Was David Drugeon — target of latest U.S. airstrikes in Syria — a French intelligence agent?

The Associated Press reports: American airstrikes overnight in Syria targeted a cell of al-Qaida militants, hitting and possibly killing a top bomb-maker in the group, a senior U.S. official said Thursday, amid widespread reports that other rebel factions were also hit.

It wasn’t certain whether the bomb-maker, French militant David Drugeon, was killed or injured, but the official said the strikes hit their intended targets near Sarmada, in the country’s northwest. The official was not authorized to discuss the issue publicly so spoke on condition of anonymity.

Gen. Lloyd Austin, the Central Command commander in charge of U.S. military operations throughout the Middle East, said separately at a Washington forum that he would not discuss results of the strikes until they had been more fully studied. He suggested, however, the Drugeon may have been hit, or at least targeted.

“He is clearly one of the leadership elements and one of the most dangerous elements in that organization,” Austin said. “And so any time we can take their leadership out, it’s a good thing.”

At the Pentagon, Army Col. Steve Warren said the strikes hit five targets at two locations.

Noting that reports coming out of the region suggest members of other militant groups were hit, Warren that the Khorasan Group was the pre-planned target of the strikes.

The Khorasan Group, he said, “is a group of personnel, some of whom are also al-Nusra affiliated, some of whom are al-Qaida affiliated, some of whom are affiliated with other organizations. But these strikes weren’t specifically targeting any of those other organizations. They were targeting the Khorasan group. If a terrorist happens to be a member of both groups, so be it.”

Austin said none of the airstrikes was aimed at al-Nusra.

But as an earlier AP report notes: [B]y striking groups whose primary focus is fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad, the U.S. risks further enraging many Syrians in opposition-held areas who believe Washington is aiding Assad in his struggle to hold onto power in the country’s 3 ½-year-old civil war. Purported civilian casualties have only compounded those frustrations, and activists said Thursday that at least two children were killed in the overnight strikes.

“We are tired of people saying they are coming to help us, and then they kill us,” said activist Asaad Kanjo, based in Idlib.

McClatchy’s Mitchell Prothero published a report in early October claiming that Drugeon was “a former French intelligence officer who defected to al-Qaeda,” but Daveed Gartenstein-Ross casts doubt on that claim.

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.”

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