PARIS — To hear French officials tell it, David Drugeon is a 24-year-old former truck driver from the Brittany region of France who occasionally worked out with French soldiers before slipping off to Pakistan to join al-Qaida. He is, at such a tender age, no former French intelligence officer with military training, certainly no “James Bond.”
Then why has he been targeted at least twice in U.S. air raids on Syria at a likely cost in expended weapons of millions of dollars?
“We don’t waste $1.5 million cruise missiles on truck drivers from Brittany,” said a U.S. official asked last month about Drugeon’s background. Like all of the intelligence officials cited in this story, he spoke on condition of anonymity.
According to European intelligence officials, killing Drugeon was among the chief goals when the United States unleashed 47 cruise missiles on Syria early Sept. 23, striking at a unit of al-Qaida fighters that U.S. officials call the Khorasan Group, which the U.S. said had set up shop in Syria to plot attacks on the West.
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At least 50 fighters from al-Qaida’s Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front, with whom the Khorasan fighters were based, died in those raids; Drugeon was not among them. On Nov. 5, the U.S. apparently took another shot at Drugeon, targeting a car he was in as part of an attack that pummeled not just Nusra bases, but also outposts belonging to Ahrar al-Sham, another Syrian rebel group believed to have ties to al-Qaida. Drugeon apparently survived that barrage, too.
According to a witness who claimed to have seen some of those strikes, Drugeon was driving with a companion in the town of Sarmada when U.S. forces targeted an Ahrar al-Sham base at Babsalqa, a town about a mile away.
Seconds after that explosion, Drugeon and his companion “jumped out of the car,” the witness said.
A missile then struck the car, destroying it, the witness said. Drugeon was wounded, though not fatally, and was taken by ambulance to Shifa hospital near the Bab al-Hawa border crossing to Turkey, the witness said.
After 24 hours, Nusra Front fighters removed him to an undisclosed location, according to the witness, who asked that his name and nationality be withheld.
U.S. officials announced the airstrikes, saying they had taken place near Sarmada, but provided no more information.
Drugeon’s current whereabouts are unknown. Little in the official accounts of Drugeon’s background explains how he came to be one of the central figures in a U.S. military effort that appears to be as much manhunt as strategic jockeying for advantage.
French officials downplay his significance, dismissing claims by European intelligence officials that the French had described him as a “big fish” with knowledge of Western intelligence tradecraft in seeking to have him targeted by the U.S. military campaign in Syria.
But the two strikes against Drugeon also suggest he is more than just another European who has joined the jihad against the West.
A monthlong probe — spanning five countries and interviews with more than a dozen intelligence officials — found many who believe the French intelligence service once recruited Drugeon to work as an informant inside al-Qaida, only to see him pursue a life of jihad.
Drugeon first came to the attention of international intelligence services — the French were aware of him sooner — as the rumored mastermind behind a “lone wolf” attack in March 2012, when a Frenchman of Algerian descent, Mohammed Merah, killed three Jewish schoolchildren and four others in a shooting spree across southern France.
It was then, according to three non-French European intelligence officials, that Drugeon’s name began appearing in intelligence reports — provided by the French government — that described him as having an intelligence background and military training before joining al-Qaida in Waziristan, the mountainous region of Pakistan where al-Qaida continues to maintain safe havens and training facilities.
“They put him out as this super-dangerous guy with, and I’m quoting from the report here, ‘familiarity with Western intelligence tradecraft and practices,’ ” said one European intelligence official. “There was no ambiguity to the reports, which also stated that he’d received military and explosives training, and it was stated in a way that led us to believe these skills had come from training with the French government,” the official added. That same description was given to Syrian rebels who said they were asked to monitor Drugeon on behalf of a Western intelligence service that they believed was part of the U.S. government. Interviewed in Turkey in early October, the Syrians said they had been told that the Frenchman was a highly trained former French spy and that they should report on his movements and prepare a kidnapping operation to turn him over to Western authorities.
The Syrian rebels’ account of Drugeon was later confirmed by two European intelligence officials — from different countries — who had direct access to the intelligence provided by France about Drugeon.
The French government now strongly denies that Drugeon was a member of military intelligence or that any member of France’s main foreign intelligence service, the General Directorate of Foreign Security, known by the initials DGSE, had defected to al-Qaida. One French official suggested the description of Drugeon having Western-style intelligence or military training was a misunderstanding by “perhaps an overeager American intelligence analyst.”
“That’s ridiculous,” said a European intelligence official. “My report came from France and there’s no ambiguity here, they’ve changed the story.”
The official suggested another theory for why the French would have seen Drugeon as a major threat. “What they don’t want to admit is that they clearly put him into play in the hopes he would go to Pakistan and report back to them,” he said. “Well, he went to Pakistan. But when he got there he told everyone he was a defecting French spy and proceeded to become one of al-Qaida’s best operatives.”