By Robert Young Pelton
This article first appeared in Foreign Policy magazine and is a product of its editors.
On April 8, Eric Harroun will appear with his public defender in an Alexandria, Virginia, court to answer charges that he conspired to use a weapon of mass destruction outside the United States. While such legal wording may suggest that he was looking to get his hands on a chemical or nuclear weapon, Harroun's alleged crime is actually much more mundane: He stands accused of using a rocket-propelled grenade launcher while fighting with rebels who aim to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime.
If this story sounds familiar, it should: The 30-year old Harroun has joined a small but controversial club: young Americans who decided to fight in foreign jihads. And I've met a lot of them. In 1999, I traveled with the red-haired, blue-eyed Irish-American Aukai Collins on his journey to fight against the invading Russians in Chechnya. In December 2001, I met John Walker Lindh, an American who joined up with the Taliban, who insisted that he was fighting a pre-9/11 war against brutal warlords, not a jihad against the United States. But even when these freelance soldiers join the same side that the U.S. government is supporting, they also often run afoul of the U.S. legal system -- and Harroun is now the latest to face punishment for his adventure overseas.
On March 11, I contacted Harroun via Facebook to interview him for my new magazine, Dangerous. He replied "R U A Zionist?" Three days later, I finally reached Harroun on Skype. He had left Syria, and was staying in the upscale Istanbul neighborhood of Taksim. He said he had visited the American consulate in Istanbul.
Harroun had just finished an interview with an editor from the Times of Israel. He explained that the interview was combative, including numerous insults and even shouting matches with the Israeli reporters. When the article was published on Fox News, it highlighted Harroun's statement that he had fought alongside the Syrian rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra, which the State Department has labeled an alias for al Qaeda in Iraq.
The article rattled Harroun. He decided to check in with the American consulate, with the aim of telling U.S. officials exactly what transpired while he was in Syria. He was surprised to see a print out of the Fox News story sitting on the desk of the FBI agent when he walked in for what turned out to be a four-hour interview.
Harroun told me that he insisted to the FBI and CIA that he joined the "Amr ibn al-'As Brigade." According to the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank, the brigade is a faction of the rebel Free Syria Army formed under the command of Col. Abdul-Jabar Mohammed Egeydi.
But the consulate also had evidence that Harroun had been in contact with Jabhat al-Nusra. A video shot by Harroun and uploaded to Youtube on Jan. 26 showed him in a truck loaded with his jihadist friends, driving toward a recently downed Syrian military helicopter.
When I reached Harroun, he described his association with Jabhat al-Nusra as accidental. "I was separated from my unit in the fighting. I found these guys," he said. "I didn't even know they were al-Nusra until later. I said, 'I need a ride back to my commander.' It took 25 days to get them to give me a ride."
"When they would go out and fight, I'd go along with them. What was I supposed to do?" he asked. "We are all fighting for the same thing. We're trying to kill the same people. It's not like I chose to fight with al-Nusra."
* * *
What drove Harroun to abandon his hometown of Phoenix, Arizona, and get involved in the bloody war raging thousands of miles away in Syria?
Harroun's early life shows no indication of the accusations that he is an Islamic fundamentalist and terrorist. He served in the U.S. military from 2000 until his truck hit a tree in 2003, leaving him with serious injuries. He had a plate inserted in his head, and his father Darryl said that he emerged from the crash with a different personality. His father and his friends portray him as patriotic, adventurous, and eager to take risks.
Although later in life he describes himself to friends and on Facebook as Sunni Muslim, he shows little evidence of leading a pious Islamic life. In May 2010, he hit the party scene in Beirut, and posted a video of himself driving at night with drunken friends. He did have strong opinions toward Israel, however: In June 2010, he posted on Facebook, "All decent human beings must support the oppressed Palestinian against the Israeli oppressors."
After returning from Beirut, he settled into a dull job at a mortgage company in Phoenix. But he was still looking for a thrill: In August 2010, he traveled to Prague and filmed himself driving at 110 miles per hour on the autobahn in Germany. Harroun was out to have fun -- not redeem his soul.
Around Christmas 2010, as the Arab world sat on the cusp of revolution, he visited Egypt and Lebanon. On Jan. 17, he visited the pyramids in Cairo -- but looking for something more visceral, he began to visit the swelling demonstrations against President Hosni Mubarak's rule. On Jan. 25, Facebook pictures show him waving an Egyptian flag in Tahrir square. On Feb. 14, he posts on his Facebook page, "I am in Beirut and safe now I was taken at gun point and blindfolded for 22 hours and was told I was going to be shot in the head This was done by mubaraks democracy government bleep you mubarak and your goons."
Harroun kept being pulled back to the Middle East. According to the criminal complaint filed against him, he flew to Istanbul in November 2012 and then around Jan. 7 he crossed into Syria, determined to join up with the armed rebels. He and his friends from Turkey arranged a taxi to take them from the Turkish border town of Kilis to Azaz, just across the Syrian border. At an FSA base, Harroun told the FBI, he was handed a Russian-made sniper rifle and an AK-47, and sent to join the Amr ibn al-'As Brigade.
On Jan. 10, Harroun's unit launched a joint attack in coordination with "men with the black flags on their uniforms and truck," as he described them to me. Their first mission was a bloody, confusing fight against a Syrian Army camp: Under heavy fire, Eric escaped on the back of a Jabhat al-Nusra truck. The group initially treated him as a prisoner, but finally gave him back his weapons and accepted him into their ranks. He fought in numerous skirmishes, working in a small group to fire RPGs, and told the FBI that he might have killed as many as 10 enemy soldiers.
