Eric Harroun became a jihadist just after 10 PM on a crisp January night in 2013. The 30-year-old American was in northern Syria, where he'd been fighting alongside rebel forces for all of two weeks. Less than a mile away loomed the vast expanse of the regime-controlled Taftanaz Military Airbase, from which gunships and troop-transport helicopters would periodically take off to drop improvised oil barrels full of explosives and shrapnel — what would come to be known as barrel bombs — on civilian and rebel positions.
Eric was with a multinational gaggle of nine Arabic-speaking rebels, moving through the night in single file. He knew only a few words of Arabic, and the fighters knew only the most basic of English commands. They crept carefully in the dark, guided by muffled radio communications sent by another group of rebels waiting for them at a rendezvous point.
When he'd arrived in Syria, Eric had been issued a battered Dragunov sniper rifle — the scope would sometimes fall off when he shot — and a serviceable AK-47. Tonight, however, he'd been given a Russian-made RPG-7 rocket-propelled grenade launcher and three grenades that he carried in a canvas backpack. The rebels would brag about how they were supplied by the US, Saudi Arabia, and various other backers — and then complain that there was never enough food, ammunition, or money. So Eric knew he had to make the grenades count.
The American Jihadist: Eric Harroun In His Own Words (VIDEO)
The RPG-7 was designed to disable tanks, but tonight Eric planned to use it to destroy a high cinderblock wall around the airbase so that rebel forces could pour in.
Even though it was cold, Eric was sweating as he twisted and locked the first grenade into the launcher and got ready to fire. He couldn't see them, but he knew there were dozens of other rebels scattered in the dark around the airbase. He also knew that the government forces had tanks, artillery, rockets, heavy machine guns, MiG fighter jets, helicopter gunships, and no shortage of assault rifles, ammo, and other weapons. They would fire back.
In fact, they already were. Just inside the wall, 500 yards away, was a 12.7mm DShK antiaircraft gun mounted on the back of a truck. The muzzle sporadically flashed in the dark as the gun fired rounds strong enough to pierce an inch of armor at the rebels. The men inside the airbase knew the rebels were outside — the siege had been going on for a week — but they couldn't see them. And so they fired blindly into the night.
The order to attack was barked over the radio, and Eric pulled the trigger. The deafening screech and bright flash stunned him, but the grenade hit the wall. Shouts of "Yalla Shabab!" and "Allahu Akbar!" rang out as gunfire from both sides intensified. Harroun loaded the second grenade and tried to aim in the dark. He fired again, then did the same with the third grenade. In the dark and confusion, he had no idea if he had destroyed enough of the wall to let anyone get through, but that didn't matter for now; soon the rebels abandoned their positions and retreated to the safety of their pickup trucks. In all, Eric's role in the battle lasted 10 minutes.
"I had been wanting to use a RPG — it seemed fun at the time," Eric told me a year later. "It was my first time using one. They make a loud boom, and are very effective."
A few months later, Eric would be sitting in a Virginia prison as he was informed the US government planned to put him to death for what he'd done.
* * *
This past January, I asked Eric if he wanted to tell his story. It had been a year since he fired the RPG and about four months since he'd been released from jail, where he'd been in solitary confinement for six months. He'd signed a sealed plea bargain that gave him his freedom … sort of. He was now a felon, living with his parents in Phoenix, unable to do what he wanted to do most — return to Syria and continue fighting.
He had been labeled the "American Jihadist" in the media, portrayed as a Muslim fundamentalist who hated America. He didn't hate America, but the past year had made him feel used and betrayed by the US government, which he had served officially as a soldier and unofficially as — so he thought — an informant to the FBI and CIA.
Eric was born in Colorado Springs and grew up in Arizona. His parents, Daryl — known as Doc — and Sue, divorced in 2000, but they always remained close to Eric. Doc was a truck driver; his mother worked her entire life for the phone company. Doc is retired now and lives in a ramshackle one-story home near the Phoenix airport. His faded snapshots of Eric on the walls appear to show a happy blond-haired kid.
Not that Doc ever claimed that Eric was an angel. Quite the opposite, in fact. "He was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder as a youngster — we sent him to a child psychologist and they put him on Ritalin and Adderall," Doc told me. "When he took the medication I could actually have a conversation with him."
His parents would sit for hours with him doing homework. Eric would work hard and complete it … and then his parents would find the papers in his backpack weeks later, never having been turned in.
