That the fight in Syria is closer to home than many may think was underlined in a Virginia court on April 8 , when U.S. Army veteran Eric Harroun was charged with firing a rocket-propelled grenade as he fought alongside members of Jabhatal-Nusra. Harroun was a volunteer in Syria’s insurgent forces, and even posted photographs of himself on Facebook in the fight.
Harroun has been remanded in official custody despite claims by his lawyer that this was the first time an American citizen has ever been prosecuted for fighting alongside a group actually aligned with U.S. interests. Harroun faces a possible death penalty.
Last month, a YouTube channel associated with the Syrian government announced Harroun’s death with a grisly video. “Terrorists, including American Extremist ‘Eric Harroun,’ Have Been Terminated,” the headline read. Harroun replied to an e-mail inquiry from Britain’s Mail Online, saying breezily “Syrian Media must be smoking something,” according to the paper, “because I am alive and well chilling in Istanbul having a martini at the moment.”
The 30-year-old Arizona-native’s luck appears to have run out, however. He faces a minimum sentence of 30 years to a maximum of the death penalty. An Alexandria VA refused to release him to his mother’s custody in Arizona, as the defense sought and a pretrial investigation proposed. Harroun appeared unmoved by the judge’s decision.
(Eric Harroun, right, and friend in Syria)
Magistrate Judge Ivan D. Davis said in the Virginia courtroom that Harroun’s brief dalliance with Jabhatal-Nusra “makes him a dangerous individual,” even though he was fighting to remove the Assad regime – a goal being pursued by the U.S. Prosecutors claim that Harroun said that he wanted to fight against the Israelis upon his departure from Syria.
The Obama administration has supported opposition forces fighting the Assad government by providing military training and nonlethal aid. FBI Agent Paul Higginbotham told the court that Harroun had told agents he “hated Al Qaeda” and that the government has no evidence that the Arizona holds “fundamentalist or jihadist views.”
Federal prosecutors did not dispute in the court Harroun’s contention in four interviews with the FBI in Turkey that he had set out to fight initially in January of this year with the Free Syrian Army. The U.S. supports the Free Syrian Army. However, after a battle against Assad forces, Harroun said he wound up with fighters affiliated with the Nusra Front, which had been declared a terrorist group by the U.S. in December 2012. At first, these insurgents held him prisoner, but after Harroun fought alongside them, the Nursa Front combatants came to treat him as an ally.
While the Nursa Front fighters suggested that Harroun become their English-language spokesman, as is Al Qaeda’s American spokesman Adam Gadahn in Pakistan, he turned down the offer, affirmed the prosecution in the case.
Harroun’s lawyer, Geremy C. Kamens, comes from the federal public defender’s office. Given this fact, Kamens called the case “unique in American law.” Kamens said, “Never, to my knowledge, has the U.S. government charged a U.S. citizen for fighting with a group aligned with U.S. interests.”
Harroun hails from Phoenix AZ and was nurtured in a Christian family. He claims to have been converted to Sunni Islam, even while he has admitted to drinking alcohol and womanizing, both of which are proscribed by the tenets of Islam. Harroun stated on his Facebook page that “the only good Zionist is a dead Zionist” and that he wanted to avenge alleged Israeli atrocities in Palestine, according to the prosecution's affidavit. Harroun served in the U.S. Army from 2000 to 2003, when he received a medical discharge after an injury sustained in a car accident. Harroun served at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri and Fort Riley in Kansas. His record listed no overseas deployments.
Al-Qaeda is the sharp end of the spear in Syria
The leader of the self-declared Islamic State of Iraq, as Al-Qaeda in Iraq calls itself, posted this week an audio message on aligned websites announcing the formation of "Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham". Al-Sham is a popular term for Syria, or the whole of the Levant. Said the so-called emir, "It is time to declare to al-Sham and to the world that Jabhatal-Nusra is simply a branch of the Islamic State of Iraq," who goes by the pseudonym Abu Bakral-Baghdadi. In December 2012, the U.S. Department of State declared Jabhat- al-Nusra as a terrorist organization, even while there have been reports that some insurgents in the fight against the Assad regime in Syria are receiving American aid. The U.S. has urged President Bashral-Assad to leave power even though his opponents increasingly rely on militant jihadi groups such as Jabhatal-Nusra.
Jabhatal-Nusra became known in 2012 for a series of suicide bombings and other blasts within areas controlled by the Assad government. It now appears to lead the majority of successful insurgent attacks, in cooperation with groups boasting support from the U.S. and European countries.
Aaron Zelin told The Telegraph of London that Jabhatal-Nusra’s latest statement provides details about how Al-Qaeda set up the group in Iraq. Said Zelin, who works for the Washington Institute for Near-East Policy, “What's new is Al-Qaeda's explanation for why they waited this long to officially state the nature of the connections," he said. "They wanted Syrians to get to know Jabhat and not to be clouded by media misperceptions ahead of time.
The Al-Qaeda/Jabhatal-Nusra consortium split funding evenly on a monthly basis evenly, while it was Iraqis who infiltrated into Syria and set up the group.
Anti-Assad rebels, while they may differ with the Al-Qaeda/Jabhatal-Nusra group on goals, admit their dependence on the jihadis’ weapons and disciplined fighters for front-line fighting.
Confirming the link between Al-Qaeda and Jabhatal-Nursa, Anna Boyd of Exclusive Analysis – a political risk firm – said in a statement, “ “Jabhatal-Nusra has benefited from assistance from al-Qaeda in Iraq since its formation. Senior members of the group confirmed in December 2012 included a brother-in-law of Abu Mus’abal-Zarqawi (former al-Qaeda in Iraq leader) and another man from Zarqawi’s home town who had fought alongside him in Iraq. The announcement that the two groups have merged to form ‘The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria’ simply confirms these already close links and is unlikely to change capability or target set.”
Moreover, said Boyd, “The new al-Qaeda affiliate’s main competitor inside Syria in terms of attracting Salafi recruits is Ahrar al-Sham, a unified organisation of 11 different Islamist rebel factions. This group is led by Syrians, rather than Iraqis, and has indicated greater willingness than Jabhatal-Nusra to work with external powers, including Western countries.”
Boyd also said in her note to the press, “It is unlikely that the new al-Qaeda affiliate will succeed in its aim of winning over this group to unify with al-Qaeda, too. Ahrar al-Sham is likely to deem it has a greater chance of securing foreign funding either from Sunni or Western powers in the fight against the Syrian state if it refrains from any association with al-Qaeda. This heightens risks of fighting between Ahrar al-Sham and the new al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, especially in the event that President Assad is toppled and there is a consequent power struggle between Sunni rebel factions.”
Interview with Eric Harroun's father
On the night Eric Harroun was detained, his father, Darryl Harroun, told local television that his son is a patriot, and that he suffered from depression worsened by his 2003 automobile accident, which left him with a metal plate in his head.
Spero News editor Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. He is also a freelance translator.