Three weeks ago, McClatchy made worldwide headlines with a remarkable scoop: recent U.S. missile strikes on Al-Qa’ida forces in Syria, the so-called Khorasan Group, explicitly targeted a French national who was a defector from his country’s intelligence services. Citing unnamed European intelligence officials, the article provided considerable detail, though it did not name this mystery man (“Two people, independently of one another, provided the same name, which McClatchy is withholding pending further confirmation.”) Although sources could not agree whether this Frenchman gone rogue had belonged to the French military’s special forces or the country’s foreign intelligence service (DGSE), or perhaps both, the piece left no doubt that this was a very serious problem as the defector, said to be skilled with explosives, represents a grave threat to his former employers. Needless to add, from any counterintelligence viewpoint, such a defector into the jihadist camp — the first from the West by a bona fide intelligence officer — would be very bad news indeed. Worse, the U.S. missile strikes did not manage to kill this most wanted renegade.
While U.S. intelligence officials did not comment to McClatchy on the piece, the reaction in Paris to its publication was swift and solid. Following custom, DGSE had no public utterance on the allegations, but the French Ministry of Defense (MoD) minced no words, declaring that the story was patently false. While Paris admitted they were worried about a mysterious Frenchman, whom they did not name, who is serving Al-Qa’ida, officials stated repeatedly that the wanted man has no connection to French intelligence. One official simply derided the McClatchy report as “stupid.” Whispers followed that the piece may have been a hit job engineered by U.S. officials who are displeased with Paris of late (“Some American leaders do not welcome Paris’ criticisms of the inconsistency or errors of Washington’s policy in Iraq and Syria,” opined one French official).
My old counterintelligence spidey sense smelled something amiss with this sensational story, so I made the usual inquiries. Old friends in European intelligence circles, including French, were adamant that McClatchy’s scoop was simply wrong, and had to be, since if a French spook had gone over to the mujahidin, European counterintelligence circles — it’s a small world actually — would have talked about little else, and none of my friends had heard any whisper of a high-placed defection. They were as surprised by the McClatchy piece as everyone else was; it was the talk of every water cooler in every European spy agency for a week or more.
Within days the true story began to emerge, and thanks to a comprehensive analysis of this sensational case by L’Express magazine, we now know the truth of the matter. The target of U.S. cruise missiles in late September was a twenty-four year-old French national named David Drugeon, who indeed did cheat death as American missiles rained down on him. His is the unlikely story of a Catholic boy from Brittany who grew up to become an important member of Al-Qa’ida, achieving the youthful success in the jihadist underworld that eluded him in normal life.
Born in 1989 in the Breton town of Vannes, into a working class family, Drugeon’s upbringing wasnormal. While his mother was a devout Catholic, his neighborhood was ethnically and religiously diverse, with many North Africans. Close to his brother and an avid soccer fan, David seemed like a typical young French boy until 2002, when his world fell apart when his parents divorced. He was thirteen. In a pattern that’s sadly typical, David filled the void in his shattered life with extremist religion.
This was in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, and Salafi radicals were in David’s neighborhood, stirring up trouble. He quickly accepted a hardline version of Islam, as did his brother, and began calling himself Daoud. One local Salafi played a father-figure role for the lonely boys, who stayed with their mother after their parents divorced.
Daoud soon had scant interest in anything not relating to extremist Islam. Soccer was in the past, as were his studies. While he had wanted to become an architect, that dream fell to Salafism, as Daoud’s hours and days became devoted to politico-religious indoctrination. As his father explained, “We gave him a choice: either study or religion. He opted for religion.” Back in the neighborhood, Daoud got on the radar of the local police for his extremist activities, while his brother, though a pious Muslim convert, eschewed violent radicalism. By his late teens, the police knew of Daoud’s tendencies, but as he was just a teenager they considered him to be of no real importance, threat-wise, evaluating his small, rag-tag group of local Salafis as “a joke,” conceded a security official.