Eric was a Muslim in much the same way someone who moves to a new city becomes a fan of a sports team in that city — it's a way to fit in and relate to those around you when you're in a strange place.
Eric joined the Army in 2000, but he never saw action; on September 11, he was on maneuvers, training in the California desert. He earned a marksmanship badge, but he was hardly an ideal soldier, doing what he could to keep a low profile — funeral detail, guard shack. "His commanding officer would call me up and ask me what the hell he should do with him," Doc said. "Then he had that accident."
A year and a half after he joined the Army, Eric was with the 586th Engineering Company at Fort Benning, Georgia. One day, he drove up to a lake with one of the many women he always seemed to be dating. On the way back, their pickup struck a tree.
Eric was in intensive care for days. A metal plate was put in his skull; Eric had a long, ragged white scar that bisected his head from ear to ear. He was honorably discharged with full disability, which amounted to about $3,000 a month.
"I think that accident made his bipolar worse," Doc told me. "He had mood swings; I probably called the cops half a dozen times during that time. Even got a restraining order." Eric shot himself twice; once in the foot, and once in the side. The second was a suicide attempt.
"I love him, but I can't live with him," Doc said, as though he were apologizing.
Eric had been interested in the Middle East ever since he wrote a paper about Egypt in grade school. About 10 years ago, he became friends with a young Iraqi while he was living in Southern California. The friend's wealthy father, knowing Eric had served in the Army, hired Eric to pick up visitors from the Middle East at the airport and show them around Orange County and Los Angeles as a combination tour guide and body guard. Eric — tall, blue-eyed, charming in his way, and gregarious — would receive invitations to come to the Middle East from the people he showed around. He took them up on the offers.
* * *
Starting in 2003, Eric began traveling to Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, Syria — and he partied all the while. He did this for almost a decade; traveling all over the world but most often returning to the Middle East. He'd return home to Arizona when his money ran out, save up his disability checks and what he made working odd jobs, and then buy a plane ticket and do it all over again. He always met people when he traveled, many of them moderate Muslims in the Middle East. As his fascination with the region grew and he became closer to his friends, he decided to become a Muslim.
A very terrible Muslim.
"I'm a moderate Muslim," he told me. "I do smoke. I drink occasionally. I don't pray five times a day …. I do have some Christian beliefs, I guess. I celebrate Christmas with my mom's family."
Eric was a Muslim in much the same way someone who moves to a new city becomes a fan of a sports team in that city — it's a way to fit in and relate to those around you when you're in a strange place. During months of correspondence and time spent together, I never once saw him pray or react to anything with religious fervor.
After five years of doing little but drink, party, and pick up women wherever he went, Eric snuck into the Shatila Palestinian refugee camp on the outskirts of Beirut in 2008. "I went there with Lebanese Christian girls to buy cheap clothes," he said. "I spent nights there. I met with the camp leader."
Eric had spent plenty of time enjoying himself in the Middle East, but this was the first time he visited a place that was truly dangerous — and heartbreaking. He was shocked by the conditions, and it left a lasting impression on him that would steer the course of the rest of his life: It inspired him to fight against tyranny. And it created a dislike of Israel.
When he returned to the US after that Middle East trip, he was asked by a US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer why he had gone to Syria. Eric said it was because his grandfather had been Syrian — a lie he liked to tell while traveling in the Middle East. The CBP officer told Eric that the government would probably be contacting him.
Shortly thereafter, they did.
* * *
Eric told me that Wayne was from the CIA. He was African-American and wore Hawaiian shirts and sandals. Eric told me his partner, Lance, was from the FBI and wore a suit. According to Eric, they met twice at a Mexican restaurant in Tucson, where Eric was living at the time. They seemingly just wanted to talk.
They chatted about Eric's travels; Eric felt he had nothing to hide. When he said he'd been to the Shatila refugee camp, they didn't believe him; they thought it was too dangerous for a Westerner to enter the way Eric had. Eric liked that. And he thought little of the conversations subsequently.
In November of 2010, Eric flew back to Egypt. Two months later, friends told him he had to come to Tahrir Square because a revolution was beginning there.
"I didn't believe it," Eric said. "But I went anyway and saw people chanting, holding signs, throwing rocks and Molotovs. I saw a couple people with shotguns, which they had taken from the police. But basically, [protesters] were fighting with sticks and stones against bullets."
