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Magnum Force: The French GIGN Counterterrorist Unit

By: Warren Gray

Copyright © 2021

“S’engager pour la vie.” (“A commitment for life.”)

— The motto of GIGN.

“Truth is always strange; stranger than fiction.”

— Lord Byron (George Gordon Byron), Don Juanpoem, 1819.

The Groupe d’Intervention de la Gendarmerie National(National Gendarmerie Intervention Group), or GIGN, established in 1973 after the Munich Olympic Massacre, is the French government’s premier counterterrorist (CT) and hostage-rescue force, based at Versailles-Satory, about six miles southwest of Paris. Since their formation, they’ve been involved in more than 1,800 missions, rescued more than 600 hostages, and arrested over 1,500 suspects, making them one of the first and most-experienced, CT units in the world.

Actually, they were only the fourth such unit created worldwide, after the British SAS, Israeli Sayeret Matkal, and German GSG 9 forces. Although GIGN is officially a police, law-enforcement agency, it’s also technically part of the French Armed Forces, so they may deploy anywhere in the world in response to crisis situations.

Their signature handgun, which seems outdated by today’s standards, remains the Manurhin (French-made) MR73 revolver in .357 Magnum, because in the 1980s and 1990s, published, statistical data collected from a wide range of actual, police shooting incidents demonstrated that the .357 Magnum cartridge, firing a 125-grain, jacketed hollowpoint (JHP) bullet, had the very highest relative stopping power (RSP) of any police ammunition, stopping perpetrators 96 percent of the time with just a single shot.

The rugged MR73 is manufactured in nine different barrel lengths, ranging from 2.25 inches to 10 inches, with a four-inch barrel, 4.25 inches, or 5.25 inches being the most-popular sizes, and it’s tough enough to withstand the 150 rounds of full-power, 158-grain, Norma (Swedish-made) full-metal-jacket, flat-nose (FMJ-FN) ammunition used by GIGN troopers for daily practice, certainly influencing the unit’s decision to use them. We’ll review the superb, top-quality MR73 in greater detail later.

GIGN became fully operational in March 1974 with just 15 men, initially commanded by Major Christian Prouteau, but then it grew to include 32 men by 1976, 78 by 1986, 120 by 2005, and approximately 387 today, commanded since August 2020 by Brigadier General Ghislain Réty. The most-famous GIGN commander was Denis Favier, who led the unit from 1992 to 1997 as a major, and again from 2007 to 2011 as a brigadier general.

Their assigned missions are counterterrorism, hostage rescue, surveillance of national threats, law enforcement, targeting organized crime, protection of government officials, and military special operations. All candidates must be no older than 32 years of age, and must undergo a week-long, pre-selection, screening process. Only 10 percent pass this phase, followed by 14 months of arduous training in weapons handing, combat shooting and marksmanship, hand-to-hand combat, parachute training, scuba diving, undercover surveillance, explosive-ordnance disposal, negotiating skills, infiltration and escape techniques, rappelling, mountaineering, high-speed driving (at the LeMans racetrack), and survival training in Arctic, tropical, mountain, and desert environments. Only about 7.5 percent of all volunteers make it all the way through the process to become full-fledged, GIGN troopers.

The elite unit is currently organized into six “forces”: The Intervention Force (FI, in French) is the main assault unit, comprised of approximately 100 men, and no women. The FI is divided into four platoons of 20 to 25 men each, two of which specialize in high-altitude, parachute jumps, and two specialize in diving techniques. Normally, two of these platoons (one of each type) are constantly on alert for deployment, one within 30 minutes of notification, and the second within just a few hours.

Next, there are the Observation and Search Force (FOR), 40 men and women engaged mostly in reconnaissance duties, the Security and Protection Force (FSP), specializing in executive protection and site security, the Gendarmerie detachment of the GSPR Presidential Security Group (GSPR), protecting French President Emmanuel Macron, the Operational Support Force (FAO), providing sniper weapons, breaching capability, assault engineering, and special devices, and the Training Force (FF), tasked with the selection, training, and retraining processes for all personnel. Female gendarmes may serve in any of these latter five forces, but not in the Intervention Force.

