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How Did a German Man End Up Dead in a U.S. Drone Strike?

On Feb. 16, 2012 a missile launched from an American drone struck a pickup truck outside the city of Mir Ali in Pakistan's rugged tribal region. As many as 15 men died in the attack, which many reports claimed killed mostly "Uzbek Islamists."

Now, nearly two years after the fact, it turns out a German man was among the dead that day. According to a report in the German newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung, a man known as Patrick was killed in the attack. A convert to Islam, Patrick had at one point allegedly served as an informant for the German security services, reporting on the Islamist scene around Bonn.

It's an irony that surrounds much of the initial reporting on American drone strikes in Pakistan and elsewhere. Initial reports cite the deaths of various "suspected insurgents." Only later do the actual identities of those killed in the strike emerge -- be they civilian or combatant.

In the case of Patrick, the death of a former informant for the German security services raises as many questions as it answers. According to the Suddueutsche Zeitung, Patrick had been converted at the age of 16 during the winter of 2001 and had been briefly arrested in Bonn ahead of a gathering of Social Democrats there that was subject to various terror threats. Those threats turned out be empty, and Patrick disappeared shortly thereafter. His family reported him missing.

It was only this week that he turned up once more -- in a jihadist propaganda video announcing his death. Patrick appears to have joined up with a group known as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a group with strong ties to the Taliban and al Qaeda. Two German brothers -- Mounir and Yassin Chouka -- run the group's propaganda outfit and produce high-quality German-language propaganda videos for consumption back home.

While Patrick's alleged work for the German security services remains unconfirmed, that line on his resume raises two tantalizing questions. First, could Patrick have been sent back to Pakistan as a German agent? Second, if Patrick wasn't a double agent, what was a fluent German speaker doing still in Pakistan? Shouldn't such a man be given a haircut, a suit, a ticket to Karachi, and an order to await further instructions? Few better candidates exist for terror missions in Western Europe.

The answers to these questions -- to the extent they're answerable, anyway -- offer something of a snapshot of the current jihadist movement and the threat it poses to European countries.

Guido Steinberg is an expert on jihadist groups, including the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and, according to him, the likelihood that Patrick was sent to Pakistan as a double agent is extremely unlikely. "The German services have never managed to infiltrate these networks," Steinberg, who is a senior associate at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, told Foreign Policy. "At one point they did here in Berlin for a very, very short time. I'd be surprised -- it doesn't really fit their normal activities." The idea that Germany spies would be able to launch such an operation is, in fact, somewhat laughable. "Our services are virtually helpless without the help of the Americans," Steinberg added.

European security services are currently consumed with the fear that members of their growing Muslim minority will travel abroad to participate in jihadist movements only to return later and apply what they have learned on the battlefields of Syria and Pakistan in terrorist attacks at home. The intensifying conflict in Syria has only exacerbated that fear, and that country has now surpassed Afghanistan and Pakistan as the prime destination for European jihadists. "The global jihad has prioritized the Syrian conflict as its principal front," a Spanish intelligence official told Newsweek in October.

So far, the fear among European security officials toward returning jihadists appears to have paid off. There have been no major attacks in recent years, and European security services have proven fairly competent at foiling such attacks. The result, Steinberg says, is that foreign terrorist groups are loath to send their fighters back to Europe when in all likelihood they'll get caught or killed anyway.

Instead, Steinberg says, groups like IMU have turned toward utilizing savvy propaganda strategies to inspire attacks inside Germany, including a failed attempt to kill a right-wing politician. That's a familiar reality for American security officials. For example, Maj. Nidal Hassan, the man responsible for killing 13 people at the American military base at Ft. Hood, became radicalized in part by watching sermons online.

In the digital era, old notions of double agents and moles aren't as relevant as they used to be. It's fanciful to imagine that a rogue German be sent back from the wilds of Pakistan to carry out an attack in Berlin. What's more likely is that some anonymous-looking kid carries out the deed after getting radicalized online.

That's a target America's drones can't hit.

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

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