Eric in Egypt. Photo via Eric Harroun
Eric enjoyed himself immensely; he protested, he threw rocks, and he was twice arrested by the secret police and briefly detained. He felt exhilarated, happy to be involved in bringing down a dictatorship with people his age.
"They really wanted freedom, like America — that's what the Egyptians told me," Eric said. "The revolution was hijacked by the Muslim Brotherhood. [The country] took five steps forward, and then they took 10 steps back."
While in Cairo, Eric was told by his roommate back in Tucson that two FBI agents had showed up at the apartment looking for him. When they found out he wasn't there, Wayne called Eric and asked if he was coming back. Again, Eric thought little of it.
A couple months after Tahrir Square, small protests began in Syria. Eric was following the reports on social media, mirroring the outrage, excitement, and hope of his friends who were protesting in the country. He traveled to Lebanon and attempted to enter Syria to join them.
"After I saw what we could accomplish when people came together in Egypt, it seemed bringing down the Syrian regime would be pretty easy," he said. But fake Syrian grandfather or not, Eric was denied entry at the border. He instead traveled around Jordan for awhile, and when he inevitably ran out of money, he returned to Arizona. He checked in with his buddies Wayne and Lance and told them about his travels, then started counting the days till he could start traveling again.
* * *
Syria had always been one of Eric's favorite destinations.
"The Middle East was not a scary place," he said. "In Damascus before the revolution, I felt safer at night than I did in any neighborhood in Phoenix." But now peaceful protests in Syria were being broken up with gunfire. Eric's friends were dying.
The Free Syrian Army (FSA) was founded in mid 2011. By June of 2012, the US cleared the way for funds to support the FSA in their fight against Assad. In December of that year, Obama recognized the FSA as the "legitimate representative of the Syrian people." Secret training camps were set up in Jordan, and the Turkish government hosted the "Syrian National Council," effectively blessing a Syrian government in exile. Eric's friends in Turkey began telling him how fighters and weapons were making their way across the border into Syria. Eric kept saving his money.
Around this time, Obama also designated an obscure Syrian Sunni fighting group called the al-Nusra Front as a terrorist organization. Al-Nusra was gaining strength as funding poured in from Gulf nations including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE. Like the US, al-Nusra wanted Assad gone — but they also had links to al Qaeda in Iraq. All told, there were hundreds of Sunni rebel groups loosely consolidated under numerous banners around Syria.
By January 2013, Eric had finally saved up enough from his Army disability pay and a job at a mortgage office to get on the road again. He bought an inexpensive ticket to Asia and began making his way toward the Middle East — China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand. In Bangkok he met two Islamic missionaries, both in their 50s, who said they were eager to support the rebels in Syria by purchasing weapons. But their proposition sounded like it had been lifted word-for-word out of an FBI sting manual: Could Eric make a list of weapons, travel to meet a wealthy sheik in Qatar to get money, purchase the weapons, and then make sure they were shipped?
Never exactly one to be suspicious, Eric agreed.
He had no idea where to buy weapons, so he went to a local shooting range — the kind where tourists pay $200 to shoot high-powered automatic weapons. Eric asked the owner how many small-arms would fit in a standard shipping container, and after doing some back-of-the-envelope calculations, he decided he'd need at least $3 million in cash to fill one up. Eric then went to Vietnam to arrange the shipping; the men he contacted there told him to make sure the container was labeled as "fruit."
Both the owner of the shooting range and a shipping contact told Eric that the whole thing sounded like a set-up. In addition, his contacts in Istanbul kept telling him to hurry up and get to Turkey, where they'd started supporting the FSA by pushing out online propaganda and video. And so, feeling like he'd learned a thing or two about arms dealing, Eric backed out of the deal at the last minute. He was now free to meet up with his Syrian friends in Turkey.
He roomed with his friends in Istanbul for three months. They took turns sleeping on the bed while the others spent the nights chain-smoking cigarettes, and editing and uploading videos. America backed the rebels. Turkey backed the rebels. Everyone hated Assad. Eric was on the right side of history. And so when one of his roommates suggested they stop posting videos about fighting and start fighting themselves, Eric was in.
He just had to check in with his mom first.
* * *
Sue is trim, in her late 50s, and reserved. She lives in an immaculately kept house a few minutes from Doc's chaotic ranch house. Eric's demeanor changes from argumentative when around his dad to quiet and respectful with his mother.
