Eric Harroun, Phoenix Vet Who Fought With Rebels Against Syrian Regime, Remains Jailed

While politicians like President Obama and Senator John McCain continue to call for military action against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, an Army veteran remains in jail for fighting against the same regime.

Eric Harroun, a 30-year-old Phoenix native, faces life in prison for allegedly providing material support to a terrorist organization and conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction -- charges he was indicted on in June, before there were public calls for American military action in Syria.

Again, Harroun and the U.S. government list the same enemy, but Harroun's looking at life in prison.

See also:
-Poll: Arizonans Don't Want Military Action in Syria
-John McCain and Jeff Flake Vote for Syria Strike

Harroun initially was arrested in March after he was accused of fighting in Syria on behalf of Al-Qaeda, although the details of the case tell a radically different story.

The FBI had been well aware of Harroun since around 2010. Seven years earlier, Harroun had been honorably discharged from the Army after sustaining some sort of brain injury in a car accident. It's unclear the extent of his injury, although his attorney has said he suffers from headaches and memory loss.

At some point, Harroun developed an interest in the Middle East, and the FBI was aware that Harroun started traveling around the region. Court filings from federal prosecutors suggest Harroun may have participated in the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, a citizen uprising involving many types of people.

But it appears that the FBI watched Harroun a lot more closely when he went to Syria in January of this year and started fighting against the Assad regime, alongside the Free Syrian Army.

Harroun didn't really make a secret of this, as he posted videos and updates on social-media websites. In one, Harroun says, "Bashar Al-Assad, your days are numbered . . . Where[ver] you go, we will find you and kill you."

That statement's probably not too upsetting to the U.S. government, as President Obama has been urging military action over Assad's government gassing to death more than a thousand people.

Harroun also voluntarily submitted to interviews with the FBI -- four times.

According to an affidavit from FBI Special Agent Paul Higginbotham, Harroun said in one of these interviews that "he hated al-Qaeda, that he did not know any al-Qaeda members, and that he would fight against any regime if it imposed Sharia law in Syria because he was opposed to all forms of oppression."

So how did Harroun end up accused of fighting on behalf of al-Qaeda?

According to federal prosecutors, media outlets started talking about Harroun, and in one interview, Harroun described a battle in which he had been separated from his rebel group -- many of whom were killed in action -- and was picked up by another group, which he believed was Jabhat al-Nusra.

Although Jabhat al-Nusra also is fighting the Syrian regime, the U.S. government considers it a terrorist organization, due to its ties to al-Qaeda.

Harroun admitted this to the FBI and described how the people from Jabhat al-Nusra "treated him like a prisoner," according to federal prosecutors. Jabhat al-Nusra disarmed Harroun and kept him guarded, he explained. Harroun claimed he spent maybe 25 to 30 days with this group, which eventually accepted him and let him fight alongside them. Harroun explained that he manned a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.

Harroun voluntarily went back to the United States, under the FBI's suggestion, and was arrested. A grand jury ended up indicting him on charges of providing material support to a terrorist organization and conspiring to possess a weapon of mass destruction, that weapon being the RPG.

But not so fast -- some experts say there's no way Harroun was fighting for Jabhat al-Nusra, despite what he told the FBI and media outlets.

Two people who seem very qualified* on the issue, Elizabeth O'Bagy and Radwan Ziadeh, have submitted their opinions in this case, and neither of them find it plausible that Harroun was fighting for the group, for a variety of reasons.

(*O'Bagy, who wrote a highly cited op-ed for the Wall Street Journal advocating for U.S. military involvement in Syria, was reportedly fired just yesterday from Institute for the Study of War for lying about having a Ph.D.)

Federal prosecutors provided two experts who did find it plausible that Harroun was fighting for the group, but outside of the admission, Agent Higginbotham conceded in a hearing, per court transcripts, that the charges are "based primarily off of his statements" and that there's no independent evidence to corroborate all of this.

Prosecutors allege Harroun was with Jabhat al-Nusra in this video, despite that being a Free Syrian Army logo on the Jeep's windshield.

During a bond hearing for Harroun, U.S. District Judge Ivan Davis wasn't convinced that Harroun was fighting "with an organization he believed was al-Qaeda in Syria. Because I think it was clear from the testimony that there is no corroboration for that conclusion."

An assistant U.S. Attorney wouldn't say whether Harroun would have been charged had he only fought for the Free Syrian Army, although Judge Davis pressed him on the question several times.

Harroun's federal public defender, Geremy Kamens, seemed to have a fairly sound argument for Harroun's release:

What we're talking about [for qualifying for release] is danger. And what I'd suggest to the Court is the fact that Mr. Harroun's stated goal and the conduct on the ground was aligned with the U.S. interest changes the equation from this case from any other case involving these types of charges. You know, the United States has charged American citizens. In World War II, individuals who were found fighting for Italy or for Germany or more recently with the Taliban, it has charged those individuals with criminal offenses. Never, to my knowledge, has the United States ever charged an American citizen for fighting alongside a group that is aligned with the U.S. interest, and that changes the equation with respect to the consideration and evaluation of the danger to this community.

Due to all of the factors that were taken into account in the bond hearing, Davis denied allowing bond, and actually denied it a second time, after a bond reconsideration hearing.

That second denial is the latest thing on the court docket, and it occurred on July 9. The American public knows a lot more about the situation in Syria now, which might provide a different view of Harroun's actions. Still, Harroun remains jailed pending trial.

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Follow Matthew Hendley on Twitter at @MatthewHendley.

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