A former French intelligence officer who defected to al-Qaeda was the target of American airstrikes in Syria last month, according to reports.
The unnamed defector was identified by two European Intelligence officers as the highest ranking individual to ever join the terrorist group, McClatchy DC, an American political news site, reported on Sunday.
However, on Monday an official within the French defense ministry dismissed the report in an interview with Reuters.
“After checks this morning, we can assert that the information concerning supposed links between the jihadist cited by the press and French intelligence services is totally erroneous,” the official said.
In September a coalition led by the United States struck jihadist targets in Syria in an air campaign designed to weaken the terrorist groups Islamic State, al-Nusra Front, and Khorasan, which is made up of al-Qaeda operatives that were alleged to be planning a major terrorist attack against the West.
The former French officer, who was being monitored by Syrian rebel groups fighting against the regime, reportedly survived an offensive on eight al-Nusra Front targets.
European intelligence officers could not confirm if he had defected from France’s military intelligence wing or its foreign intelligence agency, the General Directorate for External Security.
According to a European intelligence operative, the defector is “highly trained in Western intelligence trade-craft and explosives.” One rebel source claimed the man had fought alongside al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Syria and had put together a team of five operatives working out of a mosque in Idlib, a city in northwestern Syria.
“We don’t know if he was sleeper [agent] or radicalized after he joined the service,” said another European intelligence official. “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.”
“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,” said an intelligence official from a third country with casual knowledge of the situation. “It’s the cost of doing business when you aid some of our regional allies.”
However, the intelligence official said that it was the first time he had had ever heard of a defection of this sort from “someone with legitimate security clearance and Western-style vetting and training” and described the incident as an “epic nightmare that we have so far been spared.”
An official with knowledge of the situation inferred that the defector may have worked for different branches within the French intelligence and defense establishment. “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,” he said. “[Other intelligence services] do that all the time.”
A European intelligence official claimed the strikes were intended to kill the man and cover up the story, insisting that “some problems are best buried forever under a pile of rubble.”