A former French intelligence officer who defected to al Qaida was among the targets of the first wave of U.S. air strikes in Syria last month, according to people familiar with the defector’s movements and identity.
Two European intelligence officials described the former French officer as the highest ranking defector ever to go over to the terrorist group and called his defection one of the most dangerous developments in the West’s long confrontation with al Qaida.
The identity of the officer is a closely guarded secret. Two people, independently of one another, provided the same name, which McClatchy is withholding pending further confirmation. All of the sources agreed that a former French officer was one of the people targeted when the United States struck eight locations occupied by the Nusra Front, al Qaida’s Syrian affiliate. The former officer apparently survived the assault, which included strikes by 47 cruise missiles.
U.S. officials have acknowledged that the assault on the Nusra Front locations, which came as the Americans and coalition partners also struck Islamic State positions elsewhere, was aimed at members of what the Obama administration has dubbed the Khorasan group, a unit of top-level terror operatives who had been dispatched to Syria to plot attacks on the West.
The only member of that unit U.S. officials have identified is Muhsin al Fahdli, a 33-year-old one-time confidant of al Qaida founder Osama bin Laden. The United States offered a $7 million reward in October 2012 for information leading to Fahdli’s death or capture. Twitter accounts associated with jihadi sympathizers have said Fahdli was killed, but U.S. officials have said that information remains unconfirmed.
The former French officer may have been a more important target. Syrian rebels battling to topple President Bashar Assad said that U.S. officials had told them before the strikes that they were closely monitoring the defector’s movements.
European intelligence officials said the former officer had defected from either French military intelligence or from France’s foreign intelligence agency, the General Directorate for External Security, known by its French-language acronym as the DGSE.
The former officer, according to one rebel source, is an explosives expert who fought in Afghanistan and in Syria with al Qaida and had assembled a group of about five men that was operating out of a mosque in Idlib.
The French operative is “still alive and kicking” after the airstrikes, said one European intelligence official, who described the man as “highly trained in Western intelligence trade-craft and explosives.” The combination of Western-style intelligence training and devout jihadist beliefs made him among the most dangerous of al Qaida operatives, the intelligence official said.
It was unknown whether the former officer’s al Qaida sympathies were missed during the French vetting process or manifested themselves later.
Four European intelligence agents from a variety of countries with a range of knowledge of the situation were able to confirm or partially confirm the French agent’s existence. All declined to speak for attribution because of the sensitive nature of the information and because they feared being charged criminally in their home countries for revealing classified information. One called the existence of the French officer “absolutely top secret.”
“I’m rather appalled I’m even having this conversation,” he said.
“We don’t know if he was sleeper [agent] or radicalized after he joined the service,” said another European intelligence official familiar with the man’s background. “I assume my French colleagues are working hard to determine that and if they have figured it out, they certainly aren’t sharing how they ended up in this mess, which as you could expect they find rather embarrassing.”
Two European intelligence sources provided the man’s name but asked that it not be published – one cited possible violence in France against the man’s family. Both independently provided the same name.
When reached for comment on the situation, a U.S. intelligence official refused to provide any information.
Three attempts to discuss the matter with French intelligence services were rebuffed. “There is no way I am going to discuss this matter” was one response.
An intelligence official from a third country, who said that his familiarity with the situation stemmed only from casual conversation and not from an official briefing, said the situation represents an “epic nightmare that we have so far been spared.”
“We’ve seen Arab partners lose well trained people to these groups, and in a handful of cases those defectors have benefited from our training through partnership programs,” he said. “It’s the cost of doing business when you aid some of our regional allies.”
But the French officer’s defection, he said, is the first he’d heard of by “someone with legitimate security clearance and Western-style vetting and training.”
“As embarrassed as the French must be right now, it should be pointed out that the French services are highly regarded within the intelligence community as consummate and loyal professionals,” he said. “This failure, and I do believe this happened, must be seen in the context as an outlier and not anything systematic about the French services.”
One European official directly familiar with the case said the partial confusion over the man’s resume – which has been alternately described as French Special Forces, military intelligence or DGSE – probably stems from the overlapping “seconding” process where specialists move between branches of the government on a fairly regular basis.
“It sounds likely he started as French military and maybe because of an Arabic family background and appearance, language skills and a high degree of competency, he would then be loaned out to different aspects of the French services,” the European official said. “Everyone does that all the time,” he said, citing as an example a member of the U.S. military’s Special Operations Command being assigned to the CIA.
For their part, Syrian rebels, who are already furious at the United States for not notifying them in advance about the strikes and for not including Assad government facilities among the targets, expressed puzzlement at why the U.S. government hadn’t approached them about trying to seize the man.
But a European intelligence official said the decision to try to strike the defector with a missile rather than capture him was in part to keep the French agent’s existence a secret. “Perhaps some problems are best buried forever under a pile of rubble,” he said.
Roy Gutman contributed to this story from Istanbul.