Federal agents last week arrested an Army vet, Eric Harroun, after he returned from the battlefield in Syria, and charged him with "conspiring to use a destructive device outside the United States," a crime punishable with a lifetime prison sentence. Harroun, 30, allegedly entered Syria in January and joined rebels in the Al Nusra Front. Like the U.S., the group is trying to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — but it also happens to be linked to al Qaeda in Iraq. FBI agents say Harroun told them he was part of a unit that fired rocket-propelled grenades at Assad's forces. If Harroun is telling the truth, University of Texas law professor Robert M. Chesney tells The New York Times, "he seems to be fighting on the U.S. side, but with the wrong people."
That's not enough of a reason to try to put him in prison for life, says James Joyner says at Outside the Beltway. "Harroun may be wacko" — he did, after all, proclaim on Facebook that "the only good Zionist is a dead Zionist," Joyner says. But "based only on the reporting I've seen — he doesn't appear to be an al Qaeda sympathizer, much less a terrorist."
Furthermore, I'm not exactly sure why Harroun's actions should be illegal. Yes, the U.S. government has designated Jabhat Al Nusra a terrorist group. But there's no evidence in the news reports that Harroun has engaged in terrorism or any anti-American activities; he's participating in a rebellion that same government is tacitly training and supplying with weapons (almost certainly including RPGs!) against a regime that same government is working to oust from power. And there's actually a time-honored tradition of Americans fighting in other people's civil wars. [Outside the Beltway]
The case may boil down to which version of Eric Harroun is the authentic one. He has "not been shy about his involvement in Syria," says Renee Nal at Gather, and his words have been used to paint him "as an anti-Semitic champion of the Arab Spring." But he has also said he hates al Qaeda, and "would fight against any regime if it imposed Sharia law in Syria because he was opposed to all forms of oppression." As if this all isn't confusing enough, his dad has introduced another wrinkle into the case.
His father, Darryl Harroun, defended his son, saying that the 30-year-old Arizona native was "quietly working for the CIA and even turned over a terrorist," as reported by the local ABC affiliate. His dad continued to say that "Anyone who knows Eric knows he is 100 percent American." Further, PressTV reported that Eric Horroun's dad said, "He was working with the same rebels that Obama was going to fund." [Gather]
"There's no doubt that Harroun has been involved in the fight against Assad in Syria," say Greg Tepper and Ilan Ben Zion at Foreign Policy. A rebel spokesman has confirmed he fought against Assad's forces, and he can be seen riding in a jeep across a desert landscape with other fighters in a YouTube video. He has been pretty clear in interviews about some details: He was born into a Christian family from Phoenix, and he now identifies himself as a Sunni Muslim convert, although he doesn't appear to try very hard to follow Muslim prohibitions against drinking alcohol and chasing women.
"Pinning Harroun down is never easy," say the Foreign Policy journalists, who interviewed Harroun via Skype before his return to the U.S. "At times, he appears willing to provide very specific details about himself, while at others he becomes more reserved, preferring to not comment or flat-out denying his previous statements — only to retract his retractions. He can become inexplicably hostile, hurling accusations of lying and anti-Semitic or anti-Zionist comments, or respond with flippant or jocular comments." Maybe the real Harroun will emerge in court.