When he traveled, she and Eric kept in touch constantly. The woman who nursed him back to health after he nearly died in the truck accident clearly worried about him in the Middle East. His mother's concern is a big reason why he decided to check in at the US Consulate in Istanbul to let them know he was going to be inside Syria fighting; he wanted them to be able to give his mother details in case he went missing.
Sue grimaces when I ask her about the most stressful updates she received as Eric traveled the world. "I was a wreck the whole time. Somebody from Great Britain shot him in the leg. A psycho women cut his arm in Nepal — loonies attract loonies. When he disappeared for more than a few days at a time, I would message Eric, 'If you don't contact me soon I am going to contact the US Consulate.'"
* * *
And so, in January 2013, Eric insisted upon checking in at the imposing block-like building in Istanbul. His Turkish friends were befuddled, but they figured that America's pro-FSA stance might mean Eric could make some good contacts should they ever need weapons and support.
After asking the Turkish employee at the front desk if he could "talk to the CIA," Eric was rebuffed. He then raised so much of a fuss that the Regional Security Officer (RSO) told him to get the hell out of the Consulate and fill out the online form if he didn't want to be arrested. Eric left and did so, explaining on the form that he was going to Syria to fight against the Assad regime. He saw nothing problematic about doing so; after all, in his head, Eric had been working with the CIA and the FBI — his buddies Wayne and Lance — for years.
When Eric first crossed the border into Syria, he knew immediately that he was in a war zone. Bullet holes, blasted buildings — it was like the Hollywood set of a war movie. Eric had never fought in a war and had never fired a bullet at another person in anger. But the men around him were his age and enthusiastic, much like many of the protestors he had met and felt such a kinship with in Egypt.
Eric joined the Free Syrian Army — he had to fill out paperwork and give them a passport photo — and was assigned to the Amr Ibn al-Aas Brigade, named after a companion of the Prophet. The group was based out of Azaz, a town about 20 miles from Aleppo. After being issued his Dragunov sniper rifle and AK, Eric spent a day scrounging more gear before he was whisked away in the back of a pickup truck. His Arabic was almost nonexistent and his military skills were minimal. He was exhilarated … and scared shitless.
"Right away I heard mortars on the border, the house where I was staying shook on my first night," he said. "The next day we helped dig a family that had been killed [out of the rubble]. A woman, a child, and a father."
His first military operation involved a mix of different rebel groups. "It was snowing and cold as shit," Eric said. He was told his group was leaving, so that morning he tossed his ammo in his rucksack and jumped on the back of a Toyota pickup heading to assault a Syrian army position near Idlib. That night they arrived in the FSA camp run by Colonel Riad al-Asaad and his son. Asaad founded the FSA after defecting from the Syrian Air Force in 2011; as a result, more than a dozen extended relatives were executed by President Bashar Assad's forces. Eric was just pleased al-Asaad spoke English.
The next morning Eric got his first taste of combat. Bullets were raining down and men were running up the hill to attack a position Eric couldn't see. Rebels would charge up shooting, and be carried back down, wounded or dead. Rounds were singing through the air, trees were splintering, men were screaming. Eric didn't know what to do. He couldn't even see what to fire his weapon at. And he had no idea what anyone was saying.
"I don't speak much Arabic, so that was a hard problem — taking orders, knowing which way to go, knowing when to go, which direction to fire in. And I didn't have a radio."
Still, it was clear even to Eric that his side was losing. So he decided to grab the nearest wounded man and carry him back down to the trucks to get him first aid. In the chaos of the retreat, he jumped on the back of the wrong pickup.
It was only later that he noticed it had a black flag. Much like the jihad banner of al-Nusra.
Separated from his group but happy to be alive, Eric rode with the convoy of Toyotas to northern Aleppo. The men on the trucks, clearly suspicious of the American suddenly in their midst, took his weapons. The first day, he was called in by a commander and invited to make a video as other fighters lounged around him. It occurred even to Eric that filming a video with an unknown group of rebels might not be the smartest thing to do, but he felt he didn't have any choice — and so he told the camera what he thought of Assad.
"Your days are numbered," he says to the camera. "You're going down in flames. You should just quit now while you can and leave. You're gonna die, no matter what."
The next day, he was given back his weapons. Eric wasn't sure who he was fighting with, but he knew was that he was now an accepted member of the rebels. He was excited.
Eric gives Bashar Assad a piece of his mind.
