On 22 September 2016, while cleaning around an abandoned troglodyte refuge not far from the church of Saint-Florent on the outskirts of Saumur (France), a group of workers saw three men drive away hurriedly in a white van. Entering the cave, they discovered video equipment and a generator, as well as newspapers in the Arab language and Daesh flags.

Wishing to calm not only the anxiety of the population, but also the police, the gendarmerie and the sub-prefect, General Arnaud Nicolazo de Barmon, commanding officer of the Military Schools in Saumur declared that the men were not terrorists, but students of a training exercise by the Inter-Army Centre for Nuclear, Biological, Chemical and Radiological defence (CIA NBCR).

If such were the case, in the middle of the current state of emergency, the CIA NBCR would have violated the rules of notification for this exercise, which should have been transmitted to the different local authorities before the exercise began. Apart from this, it is not easy to discern how any of the equipment discovered might be in any way useful for exercises in nuclear, radiological, biological and chemical defence.

In the same buildings as the CIA NBCR in Saumur are the schools specialised in Intelligence and Inter-Army Combat.

The presence of French forces has been noted since the very beginning of the events in Syria, in 2011. In 2012, 19 French soldiers who had been taken prisoner were handed back, at the Lebanese border, to the Army Chief of Staff, Admiral Édouard Guillaud, with other soldiers supervising Baba Amr’s Islamic Emirate. The death of French soldiers supervising the Islamist troops was certified in several places, particularly in Sannayeh in 2013. While France, in 2014, had supported Al-Qaïda against Daesh, the presence of French officers within the Caliphate itself has been attested by several witnesses in 2016.

In November 2014, the Pentagon declared that it had killed an agent of the DGSE (Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure) in Samarda – the agent, David Drugeon, was working within Al-Qaïda, while the French Minister for Defence denied any link with the victim. Thereafter, the US Press confirmed that David Drugeon had trained Mohamed Mera (terrorist attacks in Toulouse and Montauban), and the Kouachi brothers (attack on Charlie Hebdo).

France has never officially recognised that it has troops on the ground in Syria, although it has admitted that it shares common headquarters there with allied special forces .

Pete Kimberley