The Jihadist from Phoenix

Eric Harroun claims to have joined up with an al Qaeda-linked group fighting in Syria’s brutal civil war. We tracked him down, but getting the truth was more difficult.

Eric Omar Harroun via Facebook
Eric Omar Harroun via Facebook

In mid-January, a video emerged on YouTube of an English-speaking man, wearing a black-and-white kaffiyeh and surrounded by four bearded Arab men, addressing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad directly. "Your days are numbered, you’re going down in flames, you should just quit now while you can," he said. "You’re going to die no matter what … we will find you and kill you."

The speaker was Eric Harroun, a white American from Phoenix, Arizona, who hails from a Christian family. He has become a self-described Sunni Muslim, fighting in Syria’s brutal civil war — even, he claimed, joining up with Jabhat al-Nusra, which the State Department has labeled an alias of al Qaeda in Iraq. He served nearly four years in the U.S. Army’s 586th Engineering Company, but was never deployed overseas.

In mid-March, a video released by Assad’s supporters celebrated the alleged death of "The American" fighting in Syria. But Harroun himself confirmed to us that the rumors were false: In a Skype chat on March 17, he appeared alive and well, and claimed he was staying near the upscale Taksim Square, in Istanbul, Turkey. 

"Don’t worry your little yahmickah [sic] off your head, Bashar will be dead before me," he wrote in a Skype chat on March 15. Two weeks earlier, we were the first journalists, to our knowledge, to make contact with Harroun. Weeks of following Harroun’s digital trail on Facebook, MySpace, and chat forums culminated in contacting him through his Skype handle. We published an account of our initial conversations with him in a Fox News expose — a fact that prompted Harroun to denounce us as Zionist conspirators. At times, he was explicitly anti-Semitic: In a March 17 video chat, he referred to one of us multiple times as "that fucking kike."

In our first conversation with Harroun, which began in Skype chat, he seemed paranoid about being tracked by U.S. and Israeli intelligence agencies. When on March 2, we asked him whether he had joined up with Jabhat al-Nusra, he answered, "5 Amendment" — referencing the stipulation in the Bill of Rights against self-incrimination. Providing "material support" to Jabhat al-Nusra would constitute a crime in the United States. He then sent a beer icon and asked, "What r u C.I.A or Mossad?"

His initial reluctance to give a solid answer regarding his connection to Jabhat al-Nusra encouraged us to probe further.

Pinning Harroun down is never easy. At times, he appears willing to provide very specific details about himself, while at others he becomes more reserved, preferring to not comment or flat-out denying his previous statements — only to retract his retractions. He can become inexplicably hostile, hurling accusations of lying and anti-Semitic or anti-Zionist comments, or respond with flippant or jocular comments. He will also, in the middle of a line of questioning, simply write "bye" or "halas" (his rendering of the Arabic word for "enough"), and cease communication.

But there’s no doubt that Harroun has been involved in the fight against Assad in Syria. In addition to confirmation by a rebel spokesman that he had linked up with a brigade affiliated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), one video shows Harroun in a Jeep driving across a desert landscape, toward a crashed helicopter. "Yes, we smoked those motherfuckers, didn’t we?" he says.

Harroun’s first video appearance, in which he addresses Assad directly, may also contain a hint about his connection with radical Islamist groups. In the video, one of the fighters alongside him is wearing a shoulder patch that resembles the insignia used by jihadist groups, including Jabhat al-Nusra.  The video’s publication on YouTube coincided with the time Harroun said he began associating with Jahbat al-Nusra.

During conversations on March 4 and March 16, Harroun said that Jabhat al-Nusra "picked [him] up" after the rebel group he had been traveling with was largely wiped out in a firefight with Assad forces. On March 16, however, he denied that he was a member of the organization, insisting that he was only a member of a rebel group that was part of the mainstream FSA.

Nevertheless, that retraction didn’t stop Harroun from bragging, unprompted, that he had met Jabhat al-Nusra’s elusive leader, known by the nom de guerre Abu Muhammed al-Julani. He said that the two had met twice in January at an unspecified location near the Syrian-Iraqi border, and described the terrorist leader merely as a "humble man of few words." He refused to describe Julani’s reaction to meeting an American fighter in the FSA.

Harroun also said that he established a friendship with a Jabhat al-Nusra operative known as Sheeshani — Arabic for "The Chechen." This man is shown sitting beside him as they drive toward the crashed helicopter, and appears again in a video purportedly showing his death a few weeks ago near the city of Raqqa in northeastern Syria.