Daoud came to the attention of the DGSE due to three trips he made to Egypt in 2008-2010. He worked odd jobs in Vannes to finance his visits to Cairo and Alexandria, which he undertook for periods from three to six months, studying at Islamic schools in Egypt, perfecting his Arabic to boot. Yet he remained in touch with his family throughout this period, and outwardly seemed little different: “As far as I could see, he had not changed. He was still the same young man, smiling, sporty, nature-loving and fond of forest walks,” recalled his father.
At no point was Daoud engaged with the French military or its intelligence agencies, Paris has stated more than once. McClatchy made a mistake here, according to the French MoD. Daoud attended a sports training course in the Breton town of Coëtquidan, which happens to be the home of St-Cyr, France’s West Point. This apparently was misread by American reporters. An MoD source, however, was adamant about Drugeon: “He never tried to join the Army. He was never approached by our services. He trained with a civilian organization, and that is all.”
By the spring of 2010, the emerging jihadist abandoned his old life altogether, as L’Express explains:
In 2009 he worked continuously for six months, earning enough money for a visit that he told his father would be similar to his previous ones. On 17 April 2010, his father saw him for the last time. David/Daoud set off secretly on the road to jihad. He traveled by carpool from Vannes to Brussels, where he boarded a plane. He stopped over in Rome before landing in Cairo. According to our information, he did not travel alone, but was accompanied by a close associate of the imam of the [Vannes] “mosque.”
Where exactly he went after Cairo is uncertain, but within months Daoud (see picture) was in Pakistan, specifically in the border tribal region of North Waziristan, in the Al-Qa’ida-infested area of Miranshah. He spent the next three years there, going on active campaign with the Taliban for months at a time, gaining a reputation as a skilled bomb-maker and assuming the nom de guerre Souleiman. He was part of a French-speaking jihadist cadre, many of them from the Maghreb, becoming close to their leader, Moez Garsallaoui, a noted Al-Qa’ida fighter and fellow French speaker. In late September 2011, they were joined by a fanatic young Frenchman, Mohamed Merah, who after undergoing weapons training with this group, went back to Toulouse and engaged in a terrible killing spree.
It may not be a coincidence that Merah made his way to the back hills of Miranshah, a place few Europeans can find. Drugeon is possibly the connection between Merah and Al-Qa’ida, as it is difficult to see how the petty criminal from Toulouse could find his way to Pakistan’s wild tribal areas without a friendly sponsor; the two may have met when they were both in Egypt in 2010.
Moez Garsallaoui was killed by an American drone strike in October 2012, while Drugeon survived the attack. Not long after, he abandoned Pakistan and made his way to Syria, like much of Al-Qa’ida’s best cadres, to continue the jihad against the Assad regime. By now he was a leader of the mujahidin himself, despite only being in his early twenties. Legends of his exploits in Syria are widespread but, like nearly all such jihadist tales, impossible to confirm.
His family last heard from Drugeon in June 2010, when letters to both his parents arrived from an unknown location. He had already pressured his mother into converting to Islam, and in his final communication, he exhorted his father to do likewise, promising that the family would “meet in heaven.” Since then, his father has waited for a knock at the door by policemen to tell him of his lost son’s violent end.
Drugeon avoided that American-led end, again, in Syria a few weeks ago. The odds of war suggest that he cannot escape the long arm of U.S. drones and cruise missiles — or perhaps the savage infighting among jihadist groups in Syria — indefinitely. Until then, he will continue to rise in Al-Qa’ida ranks and burnish his legend of the convert from Brittany who led the fight against the “infidel” in several countries.
We can put to rest McClatchy’s claim that Drugeon is any sort of French super-spy gone rogue. It cannot be ruled out that, to cover up something that might look bad, Paris is leaving out parts of the Drugeon tale, perhaps even important parts. Frequently jihadists are approached by security services to cooperate, sometimes with more than a whiff of coercion, and the story that is presented to the public later is too simple (Merah’s case certainly was more complicated than initially believed). It is possible that Drugeon cooperated with French intelligence at some point, Parisian denials notwithstanding, but McClatchy’s account of a top operative, some sort of French James Bond, defecting to Al-Qa’ida is simply untrue. It belongs in the movies, not the newspapers.