A former U.S. soldier was arrested and charged with conspiring to use a rocket-propelled grenade while fighting with an al Qaeda affiliate in Syria against the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, U.S. prosecutors said on Thursday.
Eric Harroun, 30, of Phoenix, Arizona, was accused of fighting with the al-Nusrah Front, also known as al Qaeda in Iraq, which is designated by the United States as a foreign terrorist organization, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia and the FBI said in a joint statement.
Even as U.S. officials call for Assad to step down in Syria and seek to support the rebels, they have expressed concern about militant groups like al Qaeda affiliates gaining a foothold in Syria.
Harroun served with the U.S. Army from 2000 to 2003 and was medically discharged after being injured in a car accident, according to an affidavit in support of a criminal complaint.
The criminal charge of "conspiring to use a destructive device outside of the United States" carries a maximum penalty of life in prison.
Harroun was arrested on Wednesday upon returning to the United States at an airport outside Washington and made his initial appearance in federal court in Virginia on Thursday. He has a hearing scheduled for Tuesday, the U.S. Attorney's office said.
Harroun is accused of crossing into Syria in January and fighting with members of the al-Nusrah Front against Assad's forces, the affidavit said. Al-Nusrah is said by U.S. officials to be the best-organized and most effective armed Syrian opposition group.
He was allegedly trained to use the weapon by members of the al Qaeda affiliate and is accused of firing it, participating in attacks, and posting multiple photographs of himself carrying or posing with rocket-propelled grenades and other weapons, the U.S. government said.
Harroun appeared in two videos that indicated he was engaged in military action with rebel forces against the Syrian government, and 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 said.
In one incident, Harroun and other members of the Free Syrian Army allegedly engaged in a joint attack with the al-Nusrah Front on a Syrian army encampment, the affidavit said.
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. 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.