March 29 (Bloomberg) -- A former U.S. Army soldier was charged with fighting in Syria alongside a group the government says is linked to al-Qaeda and conspiring to use a rocket-propelled grenade.
Eric Harroun, 30, of Phoenix was arrested yesterday after landing at Dulles International Airport in suburban Washington and accused of conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction outside the country, according to a criminal complaint filed today in federal court in Alexandria, Virginia. He faces a maximum sentence of life in prison if convicted.
Harroun told investigators “he had been fighting with the al-Nusrah Front for approximately 25 days and that he estimated that he had engaged in seven to 10 battles,” according to an affidavit by FBI special agent Paul Higginbotham.
Harroun served in the Army from 2000 to 2003 and was medically discharged after a car accident, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation affidavit.
Since 2004, al-Nusrah Front, using a variety of names, has been designated a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. Referred to by the State Department as al-Qaeda in Iraq, the group has claimed responsibility for about 600 terrorist attacks in Syria since November 2011, according to the affidavit.
Harroun told investigators he was aware of the group’s terrorist designation, Higginbotham said, detailing his March 27 interrogation.
Harroun entered Syria on Jan. 7 and later appeared in two videos available on Google Inc.’s Youtube in which he said he was engaged in military action with rebel forces against the Syrian government, Higginbotham said in his statement.
In February, several photos of Harroun carrying weapons, including a rocket-propelled grenades, or RPGs, were uploaded onto his Facebook page.
Investigators also cite a Fox News article from March 11 detailing Harroun’s background, his exploits as a Syrian rebel known as “The American” and describing how he came to fight alongside the al-Nusrah Front. That article reported that Harroun’s Facebook page displays the quote: “The only good Zionist is a dead Zionist.”
Harroun said he was part of an RPG team and that on at least one occasion he hit a tower with an explosive.
Harroun was ordered held until a detention hearing on April 2, according to Peter Carr, a spokesman for U.S. Attorney Neil MacBride in Alexandria.
There are several sections of U.S. law barring Americans from joining military factions or anti-government groups in other countries, said Eugene Fidell, a former president of the National Institute of Military Justice who teaches at Yale University.
“The country has a right to make sure vigilantes, well-intentioned or otherwise, don’t get in the way in management of the most sensitive issue of foreign relations,” Fidell, who isn’t involved in the case, said in a telephone interview.
The criminal complaint against Harroun may have been intended to keep him in custody while additional charges are considered, Fidell said.
The case is U.S. v. Harroun, 13-mj-00182, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Virginia (Alexandria).
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