A former U.S. soldier has been charged with fighting with an al Qaeda group in Syria after allegedly posting photographs of himself posing with military hardware on the internet, officials said in a statement.
Eric Harroun, 30, of Phoenix, Ariz., was accused of using a rocket-propelled grenade while fighting with the al-Nusrah Front, an alias of al Qaeda in Iraq, according to a statement issued on Thursday by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Eastern District of Virginia.
“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,” the statement said.
“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,” it added. “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,” it said.
600 terrorist attacks
Al Qaeda in Iraq has been designated as a foreign terrorist organization since October 2004.
“The al-Nusrah Front is one of several aliases used by the 'al Qa’ida in Iraq' terrorist organization, and since November 2011 the group has claimed responsibility for nearly 600 terrorist attacks in Syria,” the statement said.
U.S. officials have called for Assad to step down in Syria and have offered non-lethal support to the rebels, but there is concern about militant groups like al Qaeda affiliates fighting alongside other rebel forces.
Israel fears al Qaeda elements will establish themselves close to the border and threaten to fire chemical weapons and long-range rockets captured from the Syrian army into Israel.
The statement said Harroun appeared in a federal court in Alexandria, Va., Thursday.
Harroun was arrested on Wednesday upon returning to the United States at an airport outside Washington, Reuters said. He has a hearing scheduled for Tuesday, the U.S. Attorney's office said.
He was medically discharged from the army after being injured in a car accident, according to an affidavit in support of a criminal complaint, Reuters reported.
The criminal charge of "conspiring to use a destructive device outside of the United States" carries a maximum penalty of life in prison.
Harroun appeared in two videos that indicated he was engaged in military action with rebel forces against the Syrian government, Reuters reported. In one video, he said: "Bashar al-Assad, your days are numbered. ... Where(ever) you go we will find you and kill you," according to the affidavit.
In March, the FBI conducted three voluntary interviews of Harroun at the U.S. Consulate in Istanbul, during which he stated that he wanted to fight with the Free Syrian Army against the Assad regime, the affidavit added.
Harroun allegedly told the FBI that during his fighting in Syria he shot about 10 people but did not know whether he killed any of them, the affidavit said, according to Reuters. He also said he hated al Qaeda and did not know any al Qaeda members, the affidavit said. On Wednesday in the United States, the FBI conducted another voluntary interview during which Harroun allegedly said that he knew the al-Nusrah Front had been designated a terrorist organization, according to the affidavit.
The U.S. Attorney's office said a lawyer would be appointed for Harroun, Reuters reported.
Reuters contributed to this report.