There are also 14 regional, “GIGN branches” in order to have a rapid-reaction capability from anywhere in France, or from French territories around the globe. The seven domestic branches are in Caen, Dijon, Nantes, Orange, Reims, Toulouse, and Tours, while the overseas branches are in Guadeloupe, Martinique, French Guiana, Réunion, Mayotte, French Polynesia (including beautiful Tahiti and Bora Bora), and New Caledonia.

GIGN assault uniforms are very dark blue, almost black, and they may wear the standard, dark-blue beret of the National Gendarmerie, worn French-style, pulled down on the left side, although it is rarely seen in actual practice, except for ceremonies and public-relations events. Mostly, GIGN operators are seen in tactical, assault gear, including special ballistic helmets, face shields, body armor, and black boots. Their snipers often wear camouflaged, ghillie suits, depending upon the situation.

Each Intervention Force (FI) commando is issued two new, Manurhin MR73 revolvers, one with a three-inch barrel (for undercover work or off-duty carry) and one with a 5.25-inch barrel (for assault operations), but for maritime operations, the stainless-steel, Smith and Wesson Model 686 is favored. Each operator typically carries two handguns, since reloading the MR73 in the heat of combat is often impractical, so the second weapon is usually a Glock-17, -19 (preferred), -26 (for undercover work), FN Five-seven Tactical IOM in 5.7mm, SIG Sauer P228, or SIG Sauer Pro SP2022. Submachine guns include the H&K MP5A5, usually suppressed, or MP5SD3 (always suppressed), the H&K MP7A1 in 4.6x30mm, or the FN P90 Tactical in 5.7x28mm, often mounting a Gemtech SP90 suppressor.

On May 20, 2020, certified firearms instructor “Rusty S.” reviewed this exceptional handgun for The Firearms Blog (TFB), writing that, “The Manurhin MR73 is an expensive, albeit very-finely-made revolver...in an era when such things are few and far-between...made of very-high-grade, ordnance steel...Extensively hand-fit (over 12 hours or more at the factory) and hand-polished during manufacture...All (of) these man-hours and high-grade materials come at a cost, however. The price for entry on a new MR73 is $3,200.

“Fit and finish are immediately impressive right out of the box...Tolerances are extremely tight...The single-action trigger is...the best that I have encountered on a revolver...(and it) breaks at a crisp and extremely-consistent three pounds, four ounces. The double-action trigger comes in at a smooth, non-stacking nine pounds...A word about accuracy is warranted here: MR73 cold-hammer-forged barrels are able to group 20mm (.79”) or better at 25 meters (82 feet)...The MR73 trigger is adjustable for double-action weight, single-action weight, overtravel, and primer percussion force. The rear sights’ adjustment clicks are very precise and tactile.

“Accuracy with the MR73 was so good that...Moving back to 50 yards yielded all six hits on the five-inch-diameter head of a steel, hostage target, both in double-action and single-action. 75 and 100 yards yielded all the same results...(and) on the 300-yard plate...I could actually achieve hits with this revolver!...It’s as good as I’ve ever personally achieved...not a single failure to fire in over 600 rounds...a finely-crafted firearm...the MR73 is about as accurate and reliable as revolvers get. Objectively, the MR73 is probably the best .357 Magnum revolver currently made.”

While the French are justifiably very proud of their GIGN unit and top-quality, MR73 revolver, French national pride is sometimes carried a bit too far. King Louis XIV (1643 to 1715, crowned in 1654), the “Sun King,” had the Latin motto of “Nec Pluribus Impar,” which translates literally as “Not Unequal to Many,” although it figurately means “Superior to All,” and this was the bold, national motto openly emblazoned across the gates to all of their military bases in West Germany during the Cold War, as this author personally observed over a period of four years.

While national pride is usually a fine thing, this motto was certainly somewhat of a reach for a nation that was easily overrun by the German Army in two consecutive world wars, requiring substantial assistance from the United States, Great Britain, and scores of other nations to retake French soil at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives.

GIGN assault rifles include various models of the Swiss Arms SG550, SG551 SWAT (with Hensoldt 6x42 BL optical sights), and SG552 Commando (with Bushnell HOLOsights), the H&K G36K and G36C, HK416F (often suppressed), and HK417 designated marksman rifle, and since 2017, they have received 68 new, ČZ BREN 2 carbines (often suppressed) from the Czech Republic, with 11-inch barrels, chambered in the 7.62x39mm Russian cartridge of the AK-47 rifle series.

