-- A former spy for France, who defected and joined al Qaeda, was one of the targets of American airstrikes in Syria last month aimed at stopping the terror group from blowing up planes over the skies of Europe or the U.S., according to two intelligence officials.
The French ex-intelligence officer's purported defection to al Qaeda and involvement with other operatives in Syria developing undetectable, non-metallic bombs to smuggle aboard passenger planes in the West was first reported by McClatchy D.C. Sunday.
He has not been publicly identified but was described as the highest-ranking defector ever to go over to al Qaeda’s side, according to officials who confirmed the McClatchy news report.
Before the U.S. stepped up its air offensive against al Qaeda and ISIS targets in Syria and Iraq on Sept. 22, the U.S. government had urged several news outlets including ABC News to withhold details about an al Qaeda cell officials called the "Khorasan Group," which the defector had joined in Aleppo, Syria. McClatchy reported the Frenchman apparently survived the American strikes.
The Khorasanis were a specialized team of seasoned jihadis who fought together in the Afghanistan-Pakistan conflicts but were little known outside intelligence circles until days before the strikes. They have been sheltered by al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, according to U.S. officials.
European intelligence officials told McClatchy the French ex-spy either defected from France’s military intelligence or its foreign intelligence service, the General Directorate for External Security (DGSE). McClatchy said it was unclear if the officer’s al Qaeda sympathies were possibly overlooked during vetting or if he came around to them later.
The only publicly identified member of the Khorasan Group is Muhsin al-Fadhli, a 33-year-old Kuwaiti believed to have once been a confidant of Osama bin Laden. Al-Fadhli was a senior figure in al Qaeda's operations in Iran and is accused, among other things, of facilitating the terror group's former affiliate in Iraq. The U.S. government offers a $7 million reward for information leading to al-Fadhli's capture.
Two U.S. counter-terrorism officials told ABC News Monday that despite social media claims by al Qaeda operatives that al-Fadhli died in the U.S. onslaught last month, there is no evidence he was actually killed. Al-Nusra in the past faked the death of another senior operative using social media claims.
Likewise, there is no evidence any senior leader of ISIS has been killed in the daily air attacks by American and coalition aircraft and cruise missiles, which have limitations on how such "high value" targets are identified, an intelligence official told ABC News.
Asked about the spy-turned-terrorist, an official with the French Foreign Ministry said today it would not comment on "rumors in the press."