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The curious story of Eric Harroun

By Theodore Terpstra
On April 15, 2014

Last week, Erica Harroun, an American who fought alongside Syrian rebels, died suddenly at his parents' house in Arizona. His death went largely unnoticed by the media, unlike his arrest last year, which ignited a small media frenzy. Many in the United States viewed Harroun as a jihadist or Muslim extremist, similar to those that make up Al-Qaeda. In actuality, Harroun's belief that the people of Syria deserved freedom drove him to fight in Syria; his religious beliefs were not the motivating factor.
Harroun did convert to Islam. For him it was a matter of practicality more than a matter of religious devotion. As someone who spent time in Egypt, Turkey and Lebanon, Harroun knew that converting to Islam would make it easier for him to navigate the local cultures. But he did not follow Muslim beliefs closely. He drank, smoke, celebrated Christmas and did not pray five times a day. In an interview he characterized himself as a "moderate Muslim," expressing that he was not a religious person. His participation in the Syrian Civil War was driven more by his outrage at atrocities committed by Assad's regime rather than a sense of religious duty.
Harroun served in the United States Army but did not deploy overseas. After leaving the Army Harroun spent time in Egypt during the start of the Egyptian revolution. His experiences in Egypt inspired him to join the Syrian rebels when they revolted. He crossed into Syria from Turkey, and joined up with the Free Syrian Army. He first served with the Amr Ibn al-Aas Brigade and spent a month fighting in Syria. While in Syria he was separated from his FSA brigade during a battle and wound up retreating with another fighting group, one that was not part of the FSA. This fighting group was named Al-Nasr. During Harroun's prosecution, federal investigators would discover they had mistranslated the name as Al-Nusra, an Al-Qaeda affiliate. Harroun never fought with a designated terrorist organization. After returning to his FSA brigade Harroun was sent to a United States Consulate in Turkey in order to petition the United States government for support. He made repeated visits to the Consulate, and was interviewed by the FBI. On his last visit, the Consulate told Harroun to fly to Washington D.C. Once he arrived, the FBI arrested him.
During Harroun's questioning, investigators referenced an article published by Fox News. The article was published by Ilan Ben Zion, with whom Harroun had a heated (possibly alcohol-fueled) debate. For whatever reason - maybe he was bitter - Ben Zion portrayed Harroun as an extremist and a fanatic. Ben Zion also authored a similar article for "Foreign Policy" magazine. This publicity caught the United States government's attention and started the myth that Harroun was a jihadist. After six months in solitary confinement, Harroun was sentenced to time served and released. The prosecution had tried to get him to accept a plea deal for the terrorism charges that would have put him in jail for 5-20 years. He refused and the prosecution had to settle for a guilty plea on a lesser charge.
There is another myth that Harroun was working for the United States government. He met with people from the CIA on several occasions, but was not a paid asset. He did not speak Arabic. He frequently took pictures and videos while fighting in Syria, which he uploaded to his Facebook. He misused military terminology. Harroun displayed none of the tradecraft of an intelligence officer and his military expertise was not that of a Special Forces soldier, but that of an Army engineer. The idea that Harroun was working on the behalf of the United States government is poorly conceived.
Harroun's death is thought to be from an overdose. He was bipolar, and suffered from mental health issues his entire life. After a car accident in which he sustained a serious head injury, his mental problems became more severe. At the time of his death he was still on probation. He planned to leave for Syria as soon as his probation ended. Despite six months of jail and a trial by his own government, Harroun was still devoted to the Syrian cause.
It is easy to make judgments of a dead man. Perhaps Eric Harroun was naïve. Perhaps he was a war tourist. Perhaps he was an idealist. But one thing is certain; Eric Harroun was not a jihadist. 

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