In fact, many Russian Special Forces units have been disappointed by the poor, combat performance of their standard, 5.45x39mm round in the AK-74, AK-105, and AK-12 rifles and carbines, and these units tend to prefer the older, harder-hitting, 7.62mm rounds used in the AK-47, AKM, AK-104, and AK-15 series, and GIGN appears to have effectively learned the same combat lesson.

All GIGN commandos are sniper-qualified, so they have the highest sniper ratio (100-percent) of any Special Forces unit. Their sniper rifles include the Tikka (Finnish) T3x Tactical in 7.62mm NATO, Accuracy International (British) Arctic Warfare (AW, AWS, and AWSM models) in 7.62mm NATO and .338 Lapua Magnum, with Schmidt und Bender Mk. II 3-12x50mm scopes with Mil-Dot reticles, and the PGM Hécate II in .50 BMG, with a SCROME (based in Antony, France) J10 10x40mm Mil-Dot scope, and using Leica Rangemaster LRF 1200 laser rangefinders and Skywatch Geos 9 weather-tracker devices.

The Wildsteer WING-Tactic “Special Forces” knife, with five-inch blade, was specifically designed for GIGN, and is produced by Wildsteer at Roche-la-Molière, 30 miles southwest of Lyons, in southern France.

GIGN also uses Belgian Malinois tracking dogs and attack dogs, just as the U.S. Delta Force and Navy SEALs do, and their K9 handlers train the dogs to parachute or rappel with them via a special harness attached to the handler’s chest.

GIGN tactical vehicles include the Centigon Fortress Intervention armed SUV from the Centigon Security Group in France, and the Renault Sherpa Light Scout armored personnel carrier (APC), with Chevrolet Swatec HARAS (Height-Adjustable, Rescue Assault System) assault ladders.

The elite, commando unit’s most-famous mission was the Air France Flight 8969 hijacking incident of December 24 to 26, 1994, in which an Air France Airbus A300B2-1C commercial airliner was hijacked by four Armed Islamic Group (GIA) terrorists at Houari Boumediene Airport in Algiers, Algeria, bound for Orly Airport near Paris, France. Their intention was to explode the aircraft in mid-air, directly above the Eifel Tower. Led by Abdul Abdullah Yahia, age 25, a notorious killer and petty thief, the terrorists originally posed as Algerian police, carrying AK-47 assault rifles, Uzi submachine guns, pistols, homemade hand grenades, and dynamite sticks. The hijackers ruthlessly shot and killed an Algerian police officer who was aboard as a passenger, and then they killed a Vietnamese diplomat passenger.

That night, GIGN operatives flew to Majorca, Spain, aboard a similar, A300 aircraft with Spanish permission, to be located as closely as possible to Algiers without actually entering Algeria. On Christmas Day, the hijackers released some of the 220 passengers, but more than 170 remained aboard. The terrorists killed a French chef from the French Embassy in Algiers that evening, and threw his body out the door, and the aircraft was finally allowed to depart from Algiers, but there was insufficient fuel to reach Paris, so they landed at Marseille-Marignane Airport, France, instead, at 3:33 AM on December 26th.

Meanwhile, Major Denis Favier, age 35, and his 50 GIGN commandos were already at Marseille, and French authorities led the hijacked aircraft to a remote part of the airfield, where GIGN men disguised as aircraft-servicing personnel planted eavesdropping devices, and used “cannon” microphones from a distance to determine how many terrorists were aboard, and what their locations were. But the terrorists had the airliner moved to the foot of the control tower at 4:45 PM, since they were suspicious of the outside activity. By now, the passengers had nicknamed the terrorists Yahia, “Madman,” “Bill,” and “The Killer,” since they didn’t know their real names, and only Yahia had introduced himself.

At 5:08 PM, the hijackers opened a door and fired AK-47 automatic weapons around the aircraft and toward the control tower in frustration, since the fuel they had demanded had not yet been delivered. Major Favier decide to launch his CT assault then, and 30 GIGN men pushed three sets of air stairs to the aircraft at 5:17 PM, and were able to open the doors from the outside.

