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Friday, March 29, 2013

Ex-Soldier Accused of Joining Terrorist Group in Syria Left Trail of Videos

Video posted online shows former U.S. soldier Eric Harroun with Syrian rebel fighters.YouTube Video posted online shows former U.S. soldier Eric Harroun with Syrian rebel fighters.

As my colleague Scott Shane reports, a former American soldier was charged on Thursday with fighting alongside a rebel group linked to Al Qaeda on the battlefields of the Syrian civil war.

Eric Harroun, 30, was arrested on Wednesday after arriving at Dulles International Airport outside of Washington, D.C., and charged in Alexandria, Va., on Thursday with “conspiring to use a destructive device outside the United States.”

He is accused of entering Syria in January and fighting alongside the Nusra Front, which was designated a terrorist organization in December 2012 and is accused of ties to Al Qaeda in Iraq. It is one of hundreds of rebel militias that have emerged over the last two years to battle the government of President Bashar al-Assad, whose family has ruled Syria for four decades. The conflict has so far claimed more than 70,000 lives.

Mr. Harroun, a Phoenix native who served in the United States armed forces from 2000 until 2003, has been far from discrete about his activities in Syria, posting at least two videos of himself with Nusra fighters to YouTube and speaking with two journalists based in Israel for Foreign Policy magazine.

The authors of the Foreign Policy article, Ilan Ben Zion and Greg Tepper, wrote that in online communications with Mr. Harroun, “he seemed paranoid about being tracked by U.S. and Israeli intelligence agencies” and referred to the men with anti-Semitic slurs. He also frequently changed his story.

During conversations on March 4 and March 16, Harroun said that Jabhat al-Nusra “picked [him] up” after the rebel group he had been traveling with was largely wiped out in a firefight with Assad forces. On March 16, however, he denied that he was a member of the organization, insisting that he was only a member of a rebel group that was part of the mainstream [Free Syrian Army].

Nevertheless, that retraction didn’t stop Harroun from bragging, unprompted, that he had met Jabhat al-Nusra’s elusive leader, known by the nom de guerre Abu Muhammed al-Julani. He said that the two had met twice in January at an unspecified location near the Syrian-Iraqi border, and described the terrorist leader merely as a “humble man of few words.” He refused to describe Julani’s reaction to meeting an American fighter in the FSA.

In a video posted to YouTube on Jan. 15, Mr. Harroun appears to be reclining into the arms of a Syrian rebel as several more crowd around him, smiling and stroking their beards as he delivers a brief threatening statement to Mr. Assad and pro-government paramilitaries known as the shabiha.

The title of the video refers to Mr. Harroun as a “U.S. mujahid,” or holy warrior. If the accusation that Mr. Harroun entered Syria in January is true, that means the video was recorded very soon after he arrived in the country.

Video posted online shows Mr. Harroun surrounded by rebel fighters threatening Syrian President Bashar al-Assad

“Bashar al-Assad, your days are numbered,” said Mr. Harroun in the video, as rebel fighters around him looked on. Some appear amused by him, others confused or unsure of what to make of the American fighter in their midst. “You’re going down in flames. You should just quit now while you can and leave. You’re gonna die no matter what. Where you go, we will find you and kill you. Do you understand And your shabiha is going to die also with you.”

In another video posted online in February, Mr. Harroun can be seen driving in a jeep down a narrow dirt road through fields toward a crashed military helicopter. Several rebel fighters ride with him in the car, whose windshield bears the emblem of the Free Syrian Army, a rebel coalition that receives aid from the United States and which pointedly does not include the Nusra Front.

Video posted online shows Mr. Harroun driving towards a downed military helicopter in a jeep with rebel fighters.

Mr. Harroun spoke with his companions in a mix of broken Arabic and English, and also occasionally addressed the camera. “Let’s blast these fools,” he said. “We’re gonna smoke ‘em. Every day, all day.” He then lead the rebels in a call-and-response religious victory chant, screaming “takbeer!” The fighters responded, “God is great!”

“Bashar al-Assad this is what’s left of your airforce,” said Mr. Harroun as they approached the crashed aircraft. He then switched back into Arabic to curse Mr. Assad’s mother and the mothers of his supporters. Due to his broken Arabic, he also accidentally cursed God’s mother.

When they arrived at the crashed aircraft, it’s cockpit was splattered with blood but it’s pilot and crew were nowhere to be seen.

A third video posted online shows Mr. Harroun and the same driver, with whom he appeared to be friends, in a jeep in the desert near another downed aircraft. The video contains several expletives in both Arabic and English.

A video posted online shows Mr. Harroun celebrating near a downed Syrian military helicopter.

“We smoked” them “didn’t we” Mr. Harroun asked the driver of the jeep. “Hell yeah. We smoked ‘em out. I don’t know, ten Twenty”

The driver simply flashes a broad, happy grin and gives Mr. Harroun two thumbs up.