American who fought for Al Nusrah Front arrested in US

A former American soldier who admitted to fighting for al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria has been arrested and charged with “conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction outside of the United States.” Harroun’s arrest and the account of his short time fighting for the Al Nusrah Front highlight some of the terror group’s close links to the Free Syrian Army, the so-called secular fighting force that is being backed by the US.

Harroun, a Muslim convert known in Syria as “the American,” fought for both the Al Nusrah Front for the People of the Levant, al Qaeda in Iraq’s affiliate in Syria, and the Free Syrian Army. He appeared in a videotape that was released earlier this month showing him at the scene of a downed Syrian helicopter.

The FBI arrested Harroun two days ago at Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C. after he cleared customs. He “conducted a voluntary interview of Harroun in a non-custodial setting” after entering the US, according to an affidavit that was released yesterday. Harroun was also interviewed three times in March at the US Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. In the interviews, Harroun admitted to fighting for the Al Nusrah Front.

The affidavit stated that “while he was fighting with the al Nusrah Front in Syria, he knew that the al Nusrah Front had been designated by the United States as a terrorist organization.” He claimed that members of the Nusrah Front were perplexed about the US’s designation of the group, as it “was primarily made of non-Syrians.”

Harroun noted that he “could identify al-Nusrah Front members because they had black flags sewn onto their clothing and drove in vehicles bearing black flags.” In propaganda videos, members of the Al Nusrah Front are routinely seen flying al Qaeda in Iraq’s distinctive banner.

Harroun entered Turkey in November 2012, met with handlers from the Free Syrian Army, and then entered Syria in early January. After entering Syria, he was issued weapons by the Free Syrian Army, and within days, “engaged in a joint attack with the Al Nusrah Front on a Syrian army encampment.”

“As part of the attack, vehicles bearing black flags transported al Nusrah fighters to locations near the camp,” the affidavit said. The Nusrah and FSA fighters broke off the attack after about 20 minutes, and he “jumped into the back of an Al Nusrah Front truck, which took him to an Al Nusrah Front camp.”

Harroun claimed he was “treated like a prisoner” but quickly gained the trust of the Al Nusrah Front fighters. He was then “assigned to a five-man fire team” and “accepted as a member of the group because he had proven himself in battle.” He also served as a member of an RPG team (this would become the basis for the US government’s charge of conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction).

Harroun admitted to fighting for the Al Nusrah Front “for approximately 25 days and … he estimated that he had engaged in seven to ten battles” while with them. He also said that the fighters seen with him in the video titled “American Fighter’ Vows Death to Assad” were members of the al Qaeda group, and he identified several of them.

Although Harroun was fighting for the Al Nusrah Front, he re-entered Turkey on Feb. 10 after a member of the Free Syrian Army requested that he go there to obtain weapons.

The Free Syrian Army and the Al Nusrah Front are known to have conducted several joint military operations in the past. The two groups have teamed up to overrun Syrian military bases and conduct other attacks. The Al Nusrah Front often takes command of the operations as their fighters are regarded as better in terms of organization, training, and leadership.

Despite that fact that the Free Syrian Army and the Al Nusrah Front conduct joint operations in Syria, the US government will begin to provide millions of dollars in aid to help Syrian rebel groups govern areas under their control. The money is being funneled to the Syrian Opposition Coalition and the Supreme Military Council “to provide concrete, nonlethal support to the Free Syrian Army,” the US State Department announced on Feb. 28. The president of the Syrian Opposition Coalition opposes the US’s designation of the Al Nusrah Front as a Foreign Terrorist Organization.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • David says:

    Since when is an RPG a WMD? If they were WMDs during the Iraq war we would have had no problem establishing that Saddam had WMDs.
    WMDs at that time meant Nuclear, Chemical or Biological weapons. How did this definition slide so much? It sounds like the prosecutors are piling on the charges…

  • Joe Schmo says:

    If a RPG is a WMD then Iran and every other rogue nation has WMDs. Surely there must be something else we could convict him for (aiding and abetting terrorists).

  • J House says:

    If you read the federal law, you can be charged with using or possessing a WMD if you have explosives or explosive charges (an RPG contains one) or even the components to construct an explosive charge. The law is quite broad regarding the U.S. federal law and the definition of a ‘WMD’. ‘WMD’ not your father’s NBC anymore after 9/11 laws were written and passed.
    How possessing or using that weapon outside of U.S. territory is questionable (you can shoot one in Afghanistan for less than $100). However, if he aided or materially assisted the Al Nusra front in any way he can be charged with a variety of terrorism charges, even if it was outside the U.S.
    They are already designated a terrorist org.