On March 15, Harroun confirmed a close relationship with Sheeshani. Harroun said he’d heard of his friend’s death, identifying him as "Shaheed [martyr] Ismael." Ismael, he said, had a Russian mother and Syrian father — possibly Kurdish — and was killed by shrapnel in a Syrian Air Force bombing run near the northeastern city of Raqqa. Harroun said that Ismael was not an extremist, and "was a good young kid" who had killed at least 50 of Assad’s soldiers.

Harroun claimed to belong to a militia known as the Amr Ibn al-‘Aas Brigade, which is part of the FSA. The media spokesman for the Amr Ibn al-‘Aas Brigade acknowledged in a Skype chat in February that Harroun had operated with their outfit near Aleppo, but said he had since left Syria for the United States. The iconography employed by the brigade on its Facebook page clearly distinguishes it as a Salafist group, according to Raphael Green from the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), and the spokesman had warm words for the jihadist group: "[I]n Syria all civilians like alnusra because alnusra protect them and give them a lot of living assistance."

Getting a straight answer out of Harroun about his background proved as difficult as parsing his actions inside Syria. His credibility was already brought into question once, when we discovered he’d lied to us about his family heritage: He had told us his father was Lebanese — a fact denied by the father, Darryl Harroun, when we contacted him during the course of our initial investigation. Harroun backpedaled after we confronted him, saying that’s what he tells his comrades in order to gain more credibility with them — and that all other details he supplied are true.

Harroun appears to have had trouble with the law while residing in the United States. He made public on his MySpace page three years ago that he’d been jailed for driving under the influence, and Arizona public records indicate that he was convicted multiple times for driving while intoxicated.

As reported in our original Fox article, Harroun seemingly drifted toward Islam after becoming close with two Iraqi-American brothers, Maadh and Hayder Ibrahim. Both Harroun’s father and one of his friends, Alon Benditoo, cited the brothers, with whom he studied at Pima Community College in Tucson, as key influences in Harroun’s embrace of Islam.

But getting any details about his upbr
inging out of Harroun was a conversational minefield. Answering a follow-up question after the original piece ran regarding his father’s comments about the Ibrahims, Harroun replied, "My crazy father said that." Asked about his anti-Zionist comments, with which his mother told a local Phoenix television news station she disagreed, Harroun replied, "My Mom says that because She is a turn the other cheek type. But I am an eye for an eye type. Get it got it, good! Never mention my Mother again!" 

Unlike previous conversations, including one in early March in which he said, "I am a Muslim," Harroun on March 15 provided conflicting answers about how he found Islam. At one point, he cited a sixth-grade report and having "studied the Middle East in general" as the basis for his ongoing interest in Islam.

Judging by his conversations with us, Harroun doesn’t appear to strictly follow the tenets of his faith. While observant Muslims tend to shun alcohol, Harroun appears to enjoy drinking. A lot.

Alcohol and women came up in the majority of our conversations with Harroun. He stated openly that he drinks beer. While talking to us from what he said was a disco in Turkey, Harroun wrote he was "trying to bang some Turkish girl right now lol." He then referenced the eighth-century Abbasid ruler Harroun al-Rashid, explaining that he was "a Caliph of Baghdad and a womanizer." On another occasion he lauded the pleasures of Istanbul as "good beer and nice women."

Harroun said he was "content" with his religious observance as a Muslim. Asked if his Syrian rebel comrades know that he drinks, he answered that they did and that their reaction was "haram haram [forbidden] blah blah."

Harroun continues to speak to us online. He has threatened to retain the services of a "Jewish" attorney for redressing what he claimed were misrepresentations of his jihadist connections in our article, while at the same time continuing to claim that he is cooperating with Jabhat al-Nusra.  His behavior can appear both inexplicable and manic.

Harroun, in a conversation on March 16, invited one of us to Istanbul, adding, "bring me a bulletproof vest." Though he mentioned that he has made one trip to the U.S. consulate in Istanbul, he appears to be leaving open the possibility of returning to Syria. 

If Harroun does return to Syria, his erstwhile comrades may greet him with suspicion. According to MEMRI’s Green, several jihadi Internet forums have taken note of him: One author on the Ansar al-Mujahideen forum, who goes by the pseudonym Wali Allah, writes, "I don’t blame him of anything, but I am not reassured with regard to him. Jabhat al-Nusra should be cautious."

A little risk, however, doesn’t seem to scare Harroun. In one of our chats, we brought up a recent Los Angeles Times article reporting that U.S. officials were considering the possibility of using U.S. drone strikes against Islamist extremists in Syria. Harroun’s response was short and simple: "Fuck a drone."

<p> Ilan Ben Zion (@ilanbenzion) is a writer at the Times of Israel. </p>
<p> Greg Tepper (@GregTepper1) is a freelance journalist in Jerusalem. </p> <p> &nbsp; </p>