PARIS • France's scramble to confirm the reported killing in Syria of a key Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) recruiter shows the headache faced by the authorities in pinning down evidence of militants' deaths, which may be fabricated for strategic reasons, experts say.
Since last Saturday, rumours have swirled about the purported death of Omar Diaby, alias Omar Omsen, who set up a French-speaking network of militants in Syria and played a big part in broadcasting Internet propaganda.
"Checks are in progress," said French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve yesterday, who added that the supposedly dead man was a "very significant recruiter" of young French would-be militants.
The authorities are treading carefully because so many announced deaths have turned out to have been spread fictitiously to allow people to lie low.
Frenchman David Drugeon, a young convert to Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and then Syria, was recently pronounced dead in an American drone attack, before it was disproved.
"We just can't confirm the deaths of people out there," former French spy chief Alain Chouet told Agence France-Presse.
"You need either to collect DNA or have reliable witnesses. But in these cases, we have neither. And we won't get them either."
Much of the problem, according to Mr Chouet, lies in the impossibility of getting spooks on the ground in areas controlled by ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
"In terms of access on the ground, I don't think we have any or that anyone has any. Far too dangerous," said Mr Chouet. Western spy agencies have "no capacity to investigate or cross-check".
Another former head of an intelligence service, who asked to remain anonymous, agreed that the real problem in confirming militants' deaths was a lack of human resources.
"Getting agents in there who can say 'he's still alive, I saw him' is impossible. Too dangerous. Real life is not like the movies," the source pointed out.
Governments have to be especially careful as it may be particularly convenient for some potential targets to be thought of as dead.
"Seeing that ISIS is losing ground militarily, quite a few foreigners - French, British or Chechen - want to play dead, to be able to disappear," said Mr Chouet.
"They can ask their buddies to put it out on the social networks: 'the poor guy is dead'. But it could just be that we're being played," he said.