini portrays himself as an independent figure, but The Long War Journal assesses that he is likely a senior al Qaeda sharia official. Jihadists on Twitter who are affiliated with al Qaeda have also launched a hashtag campaign denouncing France’s confirmed presence inside Libya and threatening retaliation.
Other prominent Islamist figures in Libya have also spoken out against France’s involvement in the multi-sided conflict. Sheikh Sadiq Al Gharyani, a senior religious figure who is sometimes described as “Libya’s Mufti,” said that the confirmation of France’s presence this week amounted to a “declaration of war,” according to The Libya Observer. It appears that the BDB is aligned with Al Gharyani.
“Libyans must unite to fight the foreign attack, the issue is crystal clear now, our country is being attacked by a foreign country – the French are fighting the revolutionaries in Benghazi,” Al Gharyani said during a televised interview on Jul. 20.
The Benghazi Defense Brigades (BDB) posted these photos allegedly depicting the downed helicopter that carried three French soldiers: