Eric Harroun, a U.S. Army veteran who fought alongside al-Qaida-affiliated rebels in the Syrian Civil War and was subsequently arrested by the FBI, has died. He was 31.
His family confirmed his death Wednesday evening in an exclusive to Newsmax.
Harroun was arrested last year as he re-entered the U.S. from fighting in Syria on charges of using a weapon of mass destruction. Those charges were later dropped, and in a plea bargain Harroun was sentenced to time served, released, and returned home to his family in Phoenix.
He gained international attention after videos of him fighting alongside rebels in the Syrian Civil War appeared on YouTube last year.
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In one video, Harroun, referred to as "the American" by his rebel comrades, is seen approaching the site of a Syrian helicopter that he claimed to have shot down with the help of a rebel named "the Chechen."
Harroun said he was later picked up by elements of Jamat Al-Nusra — an Al-Qaida-affiliated group — after the Free Syrian Army unit he was fighting with was wiped out.
Jamat Al-Nusra has been fighting Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, who used chemical weapons to kill more than 1,400 of his own citizens, say the United States and international authorities.
From the beginning, the case seemed awkward, if not embarrassing, for U.S. authorities.
Harroun's federal public defender, Geremy Kamens, told the Phoenix New Times:
"Never, to my knowledge, has the United States ever charged an American citizen for fighting alongside a group that is aligned with the U.S. interest, and that changes the equation with respect to the consideration and evaluation of the danger to this community."
Harroun’s family says foul play was not suspected in the death, and final toxicology results are not expected for 60 to 90 days.
Harroun was a troubled young man who struggled with mental and emotional problems after a serious head injury while in the Army.
His conversion to Islam after leaving military service ultimately led him to Egypt to participate in the revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak in 2011, and eventually to the battlefields of Syria.
After returning home, he was arrested last year for alleged use of weapons of mass destruction, specifically, a rocket-propelled grenade. That charge was later dropped.
In an exclusive interview in September, Harroun told ABC15-TV in Arizona:
"I could not sit back and watch a brutal dictator like Bashar al-Assad murder people and destroy it. And I can’t believe the USA, my own country that I loved and served, would do me like this."
Harroun spent six months in solitary confinement while awaiting resolution of his case. But he said that if he had it to do over again, he still would go to the Middle East to fight Assad's forces in Syria.
"I don't regret it. I don't regret trying to help people," he said. "Everybody just wanted freedom. They wanted to be like America."
Asked what he was fighting for, he replied: “for them to have freedom.”
Harroun said that he fought in Syrian only to protect innocent people against the atrocities of Assad's regime.
He also claimed to have been betrayed by the U.S. government, frequently alluding to his possible cooperation with the CIA while in Syria.
Harroun worked to redeem his reputation after his return to the United States, while largely evading questions about his possible involvement with the CIA while fighting in Syria.
After his return to the U.S. in 2013, his Facebook posts frequently included anti-Israeli statements as well as anti-Assad rhetoric.
The announcement of his passing Wednesday spurred hundreds of posts from friends in the U.S. and Middle East who praised his courage.
"He was a man who lived by his convictions and wanted to defend the weak and defenseless," wrote Robert Young Pelton, a journalist who interviewed Harroun last year.
"He enjoyed every minute of his time on earth, and he never understood why his own government turned against him."
Harroun's death marks another tragedy involving U.S. military personnel.
On April 2, Ivan Lopez, 34, wounded 16 people and left four others dead at the Fort Hood military base near Killeen, Texas. Lopez served a four-month tour in Iraq in 2011.
On Tuesday, a shooting at Camp Lejeune, N.C., claimed the life of a Marine gate guard. It is thought that the shooting stemmed from an accidental discharge of an M4 rifle.
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