WASHINGTON -- A former American soldier was charged Thursday with fighting alongside a terrorist group that is battling the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad, whose ouster the United States has sought for nearly two years.
The soldier, Eric Harroun, 30, of Phoenix, who served in the United States Army from 2000 to 2003, is accused of entering Syria in January and participating in attacks on Assad forces led by the Al Nusra Front, which American officials say is part of Al Qaeda in Iraq, a designated terrorist group.
Mr. Harroun, who posted reports about his time in Syria on Facebook and YouTube, was charged in Alexandria, Va., with "conspiring to use a destructive device outside the United States," a crime that can carry a life sentence. He was arrested Wednesday after arriving at Dulles International Airport and made an initial appearance in Federal District Court on Thursday.
According to an affidavit filed in the case, Mr. Harroun told an F.B.I. agent, Paul Higginbotham, that he was part of an "R.P.G. team," firing rocket-propelled grenades, which qualify as a "destructive device" under the law. The charge does not have any connection to terrorism, though more charges could be filed later.
Al Nusra is part of a diverse array of opposition groups fighting Mr. Assad's forces. While the United States shuns Al Nusra as a Qaeda affiliate, it is helping to direct arms to other opposition factions and training their fighters in Jordan.
On his Facebook page, Mr. Harroun wrote that "the only good Zionist is a dead Zionist." But he also told the F.B.I. that "he hated Al Qaeda, that he did not know any Al Qaeda members, and that he would fight against any regime if it imposed Sharia law in Syria because he was opposed to all forms of oppression." Shariah is Islamic law; Al Qaeda and many less violent Islamic fundamentalists support the universal enforcement of an intolerant form of Shariah.
"If this guy's telling the truth, there's an interesting question as to why we're prosecuting him," said Robert M. Chesney, a law professor at the University of Texas who specializes in national security. "He seems to be fighting on the U.S. side, but with the wrong people."
The F.B.I. affidavit said Mr. Harroun was discharged from the Army in 2003 after he was injured in a car accident. He has traveled in the Middle East and Asia in recent years and entered Syria in January from Turkey.
He has hardly tried to hide his activities. In a video posted to YouTube in January, he spoke to the camera, saying, "Bashar al-Assad, your days are numbered." In February, he posted a photo on Facebook saying, "Downed a Syrian Helicopter then Looted all Intel and Weapons!"
The postings attracted news media attention.
He gave interviews to two reporters based in Israel, Greg Tepper and Ilan Ben Zion, who posted them at FoxNews.com and Foreign Policy.
"Getting into Al Nusra is not rocket science," he told them.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.