  • Yeah, I found that charge bizarre as well.

  • Patrick says:

    Among other things, Eric is on disability payments, so at the very least he should be charged with fraud.

  • gb says:

    I call BS on Justice for these charges. This kid never threatened or took action against any Americans, and he’s fighting with a group that is actually receiving American government support. This administration can’t have it both ways. As an aside, I in no way support any of these groups currently fighting in this region (other than Israel), and wish the U.S. would arm everyone and let them annihilate each other.

  • Will Fenwick says:

    Its a rather surprising they also haven’t charged him with violating the neutrality act, it’s easily the easiest charge they could convict him on if they wanted to put him away. Since technically the United States is not at war with Syria, any American fighting the Assad regime is in violation of the Neutrality Act.

  • UNF says:

    By this definition a soup-spoon is also a WMD, since you could in theory use it ‘destruct’ a ‘mass’ of people by digging out their entrails one at a time, over the course of a decade or so.
    i.e. Why let justice relate to reality when fantasy is more fun, and politically useful?

  • wallbangr says:

    The designation of an RPG as a WMD shows just how much of a logical leap the FBI and the administration are willing to make to bust this guy. This is precisely the sort of hypocrisy that folks rage against in the Arab world — and not just the ones with angry beards and prayer marks. And for the Syrian opposition fighters for whom this guy helped fight off the enemy, does anyone really suppose they give a rat’s tail what groups he aligned himself with? The enemy of my enemy is my what? Instead, the one American they have actually seen get off his backside and do something for their cause has now been arrested and charged as an international terrorist using WMD. If you were writing a recipe for continued bungling of American goodwill over there, you almost couldn’t write it any better than this. I’m no fan of al Nusra, and I am certainly as weary as the next guy about what happens when you arm factions in civil wars in the Arab world. Still, this was as hamfisted a move as they come. It sends the absolute wrong message to every single opposition fighter over there (to say nothing of the millions of people in the Arab world observing us), regardless of their individual affiliation with undesirables like al Nusra or AQ. If taking potshots at regime fighters makes this guy an international terrorist, and if humping an RPG into a fight is considered use of a WMD, I can only shudder what American arming of groups in places like Libya would spell for us

  • Nick says:

    Know the law, David.
    What are Weapons of Mass Destruction?
    Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) are defined in US law (18 USC §2332a) as:
    “(A) any destructive device as defined in section 921 of this title (i.e. explosive device);
    (B) any weapon that is designed or intended to cause death or serious bodily injury through the release, dissemination, or impact of toxic or poisonous chemicals, or their precursors;
    (C) any weapon involving a biological agent, toxin, or vector (as those terms are defined in section 178 of this title)(D) any weapon that is designed to release radiation or radioactivity at a level dangerous to human life.”
    WMD is often referred to by the collection of modalities that make up the set of weapons: chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and explosive (CBRNE). These are weapons that have a relatively large-scale impact on people, property, and/or infrastructure

  • Ivan says:

    I agree David. RPGs are not WMds Pre-911 he would not have been charged with these supposed crimes.
    I believe there are laws prohibiting Americans from joining rebel groups be they UNITA in Angola or the FSA in Syria.
    Charge him with that and be done with it.

  • blert says:

    This fellow belongs in the cast of “Bananas II” — the giros runner.

  • Gaz says:

    So if Eric had performed all the same actions (fighting against the Syrian Army, supposedly shooting down a helicopter) in his original unit, would he be facing any charges?
    And if an RPG is a WMD, so is an AK..

  • Ira says:

    I’m sure someone with legal training and knowledge can add some depth to this discussion. Shouldn’t the Neutrality Act be used?
    The Neutrality Act was brought into being in the 1930s, because of Americans volunteering and going overseas to fight other people’s wars — like Americans joining Communist organizations to fight the Fascists in Spain. The man clearly volunteered to fight somene else’s war, and it wasn’t within the context of joining a national army, which is allowed (i.e., non-Americans in the U.S. Armed Services, or Americans in the French Foreign Legion).
    I’m thinking that using such phrases as “weapon of mass destruction” for a standard infantry-borne anti-tank weapon only opens our own people to be accused of similar charges should they be captured or charged by others. It is the principle of precedence. “According to the laws of your own nation, Private Jones, your use of an anti-tank weapon is classified as using a WMD.”
    While the prosecutor might want to pile on the charges, is it wise to misuse law in a public way, without considering we may be validating others to use it likewise, and cite our initial use of the phrasing as their precedence?

  • Joe says:

    I would guess that we might have some reason to question this guy and maybe detain him, but that’s a stupid pretense for it. In truth I am not really sure what legitimate charge you can make, unless you can prove he committed some sort of war crime.

