Pentagon officials have said they believe a top explosives expert for a cell of al Qaeda jihadists was killed in a US airstrike in Syria earlier this summer. Similar claims had been made in 2014.
If true, the death of David Drugeon, a French-born member of the Khorasan group of al Qaeda veterans, would be a significant setback for the organization, US military officials said Friday.
"He's definitely dead," a US official told the AFP news agency, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Khorasan is a very dangerous organization which uses cutting-edge technology for attacks in the West."
US officials previously said Drugeon had likely been killed in a November 2014 drone strike; the claim was later withdrawn.
'Martyred near Aleppo'
This time around the 25-year-old man's death has been corroborated by his comrades in arms.
Sanafi al-Nasr, one of the leaders of the the Nusra Front, another al Qaeda affiliate in Syria, Tweeted that Drugeon, known by his nom de guerre Hamza al-Faransi, had become a "martyr" during the month of July in an attack west of Aleppo and posted a dated photo of Drugeon.
A football fan in his early years, Drugeon later drew close to ultraconservative Salafist Muslims, converted to Islam at the age of 13 as his parents were divorcing and started learning Arabic and studying the Koran.
"He was a sweet guy who didn't cause any trouble. A football enthusiast," a former classmate from Drugeons hometown of Vannes who wished to remain anonymous told AFP.
Drugeon eventually went to Egypt and studied in religious schools there before returning to France briefly in 2010 before announcing he would return to Egypt.
Drugeon had trained "numerous" jihadists in the manufacture of explosives, al-Nasr told AFP, noting that the Frenchman had been previously injured in Afghanistan and during combat in the Aleppo region.
"That's what hurts me the most. What he became. What he was made to become, the indoctrination," Patrice Drugeon told AFP, noting that young people were "easy prey" to recruitment messages for Islamist radicals.
The elder Drugeon said that he'd had no official confirmation of his son's death.
"I think of my son every day. I have his picture here before me. If he is indeed dead, may his soul rest in peace," he added.
US intelligence officials describe the Khorasan group, which operates in Syria, as a dangerous militant outfit that plans attacks in the United States and other Western countries.
French officials say Drugeon had spent time with al Qaeda in the tribal areas of Pakistan before eventually traveling to Syria.
jar/bw (AFP, AP)