At least 12 former members of the French military are among the estimated 1,000 French citizens who’ve joined the Islamic State, including one highly trained special forces commando who was radicalized while working as a security contractor in the Persian Gulf, according to French officials and analysts, as well as Arab security services.
One French intelligence official said the number is a reflection of France’s changing demographics, even though mandatory military service ended in France in 2001.
“I don’t have any hard numbers on this because France is a secular society where religious affiliation isn’t supposed to be tracked formally, but the general sense is that the French military has evolved into a heavily – and often devout – Roman Catholic officer corps leading a primarily and somewhat devout Muslim enlisted formation,” said the official, who spoke under the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic.
At least three former soldiers have been apprehended attempting to return to France from the Middle East after having fought alongside insurgents, according to a recent statement by French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian. Nine others currently fighting with the Islamic State have been identified.
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An unknown number of former members of the famed French Foreign Legion also are suspected of having joined.
Other countries’ former soldiers also have joined the Islamic State. At least one former Belgian soldier of Turkish descent, who openly bragged about his former military experience before being killed in the summer of 2013, was a member, and a recent study by German intelligence found that as many as 20 former soldiers are among the estimated 400 Germans who have gone to fight on the Islamic State’s behalf.
Of the nine French veterans known to be fighting alongside the Islamic State or its increasing number of aligned groups – several North African groups once associated with al Qaida have since claimed allegiances, at least on paper, to the Islamic State – one was a supremely well-trained former French paratrooper with extensive special forces training and experience, according to Jean Dominique Merchant, a noted French defense analyst and blogger who writes for the French newspaper L’Opinion.
Merchant’s description and account of the man, a native French citizen of Tunisian descent believed to be in his early 40s, was verified by the intelligence service of an Arab Persian Gulf country. The service’s representative asked that neither he nor the service be identified because he did not want his country connected to the man’s radicalization.
Merchant says the man, born in 1974 in Seine-Saint-Denis, enlisted in the military in 1994 and joined France’s 1st Marine Infantry Parachute Regiment, one of the French military’s elite units. In 1998, according to Merchant, he quit the military and became a security adviser working in the Persian Gulf and the Horn of Africa for years, helping to protect facilities and oil tankers from piracy.
At this stage he became radicalized, according to both Merchant and the Arab intelligence service, which made a former official available to discuss the matter.
“We notice when our foreign contractors grow long beards and begin attending radical mosques,” said the former official. “Protection of the oil transport and infrastructure is our top priority, and we had engagement with his employers on his increasingly radical views.”
By 2011, the man was dismissed from his position, according to Merchant. He claimed discrimination because of his increasingly overt conservative Muslim beliefs, and the former local security official admitted that government pressure was involved.
“We agreed with his employer that someone openly expressing jihadi views while protecting key oil infrastructure should probably not have his work permit extended,” the former official said.
The French intelligence service, the General Directorate for External Security, then tracked the man as he moved through a number of Arab countries with radical Islamist influences, including Lebanon, Mauritania and Yemen, where he appeared to make contact with al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. French investigators are feverishly working to determine if that indicates a link to the Kouachi brothers, Cherif and Said, who died in a police shootout after killing 12 people at the offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris last month.
Although the man is believed to have entered Syria or Iraq in recent months, Merchant says his French intelligence sources admit they’re not sure where the highly trained commando with jihadist sympathies is currently plying his trade.
“He might even be in France,” Merchant said.
France faces a number of other issues in dealing with security vulnerabilities revealed by the recent attack. The government estimates that “nearly 3,000” people in France qualify for observation on top of the estimated 1,000 already in the Islamic State.
Tracking members of the Foreign Legion, for example, is difficult because not all Legionnaires accept or use the French citizenship they are offered after five years of service, according to a former officer, who asked that his nom de guerre, Bruno, be used to discuss his past as a French officer in the legion.
“When you enlist in the legion, contrary to myth, you can’t have some history as a murderer or war criminal,” said Bruno. “We take your fingerprints and biometric data and send them to your home country to see if you’re a fugitive for a serious violent offense. A little tax or drug problem and we probably wouldn’t care, but murder or rape and you would be deported home.
“So if France captures a jihadi, it’s easy to check if he’s been in the legion,” he explained. “But tracking tens of thousands of men who may or may not be using French passports? Impossible.”
Bruno said that it’s widely suspected that members of the legion, many from North African French-speaking nations, have joined jihadist groups but that tracking them is unrealistic.
One expert on security and North Africa describes the limited number of soldiers who’ve defected as something of a silver lining for France, whose Muslim population is Europe’s largest.
“People might see this as a sign of radicalization in France, which it is, to some extent,” said Andrew Lebovich, a consultant and expert on security in France and North Africa. “However, the large number of Muslims serving in France’s security forces show the depth of integration in France, and you still have a large number of Muslims serving under arms with France, and a very small number who’ve joined jihadist groups.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of the Kouachi brothers.