After his stint with Jabhat al-Nusra, Harroun told the FBI that he made his way back to the FSA camp -- only to find out his passport had been destroyed in a mortar attack. At the camp, he used his cell phone to post photos on Feb. 6 of himself and friends, posing with an RPG, an AK, and wearing a balaclava and army fatigues. On Feb. 10, Harroun crossed out of Syria -- he told the FBI that the FSA commander had requested that he obtain weapons from Turkey, and bring them back. He had been inside Syria for just over a month.
* * *
But Harroun's troubles were just beginning. On Feb. 12, a video advertising his exploits was posted on the website of MEMRI, a site founded by a former Israeli intelligence officer that publishes jihadist videos. On March 5, his jihadist friend from the helicopter video, described as "the Chechen" is shown dead in an emotional video posted by a pro-Assad source. The young man is mistakenly identified as Harroun. Another pro-Assad video pops up, this time incorrectly linking Harroun to a mugshots.com criminal report of someone else from Miami.
Something was going on, and it made Harroun nervous. He laid low in Turkey, hoping the publicity would pass. But on March 11, the Fox News article was published. The headline read: "US-born former Army vet known as 'The American' fights alongside Al Qaeda." Harroun was sent the article by a girl from Chicago who he met on Facebook. His reaction to her was that he had been set up by the "pricks at Fox." The article described Harroun's "descent into Islamic fanaticism" and selectively used information from his private Facebook page. (Harroun, however, kept talking to the two journalists who reported the Fox News story, and subsequent conversations over the next few days were used to inform a follow-up article in Foreign Policy.)
Meanwhile, on March 12, feeling that things were getting out of hand and needing a new passport to return home, Harroun decided to approach the U.S. consulate in Istanbul. The conversation he had there lasted some four hours. A lady from the CIA came downstairs, Harroun told me, and began questioning him as well. He described the process as "good cop, bad cop," with the CIA woman playing the bad cop.
"I'll have to hire a bleep Jewish lawyer to sue their asses when I get back," Harroun told me on March 14, two days after being whipsawed by the U.S. consulate. "According to Fox News I am going to the Palestinian Territory, and then they said I was going there for violent reason. I should sue those assholes. I was going for peaceful reasons. But now I'm not. It's too dangerous."
Harroun was surprised at the portrayal of him as an Islamic fundamentalist. "I'm not al Qaeda," he told me. "I like my beer and my smoke and I like my women. I'm not about the praying five times a day and all that shit."
Harroun's Facebook page supports his frat-boy approach to jihad. There are plenty of attractive girls, photos with Elvis impersonators, clips of war coverage from Syria, and videos of driving while intoxicated in Lebanon. There are none of the somber religious icons, links to fundamentalist groups, or Quranic chants found on normal jihadi or jihadist sites. Harroun doesn't speak Arabic, doesn't know the Quran, or even which groups belonged to al Qaeda. His focus was on overthrowing the government of Syria --with his ugly hatred of Zionism and Jews thrown into the mix.
A screen shot from Pelton's interview with Harroun for Dangerous magazine
During my Skype interview, there was music was blaring in the background. He pointed out that he was eating pork and just "chilling, having a beer and listening to music." Despite his cool demeanor, his meeting at the consulate had obviously rattled him.
Harroun was slowly coming to terms with the fact that he had linked up and fought with a group that had been declared terrorists just a few weeks before he entered Syria. He told me he was going back to the consulate again.
"I may not be a fighter anymore. After speaking with the FBI guy. If it's illegal, I'm not fighting anymore.... If he says I can't go back.... I'm not going back."
But he thinks it's "bullshit" that an American can't fight in Syria. He particularly did not like the "CIA lady from upstairs," who he said played bad cop. To mess with her, he asked her for Stinger missiles. "She didn't exactly say no. She gave me the name of a guy in Turkey who is supplying weapons to the rebels," he said.
Harroun described the FBI guy as "nice," but still told him it is against the law for him to fight in Syria. "I don't know why they would want to prosecute me.... I mean we're killing the same people. They should give me medal for this shit."
He asked me many times about whether he would be on the no-fly list, and if he could sneak back into the United States through Mexico. He wasn't aware of the constantly evolving laws against using weapons in a foreign country -- nor did he seem entirely clear on Obama's declaration of Jabhat al-Nusra as a terrorist group one month before he joined the fight.
The FBI officials would be able to exploit that lack of knowledge to extract from Harroun a complete description of his actions while in Syria. On March 18, Harroun went back to the consulate -- in a 10-hour marathon session, he admitted he had spent 25 days with Jabhat al-Nusra and that the men around him in the Youtube videos were members of the organization.
On March 20, Harroun's new FBI "friends" obtained a search warrant for his Facebook page, where he had posted photos of himself and friends posing with an RPG and an AK. He returned to the consulate again on March 25 and admitted to the FBI that the photos were taken inside Syria, and that he did fire an RPG. They had what they needed -- but did not tell Harroun that he had just incriminated himself.
On March 27, Harroun flew back to the United States into Dulles Airport in Virginia, and once again engaged in a voluntary discussion with FBI agents who were waiting for him there. The federal agents were able to get him to admit that he knew that Jabhat al-Nusra was a terrorist organization, because the fighters would ask Harroun why they United States would label them when they were trying to overthrow Assad. Charges were filed against him in U.S. federal court the very next day, and on April 8 a federal magistrate will hear evidence about whether he should remain jailed as his trial proceeds.
The bright days of the Arab Spring have turned dark for Eric Harroun. A man who got caught up in the enthusiasm and the adventure of battle got brought down by social media and the ugly reality of fighting someone else's revolution.