There was an immediate and very fierce firefight near the front of the airliner, with GIGN Sergeant Major Thierry Prungnaud, an honorary U.S. Navy SEAL, being the second assaulter inside the cabin, where he immediately killed one terrorist with a head shot within seconds, soon afterward killed another hijacker, and wounded a third, all with his MR73 revolver, while simultaneously being wounded himself by seven AK-47 bullets and an exploding grenade. Then, two more GIGN squads entered through the rear doors on both sides of the aircraft, and the gunfire intensified.

Hundreds of bullets were fired by GIGN men and the terrorists, with makeshift grenades detonating, and GIGN concussion grenades going off simultaneously, while the French commandos began swiftly evacuating passengers out the rear doors. Favier later described “a wall of gunfire...It was hell in there! Those guys were firing through the walls of the plane. We received hundreds of rounds in the first minutes.”

Within a very short time, most of the passengers were safe, and three of the four hijackers had been fatally shot. Only the Air France pilot, flight engineer, and one terrorist remained inside the cockpit, and the last hijacker kept the GIGN teams at bay for the next 17 minutes, until he eventually ran out of ammunition and was killed.

At 5:35 PM, Favier radioed the control tower that, “The operation is terminated. Damage limited.” All four terrorists were dead, nine GIGN men were injured (one seriously), three crew members were injured, and 13 passengers were slightly injured, but overall, the operation was a stunning success. More than 1,600 bullets had been fired. The GIGN operators and Air France crew were later awarded medals for their bravery under fire, including the Cross of Military Valor for the commandos in 1995. That’s when Favier received his medal.

In the interests of French national pride and U.S.-French relations, however, an exceptionally-fascinating aspect of this dramatic story has been intentionally suppressed for more than the past quarter-century. While meticulously researching GIGN, I surprisingly discovered that five very young, enlisted, Force Recon Marines from the U.S. Embassy in Algiers, led by Corporal Tommy D. Hintz, age 19, were flown to Marseille-Marignane at the insistence of the U.S. and Algerian governments, where they were each subsequently awarded the Silver Star medal for valor in armed combat, and the Purple Heart for their wounds.

Hintz’s official, Purple Heart award citation reads, in part: “Corporal Tommy Douglas Hintz, United States Marine Corps, distinguished himself by actions above and beyond the call of duty on 26 December 1994, while serving as Team Leader, Detachment Force Reconnaissance 3rd SRIG (3rd Surveillance, Reconnaissance, and Intelligence Group)...at Marseille International Airport, Marseille, France...At 1708 hours on the day after Christmas, Corporal Hintz and his Marines were poised along with the GIGN take the plane...Corporal Hintz manipulated the hatch’s exterior mechanism as bullets riddled the thin, aluminum exterior of the aircraft.

“The Marines tossed stun grenades into the cockpit...as they boarded the aircraft. Corporal Hintz caught the first hijacker off-guard as he was sprinting down the aisle, but the other hijackers in the cockpit area returned a barrage of automatic-weapons fire that struck Corporal Hintz in the chest...Corporal Hintz, with complete disregard for his own personal safety, rolled a mortally-wounded hijacker over the live grenade (in the aisle) and laid on top of him to provide cover for the passengers.

“The device exploded, sending shrapnel into the legs of almost everyone in the first-class compartment...Corporal Hintz’s extraordinary heroism and dedication to duty were in keeping with the highest standards of military service, and reflect great credit upon him, his unit, and the United States Marine Corps.”

Wow! This little-known, official document clearly indicates that these five Marines valiantly stormed the first-class section and cockpit area of the Air France jet  and battled the Algerian terrorists, alongside Favier’s commando teams, probably wearing dark-blue, GIGN assault uniforms to appear inconspicuous during the televised raid. Corporal Hintz was also awarded the Defense Distinguished Service Medal for “exceptionally meritorious service in a duty of great responsibility,” while personally representing the U.S. government on-scene during this deadly, terrorist incident.

Current research indicates that Tommy Douglas Hintz was, and still is, a real person, and he really was a Force Recon Marine (I’ve seen his photo in uniform), certainly lending great credibility to the published, public-domain, Purple Heart citation and its fascinating but barely-known details. Official, U.S. military protocol is to neither confirm nor deny the details of any sensitive operation, and that policy certainly holds true in this astounding case.