The fighters soon moved east to attack Taftanaz Military Airbase — where Eric fired the RPG. After that attack (the airbase later fell to the rebels), Eric and his group kept driving east, toward the border with Iraq. He tried to tell the men that he needed to get back to the Turkish border to pick up his FSA ID and rejoin his original battalion, but no opportunity presented itself.
Then he made another video.
On January 26, Eric heard the swoosh of a MANPAD — a shoulder-launched surface-to-air missile — spiraling toward a distant Mi-17 helicopter. Eric heard the engine falter and saw smoke; he knew it was coming down. He grabbed his new friend, a man named Shishani, or "the Chechen," and along with other fighters jumped onto a Toyota FJ40 to pillage the wreck. When they spotted smoke spiraling from a field Eric pulled out his camera. He and his fellow fighters shouted and cheered as they drove up on the downed Syrian government helicopter. The video was eventually posted online, and people in the intelligence community immediately began to wonder about the American jihadi. It was the first time the outside world had seen an American fighting against Assad's forces.
"It was just a personal video," Eric said to me, matter of factly. "I was like, Shit, I have to film this. It's not every day you see a helicopter your group just shot down."
Shishani wasn't Chechen; he was Kurdish, and he could speak both English and Arabic, which was a huge relief to Eric. He also loved Eric's sense of humor. "He was happy to be with his people. He had never even been laid — we talked about girls all the time. But he also wanted to be martyred. I will never figure that out."
Shishani was killed a few weeks later.
Eric has a hard time now keeping track of how many fighters, battles or casualties he saw. "We had cliques. Shishani would hang out with me and talk about girls. The other guys would hang out with the more religious types. It was like high school." Eric would be called upon to jump in a truck and drive to Derazor and neighboring cities. Sometimes it would turn out to be for cigarettes, other times it would be to attack army outposts. "I was never part of the planning, so I didn't know if we were attacking 20 people or a thousand."
Finally, after six weeks inside Syria, Eric was able to convince someone to give him a ride back up north to link up with his first group.
Near the border Eric met with his first FSA commander. He remembers talking with him about the new weapons the Iranians were bringing over. The commander asked Eric if he could give someone with the US government a list of supplies the rebels needed — medicine, weapons, etc.
Eric crossed the border and traveled to Gaziantep, Turkey to hang out with friends. He did a lot of drinking. He also learned that the videos he had made were quite popular on YouTube. Journalists began to attempt to get in touch with him. Eric said a reporter named Ilan Ben Zion kept messaging him on Skype. Eric ignored him … until he was drunk one day in March at a bar. Ben Zion and Eric started arguing over messenger. Eric was admittedly insulting, and he did not hold back on his views about Israel.
In a March 11 story that appeared on Fox News, Ben Zion and Greg Tepper described Harroun as a "US-trained soldier turned Muslim warrior" and a "prolific poster of online diatribes against the infidel, he's joined the threads of those calling for the deaths of Zionists." The article chronicles "Harroun's descent into Islamic fanaticism."
Ben Zion and Tepper also wrote a similar article for Foreign Policy. If Eric was trying to draw unwanted attention to himself, he couldn't have done it better if he had hired a publicist.
* * *
Eric figured that since the US was training and supplying the FSA, he would simply walk into the Consulate in Istanbul and ask them for supplies. Unlike the last time he'd entered the Consulate, people very much wanted to talk to him this time. According to Eric, they had a new RSO who came out, disappeared, and then ushered him into a 10-foot-by-10-foot interview room. A woman in her mid 40s entered — she had no ID, so Eric figured she was from the CIA — and they started to talk. He told her his story, and said he was wondering if the US could supply him with weapons; he showed her the list he'd made on his phone after speaking with his commander.
Eric said the woman appeared to be familiar with the weapons he mentioned; she said there was a man in Gaziantep through whom the US was funneling weapons to the FSA. As Eric talked, she took notes on a yellow pad. He couldn't see what she was writing down.
She asked him to come back for another meeting.
When he did, an FBI agent named Mike was also there. Eric remembers that Mike didn't know much about weapons, but he did seem to know about international law. "Mike said it's illegal for an American to fight in Syria. I asked them what laws I was breaking. They said I was breaking numerous laws."
They asked him to come back again for a third meeting a couple of days later.
On that next trip to the Consulate, Eric was surprised to see a printout of the inflammatory Fox News story sitting on the desk of the FBI agent. That meeting lasted for four hours. Still, Eric assumed he was amongst friends and countrymen who all had a common purpose — ushering in the end of the Assad regime in Syria.
