A Frenchman who’d escaped at least two earlier U.S.-led attempts on his life for defecting to al Qaida died in a July airstrike, the Pentagon said Tuesday.
David Drugeon, who’d converted to Islam and changed his first name to Daoud in his teens after becoming radicalized in French and Egyptian mosques, was killed July 5 in a strike near Aleppo, Syria’s second-largest city in the country’s northwestern region and the site of fierce fighting in its more than four-year civil war.
“He was specifically targeted,” Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, told McClatchy.
Analysts said Drugeon’s death was significant both because he’d become a master bomb-maker who specialized in assembling plastic explosives and because he symbolized the hundreds of Europeans who have become radical Muslims and joined al Qaida, the Islamic State or other militant groups.
Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook said that Drugeon, 25, was a member of the Khorasan Group, a small cell of experienced al Qaida militants who have coordinated with Nusra Front, Syria’s main al Qaida affiliate.
“As an explosives expert, he trained other extremists in Syria and sought to plan external attacks against Western targets,” Cook told reporters at a briefing. “This action will degrade and disrupt ongoing external operations of al Qaida against the United States, its allies and its partners.”
He was specifically targeted.
Navy Cpt. Jeff Davis, Pentagon spokesman
In a more recent airstrike in Iraq, on Sept. 10, U.S.-led forces killed Abu Bakr al Turkmani, described by the Pentagon as an “administrative emir” of the Islamic State and “a close associate to multiple ISIL senior leaders in the Mosul and Tal Afar, Iraq, areas.” ISIL is the government’s preferred acronym for the Islamic State.
But it was the reported death of Drugeon that drew the attention of terrorism analysts because he was a Frenchman who’d defected to al Qaida after receiving military and intelligence training from France in the apparent hope of planting him inside the radical group and using him as an informant.
Instead, when Drugeon arrived about three years ago in Waziristan, a mountainous region of northwestern Pakistan that has long harbored radical Islamists of various stripes, he reportedly told al Qaida leaders there that he was a French spy and wanted to join their ranks.
Drugeon subsequently received training in assembling explosives and became an expert bomb-maker. He’s also believed to have been the 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.
French officials tried to downplay Drugeon’s defection, but his importance was underscored on the night of Sept. 23, 2014, when the U.S. launched its first strikes in Syria that included a barrage of cruise missiles intended to kill him and other Khorasan operatives.
Drugeon survived that strike, and another in November 2014 that struck his car and left him wounded.
American officials at first reported that Drugeon had died in the November 2014 strike but later said he’d survived.
“We don’t waste $1.5 million cruise missiles on truck drivers from Brittany,” an American official told McClatchy last year in response to French claims he was not a significant target.
Al Qaida experts taught David Drugeon to become a master bomb-maker.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, an analyst with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, said Drugeon appeared to have reached a fairly high level of the Khorasan Group, especially for someone of his relative youth.
“It’s possible that he was an important figure for other Westerners in the area and that he had some leadership responsibilities,” Gartenstein-Ross told McClatchy. “He was important for the (al Qaida) network, but it’s not clear that he’s irreplaceable.”
Garentstein-Ross said that the infamous Yemen explosives expert Ibrahim al Asari, a 33-year-old Saudi who is believed to be al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula’s chief bomb-maker, has trained many radical Muslims and dispatched a good number to Syria.
“There are a lot of bomb-making skills in Syria,” he said.
Drugeon grew up as part of a devout Catholic family in a working-class section of Vannes, a town of 53,000 in the Brittany region of northwestern France. He converted to Islam after his parents divorced.
His father, Patrice Drugeon, told the AFP French news agency earlier this month that he was mystified by his son’s transformation to a jihadist.
“It’s incomprehensible what he became,” the elder Drugeon said. “He was very smart as a little kid, very loved, very affectionate, loved by everyone and always smiling.”
James Rosen: 202-383-0014; @jamesmartinrose