How a French truck driver became a target of the U.S. air war in Syria

This still image made from video released by the U.S. Central Command on, Sept. 23, 2014, shows a structure in Tall Al Qitar, Syria moments after a U.S. airstrike. In three waves of nighttime attacks launched over four hours, the U.S. and its Arab partners made more than 200 airstrikes against roughly a dozen militant targets in Syria. (AP Photo/US Central Command)
This still image made from video released by the U.S. Central Command on, Sept. 23, 2014, shows a structure in Tall Al Qitar, Syria moments after a U.S. airstrike. In three waves of nighttime attacks launched over four hours, the U.S. and its Arab partners made more than 200 airstrikes against roughly a dozen militant targets in Syria. (AP Photo/US Central Command) AP

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 an American official asked last month about Drugeon’s background. Like all of the intelligence officials cited in this story, he spoke anonymously because of the sensitivity of the topic.

According to knowledgeable European intelligence officials, killing Drugeon was among the chief goals when the United States unleashed 47 cruise missiles on Syria in the early morning hours of Sept. 23, striking at a unit of al Qaida fighters that American officials call the Khorasan group, which the U.S. said had set up shop in Syria to plot attacks on the West. At least 50 fighters from al Qaida’s Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front, with whom the Khorasan fighters were based, died in those raids, but Drugeon was not among them.

Then, on Nov. 5, the United States 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.

“Eight missiles destroyed the building,” the witness said, describing an explosion that easily would have been felt and seen in Sarmada.

Seconds after that explosion, Drugeon and his companion “jumped out of the car,” the witness said. “I saw him.”

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 for security reasons.

American officials announced the airstrikes, saying they had taken place in the vicinity of Sarmada, but provided no more specific information.

Drugeon’s current whereabouts are unknown.

Little information 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’s joined the jihad against the West. A monthlong McClatchy probe – spanning five countries and interviews with more than a dozen intelligence officials – found many who believe that the French intelligence service once recruited Drugeon to work as an informant inside al Qaida, only to see him enthusiastically 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 who is responsible for tracking Europeans who’ve joined either the Islamic State or al Qaida and might return to Europe to conduct attacks.

“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 southern 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 said they were surprised when American missiles targeted Drugeon on Sept. 23 in the first series of U.S. airstrikes in Syria. They had expected the American action to target the Islamic State, but not also the Nusra Front, which has worked closely with the rebels in their efforts to topple the government of President Bashar Assad. Angered, they talked about their role in tracking the mysterious Frenchman.

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. Their account was corroborated by an officer from a third country who’d not been officially briefed but was familiar with the situation because of the Western concern that Drugeon posed a special threat because of this experience, his French background and his passport.

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 that the description of Drugeon having Western-style intelligence or military training was a misunderstanding by “perhaps an overeager American intelligence analyst.”

“That’s ridiculous,” responded one of the European intelligence officials. “My report came from France and there’s no ambiguity here, they’ve changed the story.”

Still, the official acknowledged, Drugeon is too young to be an officer in France’s intelligence service. He suggests 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.”

A second European official, this one a member of his country’s military intelligence service, also suggested that as a likely explanation for the French decision to downplay Drugeon’s experience.

“The reports basically describe someone who was working for the French,” the second official said. “He’s absolutely someone you recruit and it’s clear they at least tried.”

Drugeon’s name first appeared in French news reports in April, when he was charged, along with hundreds of others, in a sealed indictment with having joined either al Qaida or the Islamic State.

According to officials, news accounts of the indictment and French media investigations into his past, Drugeon was born in 1989 in the Brittany town of Vannes to a devout Catholic family. By all accounts, there was little unusual about his upbringing until his parents divorced when he was 13. That led to his conversion to Islam and his adoption of the name Daoud.

His teenage years were a classic case of radicalization. A gifted math and science student who scored well on standardized tests, he clashed with members of moderate mosques and sought out increasingly conservative religious mentors. He became part of a group of radical teenagers who came to the attention of the authorities as potential al Qaida recruits, according to an account in L’Express, a French magazine that investigated his early years.

The group was put under surveillance by the Directorate of Territorial Surveillance, the French equivalent of the American FBI, according to multiple officials as well as French media reports.

Drugeon made three trips to Cairo between 2008 and 2010, ostensibly to study Islam and Arabic. Each trip lasted three to six months, and after the first two he returned to France to take jobs to pay for the next trip, according both French and other European authorities. It was those trips that brought him to the attention of the French intelligence service.

By 2008, Drugeon also had become a regular presence at Camp Coetquidan, a well known French military training facility in Brittany that has some facilities open to the public. French officials insist that’s merely a geographic coincidence, even though Camp Coetquidan is 50 miles from Drugeon’s home in Vannes.

“There are closer gyms to Vannes in Brittany than Coetquidan,” said one French intelligence expert. He said he doubted the official denials and ticks off the evidence: A radical being monitored by French authorities, known by French intelligence to be traveling regularly to Cairo for Arabic and religious training, is driving more than an hour for workouts with French soldiers.

“Nobody notices?” the intelligence expert asked.

The second European intelligence official agreed.

“We seize passports for less, but he’s allowed to hang out with soldiers and travel to Cairo three times?” the official said. “That only makes sense if you’re helping him establish cover. Or incompetent. And the French (services) are not incompetent.”

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, an intelligence and terrorism expert for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and an assistant professor at Georgetown University in Washington, has closely followed Drugeon’s case. He said the French denials that Drugeon was a well-placed intelligence officer who defected to al Qaida “raise far more questions than they answer.”

“The French are highly aggressive in pursuing human sources,” he said. “It’s not at all inconceivable that Drugeon may have been an agent.”

The manner of his departure for Pakistan raises further suspicion, say experts. In April 2010, Drugeon again booked a flight to Cairo – his third in two years. He departed from Brussels, with a brief stopover in Rome. But when his time in Cairo ended, he didn’t return to Europe. Instead, he flew to Pakistan.

“He triggers warning after warning with his behavior and nobody tells the Belgians, the Italians or even the Egyptians – who tend to be very cooperative on these matters – that the kid is on his way to Pakistan?” said the second European intelligence official.

“The Pakistanis are less cooperative on these issues than the Egyptians,” said the first official. “But if you tell them there’s a specific guy with a specific history headed their way, they’ll usually pick him up. Or certainly make sure he doesn’t waltz into Waziristan.”

The French say that is when the myth of Drugeon began. When he arrived in Waziristan, he told his new al Qaida trainers that he was a French spy. He did it, said a French official, “to impress his new terrorist friends.”

It apparently worked. Al Qaida trained Drugeon in making bombs, a skill he excels at, according to American officials. Sometime in 2012 he was sent to Syria to become part of the Khorasan unit preparing to attack the West. Then in September he became the target of the U.S. aircraft over Syria.

Whatever he was before 2010, he’d now achieved elite terrorist status.

Roy Gutman contributed to this report from Reyhanli, Turkey.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled Daveed Gartenstein-Ross.