He had a total of five meetings inside the Consulate. Each time, he said, he told his story, and each time there was a different mix of people in the room with him, listening.
"They were flying in guys from Washington," Eric told me. "At one point they said, 'Lynn is going to sit in.' I found out later she was a federal prosecutor from the Eastern District of Virginia."
* * *
Back in Phoenix, Eric's parents were worried. When the FBI showed up at their respective homes, Doc and Sue didn't know that their son was willingly cooperating with the government. They were simply told that he was in trouble and that he urgently needed to get back to the US. They had every reason to believe it; both Doc and Sue had even received phone calls in the past from people telling them that Eric was dead. The FBI wanted to know what the Harrouns thought they could do to get Eric back home.
"That kid will go anywhere if you give him a free ticket," Doc said.
And so back in Istanbul, the FBI did just that. But they also told Eric that if he didn't accept their offer to bring him back to the US, the Turkish authorities were going to throw him in prison, at which point there wouldn't be much the US could do. Eric wanted to go back to Syria, but he really didn't want to end up in a Turkish prison.
The ticket Eric was given wasn't back to Phoenix. It was to Washington DC, and Eric wasn't flying alone. A special agent named Marcus, whom Eric had met at the Consulate meetings, was accompanying him. Eric thought it was funny. "When Marcus and I were in the security part of the Istanbul [Ataturk] Airport, they took his fingerprints. They figured the black guy was the criminal. And when I asked Marcus if he was packing heat as we stood in line to go through security, he said under his breath, 'If I was Eric, I would shut the fuck up!'"
They landed at sunset; Marcus departed on his own while a caravan of two white Suburbans and a car took Eric to a nearby Marriot. "They had a pack of cigarettes lined up. Even the beer was set up. I was guided to a chair as if they were recording me. I drank two beers in an hour."
When a translator finally listened to the audio, it became clear that both Eric and the government had been mistaken. The video was of "al Nasr" — a group not on the US terrorism list.
There were four or five FBI agents in the room. "When I took a shower, they were knocking on the bathroom door every few minutes." They were clearly afraid Eric might try to kill himself because of how much trouble he was in. Of course, Eric didn't have a clue he was in any trouble.
When Eric came out of the shower, they asked him what he'd like from room service, and so Eric ordered filet mignon and crab fondue. They asked him more questions, and once again Eric told them everything — where he had been traveling, highlights of his six-week adventure fighting in Syria, his dislike of Zionists.
After Eric finished his meal, an agent grabbed his steak knife, threw it across the room onto the floor, and handcuffed and arrested Eric. According to Eric, the agents did not read him his rights. When he asked them what he was being arrested for, they told him it would be discussed later.
He was booked into the Alexandria Detention Center; by midnight he was in solitary confinement. He was photographed and fingerprinted three times. The Army vet turned freedom fighter was, in a sense, a prisoner of war.
* * *
On March 28, the United States Government filed a criminal complaint against Eric. "Conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction outside of the United States." The possible sentences included death.
"I was in solitary," Eric told me. "I had two hours from 1 AM to 3 AM to shower, make a call, and watch TV before I went in. My cell was 10 feet by 7 feet with a 15-foot ceiling. There was a little slit on the door and another slit for a window that I couldn't see out of." His bed was a concrete ledge with a one-inch-thick mattress. The lights stayed on 24 hours a day.
About a month after Eric arrived, the prison doctor prescribed him Zoloft and Trazodone, which is used to treat insomnia and bipolar disorder. "Being threatened with the death penalty will make you anxious and depressed," Eric said. His father told him not to sign anything. "I started to go nuts. I just wanted to get out of there."
* * *
The government's case against Eric included a video of him posing with a group of fighters as they pledged their allegiance to the fight. One man drones on in Arabic about the formation of a new fighting group. The feds took the video from Eric's own cell phone, where he had named it "al Nusrah." The smoking gun! But when a translator finally listened to the audio, it became clear that both Eric and the government had been mistaken. The video was of "al Nasr" — a group not on the US terrorism list. Eric was not fighting with terrorists after all.