  • boval says:

    I applaud him for going to Syria to help in thier fight for freedom, but how stupid to video himself there. I guess the WMD charge is due to a rpg killing a tank crew of more than ONE! Unreal

  • mike merlo says:

    RPG = WMD! Huh?

  • Joe says:

    An RPG (in this case, I’m going to guess they’re talking about the ubiquitous RPG-7) is *not* a WMD, let’s get that out of the way. WMDs, as *everyone* knows, are CBRNE (Chemical, Biological, Rariological, Nuclear, High-Yield Explosive). Notice there’s no, “Light, Anti-Armor and Anti-Personnel Weapon” in that description? Right–because an RPG-7 is that, not CBRNE, and therefore *not* a WMD. The definition didn’t slip–it’s being completely mis-applied…like calling a pancake bread.
    I am going to guess, however, the reason they threw this preposterous and completely mis-applied charge to this individual is that the DoS knew this guy had inserted himself in Syria, and by his own admission was fighting for a group that the DoS has labelled as alligned with AQI. Mr Harroon put the DoS in an unadmirable position, because the DoS is constantly complaining to other countries about exporting jihadists–so they can’t *not* prosecute this guy for outsourcing his military skills in Syria.
    Mr Harroon, however, failed at one of the most importand skills the US military teaches: OPSEC. Here’s a hint: if you’re going to go abroad and conduct illicit military operstions with a rebel group, don’t post information about your exploits on Facebook, do *not* allow yourself to be photographed, or interviewed by the press. If you fail to practice good OPSEC, that failure will very likely bite you back: witness, Mr. Harroon.

  • sundoesntrise says:

    boval, Joe,
    We live in the age of online narcissistic muscle flexing, where people will literally post anything online to get some type of ego stroking response. This individual did exactly that, he allowed such videos to be taken and posted online so people could see what he was doing and compliment him for doing it. If they truly only cared about what “Allah” thinks, they would never be bothered to take any videos, or pictures, or even use the Internet at all. But of course in this day and age such basic rationality is lost on such simple folk like them.
    Just look at it like this; he paid for what he did.

  • David says:

    @ Nick —
    I don’t doubt that the law is written exactly as you say, and thank you for bringing some precision to the discussion. But *should* the law be written that way? It extends the concept so broadly that virtually any military weapon (e.g. a grenade) is a WMD. Virtually everything our soldiers carry, apart from guns and bullets, e.g. tank ammo, grenades, etc, is now a WMD.
    I suspect that this law was written relatively recently to empower prosecutors, who are having some trouble locking up the most recent crop of jihadists.

  • gb says:

    So…I guess Sadaam was clearly in possession of WMD….so this justifies the invasion of Iraq (and every other country possessing RPG’s)…George Bush was right after

  • SlayerMill says:

    Most everyone participating on the discussion board has brought up valid points. However, I don’t understand those who defend Harroun saying he didn’t break any laws. Our own self-defense laws in the U.S. change from state to state, even when it comes to defending one’s own home (i.e. Castle Laws). States, like New York, have laws so strict that in order to claim self-defense for killing a person attacking a home owner, in their own home I might add, they literally have to have retreated to the last room in their home where there is no chance of escape before using deadly force. With laws at home so strict when it comes to defending oneself against attackers in their own home, how could Harroun’s actions abroad be justified by U.S law? According to U.S law, the military isn’t even allowed to attack a sovereign nation without Congressional support, so what gives Harroun, an average U.S. citizen, the right to go Dirty Harry on Syria? I understand the U.S government has routinely violated this law and gotten away with it; but the bottom line is Harroun doesn’t get to kill members of a sovereign nation like it’s some sort of summer retreat because he’s attached himself to what he believes is a just cause. Converting to Islam doesn’t give him a magic pass either. Regardless of what Steven Seagal did in the movie Above the Law, U.S citizens aren’t allowed to murder people wholesale who may have wronged them, or in Harroun’s case, a perceived wrong, in the past. This was a call to jihad Harroun should’ve pressed ignore on.

  • UNF says:

    “Virtually everything our soldiers carry, apart from guns and bullets, e.g. tank ammo, grenades, etc, is now a WMD.”
    @ David,
    actually, the bullets also fit inside this WMD definition, as they contain explosives (det cap + powder charge) and are destructive, so
    Bullet = WMD = farcical propaganda term

  • mike merlo says:

    Definition of MASSACRE
    1: the act or an instance of killing a number of usually helpless or unresisting human beings under circumstances of atrocity or cruelty
    So it would appear that the definition of a WMD as applied to killing humans is as varied/malleable as one seeks to apply ‘it.’


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