This incredibly-dramatic, GIGN assault was their shining moment, the greatest raid by the nation’s top CT unit, vividly described in the media as “one of the most-successful, antiterrorist operations in aviation history,” and publicly admitting that they were aided by five wounded, U.S. Marines would certainly steal much of their thunder for a brilliantly-executed mission, so that obscure portion of the story has been quietly buried for the past 27 years.

Since then, GIGN has participated in a variety of notable operations, including the arrest of French mercenary Bob Denard and his group during a coup d’état attempt in the Comoros (a former, French colony of islands) in 1995, arresting war criminals in Bosnia-Hercegovina later, capturing Somali pirates alongside French Marine Commandos and freeing yacht hostages on the Gulf of Aden in April 2008, combat deployments to Afghanistan and Libya from 2009 through 2011 (resulting in Crosses of Military Valor for the unit), eliminating two Islamic terrorists involved in the Charlie Hebdo (satirical newspaper) shooting incident in Paris in January 2015, and killing the terrorist responsible for the Carcassonne and Trèbes attack in southern France in March 2018. In all of the 48 years since the unit’s formation in 1973, only two GIGN operators have been killed in action, while dealing with armed, deranged perpetrators.

Helicopter support for GIGN is provided by the Joint Helicopter Group (GIH) detachment (created in 2006) at Villacoublay Air Base, just four miles from GIGN headquarters, comprised of French Army and Air Force personnel, and at least two to three (sometimes four) camouflaged, SA330Ba Puma transport helicopters from the 4th Special Forces Helicopter Regiment at Pau, in southwestern France. They’re tasked with providing air transportation for one GIGN FL platoon of 25 men and up to 2.2 tons of supporting equipment within one hour, out to a radius of 250 miles.

GIGN was selected by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) to teach the special operations forces of the other 193 member states in hostage-rescue exercises aboard planes, which is quite a distinctive honor and international responsibility.

On March 15, 2021, LIP Watches of Besançon, in eastern France, introduced their brand-new, Grande Nautic-Ski, GIGN Edition wristwatch, with a waterproof, black, carbon-fiber face, 41mm case, and only 1,973 copies to be made, commemorating the year that GIGN was founded. At a steep asking price of 690 euros ($822), it’s a beautiful timepiece, and certainly expensive and high-quality by any measure, but can the typical, enlisted, GIGN operator really afford one, or is it just a fashionable, novelty item and status symbol?

On April 15, 2017, Cody Carmichael of Gazette Review ranked “The Top 10 Special Forces Units in the World,” with France’s GIGN unit ranked in sixth place, just behind SEAL Team Six, the British SAS, Delta Force, Israel’s Sayeret Matkal, and Germany’s GSG 9 unit, worthy of very high praise, indeed. GIGN definitely executed one of the top three hostage-rescue operations of hijacked, airline passengers in history, albeit with the very discreet, plausibly-deniable help of five heroic, U.S. Marines. The other two events were the Sayeret Matkal’s brilliant raid (Operation Thunderbolt) on Entebbe, Uganda, in July 1976, and the GSG 9 raid (Operation Fire Magic) on Mogadishu, Somalia, in October 1977.

GIGN remains one of the finest, counterterrorist units in the world, but as Lord Byron and Mark Twain both aptly observed, “Truth is stranger than fiction,” and Abraham Lincoln noted in 1856 that, “History is not history unless it is the truth.” The stunning, U.S. Force Recon Marine aspect of GIGN’s stellar history is truly noteworthy, and has really never been told before, except in the strange, Purple Heart citation. Even without U.S. Marine assistance, however, GIGN is an absolutely superb, CT force, constantly setting the standard of excellence for other special units to try to achieve.

Warren Gray is a retired, U.S. Air Force intelligence officer with experience in joint special operations and counterterrorism. He served in Europe and the Middle East, earned Air Force and Navy parachutist wings, and four college degrees, including a Master of Aeronautical Science degree, and was a distinguished graduate of the Air Force Intelligence Operations Specialist Course, and the USAF Combat Targeting School. He is currently a published author and historian. You may visit his web site at: warrengray54.vistaprintdigital.com.

Photo credit: CCTV

 
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