The Federal case hinged on the assumption that Eric was a fanatical jihadist, a Muslim extremist who, alongside his terrorist compatriots, utilized a weapon of mass destruction — that's what they were calling the RPG Eric fired at the wall. (RPGs are common on any battlefield.) But it was now obvious that Eric had been with a branch of the FSA, which the US had openly backed. In addition, his willingness to tell the FBI and CIA exactly what he was doing, wherever he went, whenever they asked, would no doubt prove deeply embarrassing to the feds. In short, the US government was trying to execute a bipolar Army veteran who was fighting a tyrant alongside US-backed rebels for firing a commonly used weapon at a wall.
Soon after the video was translated, Eric's lawyer came to him with a plea bargain deal: 12 to 15 years.
"I said, 'Fuck you!" Eric told me. A couple of weeks later, the lawyer came back again: Now the deal was for five years. "I said, 'I am not signing that. I am not putting myself in prison for copping to a terrorism charge.'" His lawyer explained that because the government had made a big deal of it when they captured Eric, they couldn't simply let him go. His lawyer asked Eric what he would be willing to plead guilty to. Eric suggested it be to a charge for stealing a piece of pottery from some ruins near Aleppo.
A week later, the lawyer came back again. The government said the charge had to relate to the reason why Eric was arrested in the first place: using a weapon of mass destruction. The lawyer suggested a felony munitions charge. "I plead guilty to failing to get an export license for federally controlled weapons," Eric said. "In exchange I would get time served and three years probation. They told me that if I went to trial I would be put away for life because I wouldn't have a fair jury." Eric was asked whether he'd like to get out of prison and go have a smoke and a beer next week, or keep sitting in solitary confinement. Eric signed the plea agreement. (Read the full text below.)
On September 21, 2013, he was released. He had the clothes he'd been wearing when he was arrested, but no passport, no money, no laptop, no phone. The feds were keeping those for the time being. Sue wired Eric's lawyer money for a bus ticket back to Arizona. Eric barely made the bus.
* * *
Eric told me that he insisted before signing anything that he retain his right to own a weapon. He said he was told that he would retain that right. Whether that's true or not, Eric was a felon on parole, and he was subject to the restrictions of any felon on parole. No weapons.
According to Eric, every time he inquired about getting his rights restored, the FBI in turn asked him to help them find others who wished to go fight in Syria. His Facebook page was being monitored by the FBI. He felt he was being made to entrap people. And I know he felt terrible about whatever it was he was doing.
The director of the FBI, James B. Comey, said in January that tracking Americans who have returned from Syria had become one of the Bureau's highest counterterrorism priorities. "We are focused on trying to figure out what our people are up to, who should be spoken to, who should be followed, who should be charged," Comey said in a meeting with reporters, without referring to specific numbers. "It's something we are intensely focused on."
* * *
After interviewing Eric at length in January, I kept in touch. But when the phone rang this past Tuesday night and I saw it was Doc, I didn't answer. He liked to check in and chat sometimes. I didn't know he was calling to tell me his son had just died.
I called Doc back Wednesday morning.
Eric had been found in Doc's bedroom at about 3 PM. The paramedics pronounced him dead at the scene. "They wouldn't let me in the room," he told me. "When they brought him out on the gurney, I said, 'Let me see my boy's face.' They said they couldn't. That it was against the law."
The initial report was that it was an overdose; needles were reportedly found near Eric. But according to Doc, there was blood everywhere — under his desk, under his bed, seeping out some sliding glass doors. "How can there be that much blood if its drugs?" he wondered.
An autopsy will determine the cause of death.
Once, when I was having coffee at the Somali dive with Eric — the one he had discussed with Lance and Wayne years before — his phone continually buzzed with incoming texts and messages. He would hold them up for me to see; several were from people who wanted his advice on how to go fight in Syria. I told him not to answer them and to delete his Facebook page. But he said he couldn't; he feared that if he did, the FBI would never restore his civil rights or expunge his conviction. I asked him to tell me exactly what law enforcement or intelligence officials were asking him to do. He wouldn't definitively say.
Days before his death, Eric told me excitedly that he had finally gotten his passport back. He also now had a driver's license, and he had purchased a 500 hp BMW — which he could only start after using a breathalyzer device, since he had also received a DUI. Eric assured me he was going to go back to fight in Syria. That would, of course, never happen.
Eric's journey was at an end.
Follow Robert Young Pelton on Twitter.
Correction made on April 14, 2014: An earlier version of this story reported that Ilan Ben Zion fought for the Israeli Defense Force. Ben Zion enlisted in the IDF and served in its Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories Unit, but he did not fight.