Last Friday, FP featured a very strange interview with Eric Harroun, the Phoenix-bred U.S. Army vet who claimed to have spent several weeks in Syria with the al Qaeda-linked group Jabhat al-Nusra, fighting against Bashar al-Assad's government. Harroun was speaking from Istanbul during the interview, but has since returned to the United States and was apparently arrested after being questioned by FBI agents at Dulles Airport.
The criminal complaint filed against Harroun gives a wide overview of his case, but the charge against him is surprisingly specific:
Based on the foregoing, there is probably cause to believe that, in or about and between January 2013 and march 2013, ERIC HARROUN conspired to use a weapon of mass destruction, i.e. a Rocket Propelled Grenade, outside of the United States, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §2332a(b).
In the context of this law, a "weapons of mass destruction" includes any type of weapon "which has any barrel with a bore of more than one-half inch in diameter." Harroun claims to have been part of an "RPG team," firing rockets and government forces.
This may seem like a bit of a narrow charge given that Harroun knowingly fought with a designated terrorist group. (The State Department officially designated Al Nusra last December, before Harroun had entered Syria.)
As I wrote for an explainer during UCLA student Chris Jeon's excellent adventure in Libya, there aren't usually any legal consequences for U.S. citizens who fight in a foreign military, unless they're fighting against the United States. There's no evidence Harroun did that -- whatever violent acts he committed were against the Syrian military.
But as Lawfare blog's Robert Chesney writes, " I would think 18 USC 2339D (receiving military-type training from a designted foreign terrorist organization) would be a perfect fit here, at any rate, and am a bit surprised not to see it."
According to Harroun's father, he has been mentally unstable since sustaining a head injury in a truck crash while he was in the army. As the interviews with him show, it's a little hard to get coherent answers about his intentions or motivations. But as the photo above shows, the weapons charge is pretty straightforward.
Eric Omar Harroun via Facebook