A former American soldier from Phoenix has been charged with conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction while fighting with Al Qaeda-linked Syrian rebels.
Eric Harroun, 30, was arrested on March 27, 2013, shortly after returning to the United States from the Middle East. He was charged by criminal complaint the next day for allegedly using a rocket-propelled grenade while fighting against Syrian regime forces. If convicted he faces a possible life sentence.
In interviews with the FBI in Turkey, Harroun allegedly indicated that he initially joined the Free Syrian Army, an umbrella rebel group which has received limited support from the United States. However, during a joint operation with Jabhat al-Nusrah, a State Department-designated alias for Al Qaeda in Iraq, he was picked up by one of Jabhat al-Nusrah’s cars. He claims he was initially "treated like a prisoner" by the group, but eventually gained their trust in battle.
During subsequent interviews with the FBI, Harroun claimed that he "hated al-Qaeda, that he did not know any al-Qaeda members, and that he would fight against any regime if it imposed Shariah law in Syria because he was opposed to all forms of oppression."
Nevertheless, Harroun allegedly admitted to the FBI that he received training using a rocket-propelled grenade from Jabhat al-Nusra and that he used such a weapon in combat.
Harroun became known to Western media after videos of him celebrating combat operations were posted to the Internet. Harroun himself posted numerous pictures to his Facebook account of his time in Syria, including pictures of himself with weapons and a message that Bashar al-Assad was "wanted Dead or NOT Alive!!!!"
In one media interview after he returned to Turkey from Syria in March 2013, Harroun stated that he planned to go to the Palestinian territories to fight Israel. His Facebook page reportedly included a post that said the "only good Zionist is a dead Zionist." According to an FBI affidavit, when asked about the post by the FBI, he replied that he equates "Zionism with Nazism and Fascism."
Harroun reportedly began his travels through the Middle East, including Egypt and Lebanon, in late 2010. He eventually made his way to Turkey in late 2012 with the intention of fighting against the Assad regime in Syria, and court documents indicate that he crossed the border in January 2013.
According to interviews with his father, Harroun’s family is not Muslim, but he began to self-identify as one after his discharge from the Army in 2003 after a car accident.
Since 2007, at least 52 American citizens and permanent residents have been arrested or charged in connection with making trips abroad attempting to reach terrorist groups, receive training, or to participate in terrorist attacks. Many of these individuals joined Al Shabaab, but other individuals traveled abroad to receive training in Pakistan or to join Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
While Harroun is the first American reported fighting in Syria, recent reports estimate that between 140 and 600 Europeans have joined rebel militias.
Harroun is not currently charged with providing material support to the designated Foreign Terrorist Organization.
Eric Harroun pleaded guilty to non-terror-related charges in September, 2013, and was sentenced to time served. That Harroun fought in Syria is uncontested; however, reports differ as to whether he fought with Jabhat al Nusra.