March 28, 2013

American Charged w/ Aiding al Qaeda's Syrian Affiliate

I'll be honest, this comes as a bit of a shock. I had thought that the reports that a former soldier, Eric Harroun, working with al Qaeda elements in Syria were overblown. For instance, a Fox News report tried to sensationalize a statement he made that he had worked "alongside" the al Qaeda linked al Nusrah front. When in fact, the relationship (he claimed) was one where they gave him a ride once and he and the Free Syrian Army had been in one place and al-Nusrah units had been in close proximity.

Which is technically "alongside". But saying "Phoenix man took ride from terrorists after his truck broke down" doesn't seem as sexy as "fought alongside".

But it appears that there really was more to the story:

Eric Harroun, 30, of Phoenix, was arrested and charged with conspiring to use a rocket propelled grenade (RPG) while fighting with the al Nusrah Front, an organization commonly referred to as al Qaeda in Iraq and designated as a foreign terrorist organization since October 2004.

Neil H. MacBride, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, and Valerie Parlave, Assistant Director in Charge of the FBIs Washington Field Office, made the announcement.

Harroun, a U.S. citizen who served with the U.S. Army from 2000 to 2003, was charged by criminal complaint with conspiring to use a destructive device outside of the United States, which carries a maximum penalty of life in prison, if convicted. Harroun made his initial appearance today in federal court in Alexandria, Virginia, before U.S. Magistrate Judge Theresa C. Buchanan.

The al Nusrah Front is one of several aliases used by the al Qaeda in Iraq terrorist organization, and since November 2011, the group has claimed responsibility for nearly 600 terrorist attacks in Syria.

According to an affidavit filed in support of the criminal complaint, Harroun allegedly crossed into Syria in January 2013 and fought with members of the al Nusrah Front against the Bashar al Assad regime in Syria. The affidavit alleges that Harroun was trained to use an RPG by members of the terrorist organization and that he fired an RPG and posted online multiple photographs of himself carrying or posing with RPGs and other military weapons. Harroun allegedly participated in attacks led by the al Nusrah Front and was part of an RPG team, for which he carried anti-personnel and anti-armor rockets.

So, when Haroun claimed on his Facebook page that he "shot down a Syrian helicopter", the assumption on my part was ... how do I say this? .... That he was full of sh*t.

But now? Maybe the relationship was deeper. At the very least it sounds as if he really did do some fighting "alongside" al Nusrah. And by alongside here, I mean it in the straightforward, literal use of the term: he fought with them.

But this brings up an interesting and I think important question given that the US is actively training members of the Free Syrian Army to battle the Assad regime: Where does one cross the line between fighting against Assad, which we support, and doing so with the cooperation of the al-Nusra Front, which we consider a terrorist organization?

I hear news reports out of Syria all the time claiming that the FSA is always more than willing to work with the al-Nusra Front since the group has a reputation for fighting. So, is it legal for an American to go to Syria and fight with the FSA, which we support? And if so, then in the heat of battle if your FSA unit and a unit from the al-Nusra Front combine for a single objective then are you now in jeopardy of arrest upon your return home?

I'm not saying that is what happened in Haroun's case. What I'm suggesting is that there are probably a lot of Americans in Syria right now fighting. Those people could probably use some legal advice right about now.

What we see in Syria is a bit like what happened in Afghanistan in the 1980s. A messy situation where we have a competing and conflicting goals without unified actors in whom we can trust.

My own inclination is that the entire affair is none of our business. More power to the Syrians if they want to get rid of Assad. We'll pat you on the back later.

Except, of course, we all see what is coming if Assad does fall. Do we really expect to see a friendly government in Damascus if Assad falls? I doubt that very much.

But if people want to go to Syria and fight Assad for the coming chaos, I really have no problem with that. It's your life waste.

By Rusty Shackleford, Ph.D. at 03:05 PM | Comments |