Robert Young Pelton writes: 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.” [Continue reading…]