Eric Harroun had been accused of fighting alongside Syrian rebels, including Jabhat al-Nusra, a group the U.S. had designated as a terrorist organization, according to an FBI agent's affidavit filed with the original charges in March. (Eric Harroun / Facebook)
An Army veteran from Phoenix charged with joining a terrorist group to fight against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and was sentenced to time served.
Former Pfc. Eric Harroun, 31, had been accused of fighting alongside Syrian rebels, including Jabhat al-Nusra, a group the U.S. had designated as a terrorist organization, according to an FBI agent’s affidavit filed with the original charges in March.
But on Thursday, U.S. District Judge Claude Hilton accepted Harroun’s guilty plea to a lesser felony count, conspiring to violate arms-control laws, court records show.
Federal prosecutors have dropped more serious charges against Harroun, that he conspired to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization and conspired to use destructive devices overseas.
The court ruled the sentence was appropriate and that “certain documents” would remain under seal for three months. Court records showed that the plea agreement and a “statement of facts” in the case remained sealed this morning.
Harroun, first charged in March and indicted in June, remained jailed even as President Obama called for military action against al-Assad.
“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,” Harroun’s lawyer, federal public defender Geremy Kamens, said at a detention hearing for Harroun in April.
Kamens, who had no comment for this article, had argued that while Harroun may have thought he had joined up with Jabhat al-Nusra, the facts demonstrate otherwise. A defense motion argued that Harroun spoke only a few words of Arabic and was not well-versed on the jumble of groups arrayed in the fight against Assad.
“The government is wrong,” Kamens wrote. “In sum, the government made a mistake in deciding to arrest and charge Mr. Harroun before it could corroborate his statements that he fought with Jabhat al-Nusra.”
Embattled analyst Elizabeth O’Bagy had provided one of two affidavits for the defense that suggested Harroun was not as dangerous as the government’s initial charges and Harroun himself made him sound. The affidavit provided breakdowns of rebel groups and their varying affiliations to al-Qaida-linked terrorists, bolstering Harroun’s defense that he fought with a splinter group and not a terrorist one.
O’Bagy was recently fired from the Institute for the Study of War for allegedly lying about having a Ph.D. Her objectivity has also come under fire for her work with a Syrian opposition group, the Syrian Emergency Task Force.
The indictment accused Harroun of knowingly conspiring with groups designated “Foreign Terrorist Organizations,” Jabhat al-Nusrah or the al-Nusrah Front, and Jam’at al Tawid, which it said was commonly referred to as “al-Qaida in Iraq.”
Harroun had served in the Army from 2000 to 2003, when he was medically discharged without ever deploying overseas. But he claimed credit on Facebook for downing a Syrian helicopter and posted photos of himself carrying an AK-47 style machine gun and a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.
Harroun allegedly told FBI agents he entered Syria to fight the Assad regime with the Free Syrian Army, one of the main umbrella opposition groups and one that carries no terrorist designation. After fighting alongside the al-Nusrah Front, Harroun said he was first treated like a prisoner and later accepted once he proved himself in battle.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.