David Drugeon, a high-ranking French member of the al-Qaeda-linked Khorasan group in Syria, has been little known by English speakers. That is beginning to change: On October 29, CNN reported that the U.S. intelligence community believes that both Muhsin al-Fadhli and Drugeon had survived the September strikes against the Khorasan group, and described Drugeon as a “key member” of Khorasan. Two days later, CNN’s Paul Cruickshank contributed a biographical piece focusing on Drugeon’s rather interesting background. Most of the details in Cruickshank’s article were previously reported in French-language publications, but unknown to most English speakers.
In addition to Drugeon’s importance to al-Qaeda, there may be another wrinkle to his story: He may have been a French intelligence agent who defected to al-Qaeda. On October 5, McClatchy’s Mitchell Prothero published an explosive article reporting that one of the targets of the U.S.’s strikes against the Khorasan group was “a former French intelligence officer who defected to al-Qaeda.” Prothero didn’t name the alleged defector—the two European sources who provided him with the name asked him not to publish it—but two separate articles in the French media make clear that Prothero’s sources were referring to Drugeon.
L’Express magazine reported that, even though McClatchy’s report didn’t name its subject, it had been referring to Drugeon. However, L’Express denied that there was a French intelligence defector, as its sources described the claims made to McClatchy as a “misunderstanding.” Further, the French defense columnist Jean-Dominique Merchet, whose work appears on L’Opinion, noted that his sources denied that a Directorate-General for External Security (DGSE) agent had defected, describing the claim as “fanciful,” but identified Drugeon as the subject of McClatchy’s report.
Nor has skepticism about Prothero’s claims of a French defector been expressed solely by French sources. Pushback from DGSE is to be expected, of course, whether or not Prothero’s report were true: a defector from within its ranks would be highly embarrassing. Other observers, such as John Schindler, have expressed skepticism of the idea that “some sort of French James Bond” had defected to al-Qaeda.
Many readers have interpreted Prothero’s report as suggesting that the French spy is extraordinarily high-ranking. This interpretation isn’t unreasonable, as Prothero reported that “two European intelligence officials described the former French officer as the highest ranking defector ever to go over to the terrorist group.” Given the large number of intelligence defectors to jihadist groups in the Arab world, including Syrians and Iraqis, that statement is doubtless incorrect: After all, Drugeon is only in his mid-twenties. However, it is possible that some qualifying context in the European officials’ statement was lost. For example, these sources may have been trying to say that Drugeon is the highest-ranking European defector.
So the question remains: Was Drugeon a French agent who defected? It is worth understanding the distinction between an agent and an asset. The short version of the difference between them is that an agent is given something back from the spy organization for which he is working, such as training or information. In contrast, an asset simply gives the organization information and doesn’t receive anything like training (although he obviously gets paid for his work).
Two articles in the French media elliptically state that Drugeon had received training. A French defense ministry official denied to L’Express that Drugeon had joined the army, but stated that “he trained with a civilian organization,” without specifying which one. (That official also categorically denied that Drugeon was a “French James Bond.”) And a defense ministry official (perhaps the same one, but it is not clear) told Le Monde that “this Frenchman [referred to in McClatchy’s report] exists, but he is neither a former member of secret services nor former military. As far as we know, he merely trained with former members of the French army.”
Indeed, John Schindler, after arguing against the claim of Drugeon being a “French super-spy gone rogue,” states that the French may indeed be trying to hide something:
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…. It is possible that Drugeon cooperated with French intelligence at some point, Parisian denials notwithstanding.
One example of a jihadist who penetrated American intelligence on al-Qaeda’s behalf is Ali Mohammed, an Egyptian. As Lawrence Wright summarizes in The Looming Tower, Mohammed “worked briefly for the CIA in Hamburg, Germany, before joining the U.S. Army, where he was stationed at the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School.” During his time in the U.S. army, Mohammed not only travelled to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets in 1988—even bringing back battlefield “souvenirs” for other soldiers—but also managed to sneak U.S. military documents off base to help him author al-Qaeda’s multivolume terrorist training book. Mohammed was ultimately arrested after al-Qaeda’s 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa, and pled guilty to conducting advance surveillance for the jihadist group.
He may not be James Bond, but if Drugeon is in fact a former French agent who defected, it is a scandal for the French. There are sure to be further developments in this story, which will be worth following.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and an adjunct assistant professor in Georgetown University’s security studies program. He is the author or volume editor of fifteen books and monographs, most recently China’s Post-2014 Role in Afghanistan.