A former American soldier who admitted to fighting for al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria has been arrested and charged with “conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction outside of the United States.” Harroun’s arrest and the account of his short time fighting for the Al Nusrah Front highlight some of the terror group’s close links to the Free Syrian Army, the so-called secular fighting force that is being backed by the US.
Harroun, a Muslim convert known in Syria as “the American,” fought for both the Al Nusrah Front for the People of the Levant, al Qaeda in Iraq’s affiliate in Syria, and the Free Syrian Army. He appeared in a videotape that was released earlier this month showing him at the scene of a downed Syrian helicopter.
The FBI arrested Harroun two days ago at Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C. after he cleared customs. He “conducted a voluntary interview of Harroun in a non-custodial setting” after entering the US, according to an affidavit that was released yesterday. Harroun was also interviewed three times in March at the US Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. In the interviews, Harroun admitted to fighting for the Al Nusrah Front.
The affidavit stated that “while he was fighting with the al Nusrah Front in Syria, he knew that the al Nusrah Front had been designated by the United States as a terrorist organization.” He claimed that members of the Nusrah Front were perplexed about the US’s designation of the group, as it “was primarily made of non-Syrians.”
Harroun noted that he “could identify al-Nusrah Front members because they had black flags sewn onto their clothing and drove in vehicles bearing black flags.” In propaganda videos, members of the Al Nusrah Front are routinely seen flying al Qaeda in Iraq’s distinctive banner.
Harroun entered Turkey in November 2012, met with handlers from the Free Syrian Army, and then entered Syria in early January. After entering Syria, he was issued weapons by the Free Syrian Army, and within days, “engaged in a joint attack with the Al Nusrah Front on a Syrian army encampment.”
“As part of the attack, vehicles bearing black flags transported al Nusrah fighters to locations near the camp,” the affidavit said. The Nusrah and FSA fighters broke off the attack after about 20 minutes, and he “jumped into the back of an Al Nusrah Front truck, which took him to an Al Nusrah Front camp.”
Harroun claimed he was “treated like a prisoner” but quickly gained the trust of the Al Nusrah Front fighters. He was then “assigned to a five-man fire team” and “accepted as a member of the group because he had proven himself in battle.” He also served as a member of an RPG team (this would become the basis for the US government’s charge of conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction).
Harroun admitted to fighting for the Al Nusrah Front “for approximately 25 days and … he estimated that he had engaged in seven to ten battles” while with them. He also said that the fighters seen with him in the video titled “American Fighter’ Vows Death to Assad” were members of the al Qaeda group, and he identified several of them.
Although Harroun was fighting for the Al Nusrah Front, he re-entered Turkey on Feb. 10 after a member of the Free Syrian Army requested that he go there to obtain weapons.
The Free Syrian Army and the Al Nusrah Front are known to have conducted several joint military operations in the past. The two groups have teamed up to overrun Syrian military bases and conduct other attacks. The Al Nusrah Front often takes command of the operations as their fighters are regarded as better in terms of organization, training, and leadership.
Despite that fact that the Free Syrian Army and the Al Nusrah Front conduct joint operations in Syria, the US government will begin to provide millions of dollars in aid to help Syrian rebel groups govern areas under their control. The money is being funneled to the Syrian Opposition Coalition and the Supreme Military Council “to provide concrete, nonlethal support to the Free Syrian Army,” the US State Department announced on Feb. 28. The president of the Syrian Opposition Coalition opposes the US’s designation of the Al Nusrah Front as a Foreign Terrorist Organization.