A U.S. Army veteran was charged with conspiracy Thursday for fighting alongside a Syrian rebel group linked to al-Qaeda.
Eric Harroun, 30, known to Syrians as “the American,” crossed into northern Syria in January and joined members of Jabhat al-Nusra to fight against the Syrian military, according to an FBI agent’s affidavit in support of a criminal complaint filed by prosecutors in federal court in Alexandria.
In news interviews and Internet postings, Harroun described fighting with the rebels and helping to shoot down a military helicopter with a rocket-propelled grenade, or RPG. The FBI affidavit says he was trained to use an RPG and told the FBI that he shot 10 people but does not know whether he killed any of them.
The complaint says Harroun conspired to use a weapon of mass destruction, the RPG, which carries a maximum penalty of life in prison. He made his initial appearance in federal court Thursday.
Numerous Islamist groups are part of the opposition fighting against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and Jabhat al-Nusra is regarded as one of the most effective rebel forces. Also known as the al-Nusra Front, the group was designated a terrorist organization by the State Department in December. The designation bars U.S. citizens from any dealings with the group.
Concerns about such groups as Jabhat al-Nusra have been cited by the Obama administration as one of the reasons the U.S. government has declined to provide weapons to the Syrian opposition. Instead, the rebels depend on arms provided by other countries, particularly Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
In January, Harroun appeared in a YouTube video wearing a black-and-white keffiyeh and sitting with a group of men wearing military-style clothing. Speaking to the camera, he said, “Bashar al-Assad, your days are numbered. . . . Where you go, we will find and kill you,” the affidavit says.
A month later, Harroun claimed credit on his Facebook page for helping to shoot down a Syrian helicopter. Linking to a video of helicopter wreckage, Harroun wrote, “Downed a Syrian Helicopter then Looted all Intel and Weapons!” according to the affidavit. The video also showed Harroun riding in a jeep and celebrating with men in military fatigues and carrying weapons.
In the affidavit, FBI Special Agent Paul Higginbotham says Harroun fired an RPG after he was trained to use the device by members of Jabhat al-Nusra. Harroun then posted photographs of himself carrying military weapons, including RPGs, on Facebook.
Harroun was detained by FBI agents Wednesday after he arrived at Dulles International Airport on an international flight from an unidentified location. His mother, Shirley Harroun, who was reached at the family home in Phoenix, said she had not heard from her son since he returned to the United States. She declined to comment further.
Harroun served in the Army from 2000 to 2003 and was medically discharged after being injured in a car accident. This month, his father, Darryl Harroun, told Fox News that the car crash left his son with a steel plate in his head.
Darryl Harroun said the family knew that his son was in Syria. “He just loves that part of the world,” Darryl Harroun said, according to Fox News. “We scratch our heads and wonder what the hell he’s doing. I told him, ‘You’re never going to change those people’s minds over there.’ But he says they treat him like a hero. . . . I know one day I’m going to get a message from over there telling me my son is dead.”
Travel records cited in the affidavit indicate that Harroun entered Turkey in November and then crossed into Syria about Jan. 7. He told the FBI that he spent about a month fighting with the rebels and was involved in seven to 10 battles with Jabhat al-Nusra, according to the affidavit.
Harroun’s exploits in Syria received wide attention on the Internet and in news articles. After he returned to Turkey, the FBI interviewed him three times this month at the consulate in Istanbul.
In those interviews, Harroun said he went to Syria to fight with the Free Syrian Army, the opposition group backed by the United States and other Western countries. He said that he was part of a joint FSA-Jabhat team that attacked a Syrian army encampment three days after he arrived in the country and that he later participated in other attacks with the Islamist group.
In his final interview in Istanbul, on Monday, the FBI affidavit said Harroun acknowledged firing an RPG at least once in Syria. After he arrived at Dulles on Wednesday, he was questioned again in a hotel.
In the final interview, Harroun repeated that he fought with Jabhat al-Nusra and knew that the group was considered a terrorist organization by the U.S government, according to the affidavit. He was detained Wednesday and charged on Thursday.
Harroun is being prosecuted by U.S. Attorney Neil H. MacBride, and is scheduled to appear for a preliminary and detention hearing at 2 p.m. Tuesday before U.S. Magistrate Judge Ivan D. Davis.
Julie Tate and Jason Ukman contributed to this report.