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ALEXANDRIA, Va. — An al-Qaida affiliate operating among Syrian rebels wanted a Phoenix man fighting alongside them to serve as their face to the Western world, but he refused to take on the role, prosecutors said Monday.
A few new details emerged at a court hearing Monday in the case against Eric Harroun, 30, a U.S. Army veteran accused of joining up with a group known as “al-Qaida in Iraq” earlier this year as it and other rebel groups battled the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Specifically, Harroun is charged with using a weapon of mass destruction outside the U.S. by firing rocket-propelled grenades at Syrian government forces while he was with the al-Qaida group, known as Jabhat al-Nusra. The U.S. government designated the group as a terrorist organization in December.
At Monday’s hearing, U.S. Magistrate Ivan Davis found probable cause to send the case to a grand jury and ordered Harroun remain jailed while he awaits trial.
Prosecutor Carter Burwell told Davis that members of Jabhat al-Nusra at one point asked Harroun to serve as their “Adam Gadahn,” a reference to the American-born al-Qaida member who once served as a spokesman of sorts for Osama bin Laden. Burwell said Harroun declined the offer.
Prosecutors also said for the first time Monday that Harroun could possibly face the death penalty if the government can prove at some point that Harroun’s actions caused a death. Harroun has told the FBI in voluntary interviews that he may have shot 10 people during the course of his fighting in Syria — from January to March of this year — but he was unsure if he actually killed anyone.
During Monday’s detention hearing, public defender Geremy Kamens asked the judge to consider the fact that Harroun was fighting with Syrian rebels who share the U.S. government’s desire to oust al-Assad’s regime.
“It is extremely unusual for the U.S. to charge a person who is fighting in a manner that is aligned with U.S. interests,” Kamens said.
The law under which Harroun is charged applies to U.S. nationals anywhere in the world and does not specify exceptions for those fighting hostile regimes.
Still, Kamens questioned whether the criminal charge filed against Harroun applies in a circumstance where the U.S. government considers the regime he was fighting to be illegitimate. The statute bars using a weapon of mass destruction “without lawful authority.” Kamens argued that because the Assad regime lacks legitimacy in the eyes of the U.S. and among the Syrian people, those who take up arms against it are within their rights to do so.
But prosecutors argued successfully that no chances should be taken when the rebel group in question is a branch of al-Qaida.
Burwell said the fact that Harroun “knowingly aligned himself with al-Qaida is perhaps one of the gravest threats to national security that the U.S. government can countenance.”
The judge asked Burwell directly if the U.S. government would have brought charges against Harroun if he had been fighting with the Free Syrian Army, a rebel group that has no terrorist designation, as opposed to al-Qaida in Iraq. Burwell said he couldn’t answer that question, but made clear that the U.S. Justice Department considers the case far more serious because it involves an al-Qaida affiliate.
According to the FBI affidavit, Harroun originally joined the Free Syrian Army in January after crossing the border from Turkey. Within a few days, he was in a battle where the Free Syrian Army and the Jabhat al-Nusra Front launched a joint attack. During the retreat, Harroun hopped on the back of an Jabhat al-Nusra truck.
According to the affidavit, Jabhat al-Nusra initially treated Harroun like a prisoner until he eventually gained their trust and joined them in subsequent firefights, where he used a grenade launcher and other weapons.
His willingness to serve with Jabhat al-Nusra was a subject of debate Monday. Kamens suggested that Harroun had no choice but to fight alongside them, or else he would be considered an American spy. And Harroun told the FBI that he hated al-Qaida.
On the other hand, the FBI said Harroun bragged of his exploits with Jabhat al-Nusra on his Facebook page and admitted in interviews with the FBI that he knew Jabhat al-Nusra had been designated a terrorist group.