A Syrian woman carries her children near their makeshift refugee camp at… (Bulent Kilic / AFP/Getty…)
WASHINGTON — Federal authorities arrested and charged a 30-year-old U.S. Army veteran turned Middle East "freedom fighter" with conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction — a rocket-propelled grenade — after allegedly joining Al Qaeda-linked forces fighting President Bashar Assad's regime in Syria.
Eric Harroun was arrested after flying into Dulles International Airport in northern Virginia, returning from the Middle East. Authorities said he had previously made "voluntary" statements to FBI agents about his activities fighting with Al Qaeda in Iraq's Al Nusra Front as part of an "RPG team" in Syria.
According to a criminal complaint and affidavit unsealed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Va., Harroun said he carried three rockets in a backpack in Syria, along with an AK-47 assault rifle. He said his team would fire rockets at defensive positions protecting the Assad regime, the complaint said. On at least one occasion, Harroun said, he hit a tower with one of the rockets, the complaint added.
Though the U.S. is supporting some of the groups opposing Assad, Al Nusra Front has been designated as a foreign terrorist organization, which the complaint says Harroun admitted knowing under questioning by the FBI. If convicted, he could face life in prison.
Al Nusra Front has become an increasing worry for the Obama administration. Though it represents a fraction of the many rebel groups, it is considered the most effective, and could rise to power and influence in a post-Assad Syria.
Brian Jenkins, a terrorism expert with the Rand Corp., said in an interview that the U.S., which favors Assad's removal, can justify Harroun's arrest because Al Qaeda poses a threat.
"Our interests in the region are defined as the removal of Assad," he said. "But at the same time, there is a continuing campaign to bring about the defeat and destruction of the Al Qaeda enterprise."
Harroun, of Phoenix, appeared briefly in court Thursday. He was read the charges against him and ordered to return to court Tuesday for a detention hearing in which he probably will enter a plea. A defense attorney is being appointed on his behalf.
Harroun served in the U.S. Army from 2000 to 2003 and took a medical discharge after a car accident. More recently, in Internet postings and videos, he has fashioned himself as the "the American" and boasted of being a freedom fighter in several of the "Arab Spring" rebellions.
"I hate bad guys like Bashar," he told FoxNews.com this month, referring to Syria's leader. "I hate Iran too. I am a freedom fighter."
In three meetings this month with FBI agents at the U.S. Consulate in Turkey, Harroun is said to have described his involvement with Al Nusra Front and, according to FBI special agent Paul Higginbotham, estimated that he shot 10 people. He said he also lost his U.S. passport in the fighting.
He is alleged to have equated Zionism with Nazism and fascism and said he "hated Al Qaeda" but "did not know any Al Qaeda members."