[UPDATED 9:55 am with Facebook message allegedly from Harroun]
WASHINGTON: Eric Harroun, an American Army veteran who reportedly joined al Nusra, an al Qaeda affiliate, may have been killed in Syria.
[BREAKING: We've just received a Facebook message from Harroun -- or at least someone claiming to be him and with access to his account -- saying that he is alive and that he is fighting for the (mostly secular) Free Syrian Army, not the jihadist al Nusra. We're investigating whether this is real or not: check back here for further updates as we learn more. We've changed our headline from his joining an al Qaeda affiliate to his joining the Syrian opposition, which would seem to be more broadly accurate given the claim that he is a member of the FSA.]
A graphic video depicting someone who resembles Eric Harroun, a convert to Sunni Islam who boasted of his Syrian exploits on his Facebook page, was posted on YouTube earlier today with the headline: “Terrorists, including American Extremist ‘Eric Harroun’, Have Been Terminated.” [We are not linking to the video because it is so graphic.] The video bears the imprimatur of Syria Tube, a pro-government site.
UPDATE [March 15 10:40 a.m.]: The plot thickened when, after sending a Friend request to Harroun’s Facebook page, I got a personal message from him claiming that he is not a member of Al Nusra, but a member of the mainline opposition group, the Free Syrian Army.
Here’s what the person with access to his account said:
“Lol I was reported Dead! Show me the link. I never joined Al Nusra !!! I am FSA get it right.”
The language used is similar to other postings on Harroun’s Facebook page, but I can’t claim to know whether it’s him or not. The reasonable assumption is that it is him, given the very American usage, but we’ll see.
The Pentagon could not confirm Harroun’s death — if it occurred. I contacted the State Department but the situation in Syria is so chaotic I don’t expect a speedy response either for confirmation of his death or debunking it. We have tried to contact Harroun’s father using several different means, including a Facebook message, but have not been successful yet.
The Pentagon confirmed that an “Eric Glenn Harroun served in the Army from October 2000 to May 2003.” He rose to “Private First Class (PFC) before his discharge from the Army in May 2003. Due to Army policy we do not comment on the character of a Soldier’s service (i.e.: honorable, dishonorable),” spokesman Air Force Lt. Col. Jack Miller said in an email.
Harroun repaired construction equipment as a member of the 568th Engineer Company (Combat Support Equipment) at Fort Riley, Kansas. “He did not have any overseas deployments. His awards include: National Defense Service Medal and Army Service Ribbon,” Miller wrote. Those details are consistent with information on Harroun’s Facebook page, which features photos of him cradling weapons.
The British Daily Mail ran a story two days ago about Harroun, saying he joined al Nusra and that he was discharged from the Army with full disability pay:
“He was injured while riding in a pickup truck that hit a tree and he now has a steel plate in his head,” his father Darryl Harroun told Fox. ‘Now he has mood swings and what-not,’ he said. ‘He was already suffering from depression before that, and the accident just kind of multiplied it[.]‘ [T]he elder Mr Harroun said he frequently talks to his son by phone. He said he doesn’t agree with what Eric is doing but can’t get him to stop.”
Harroun joins the select group of Americans who have joined al Qaeda or its offshoots, with the most famous perhaps being al Awlaki. Most of them are dead or in jail. Brian Jenkins, the Rand Corp.’s respected expert on global terrorism wrote recently that “between 9/11 and the end of 2011, there were 96 cases involving 192 persons” involving Americans who joined Al Qaeda and its affiliates.
“The small numbers suggest that al Qaeda’s ideology has gained little traction in America’s Muslim communities,” Jenkins wrote in an op-ed last year. “The cases offer no evidence of an organized jihadist underground, with the exception of a local effort to recruit young Somali men in Minneapolis. Decisions to join jihad are individual, not community driven.”
Jenkins is probably right, but that can be little comfort to Harroun’s family or to however many Army buddies his son might have had.