BEIRUT: A former U.S. soldier of Lebanese descent who fought alongside the Nusra Front in Syria has died of an “accidental overdose” in his hometown of Phoenix in Arizona, his family said.
Eric Harroun, nicknamed “The American Jihadist,” gained notoriety for posting about his exploits in Syria on social media, claiming to have fought with Al-Qaeda-affiliated rebels by accident and sharing his stories with the FBI.
“Eric died yesterday of an accidental overdose, thank you everyone for your love and support,” his sister Sarah Harroun said on Facebook Wednesday.
Harroun joined the ranks of the rebel Free Syrian Army in January 2013. He fought with various rebel battalions in the town of Azaz near the Turkish border, including the Amr ibn al-Aas Brigade, according to testimony he gave to the FBI several months later.
Recounting his experience, he told investigators that he had been separated from his battalion during clashes with the regime’s army in Azaz and escaped on the back of a Nusra Front truck. The Al-Qaeda affiliate reportedly treated him as a prisoner before allowing him into their ranks.
However, a friend who knew Harroun well in the autumn of 2011 paints a picture of a man who was motivated not by Islamist doctrine of Nusra, but misplaced heroism.
“[Harroun] wanted to be a hero. He was idealistic. He felt he was defending the oppressed,” said the friend, who briefly lived with the fighter in Beirut.
Speaking to The Daily Star, the friend described Harroun as a drinker and fond of going out. When Harroun, who described himself as a convert to Islam, first mentioned his plans to go fight in Syria, people knew him thought he was joking. The friend said it appeared that Harroun was most interested in being “the center of attention.”
When he left Syria after around six weeks he went straight to U.S. officials in Istanbul to recount his tale, reportedly hoping to secure funding for opposition fighters. He also agreed to an interview with Fox News, who described his “descent into Islamist fanaticism.”
Harroun furiously rejected the claims. “I’m not Al-Qaeda,” he told Foreign Policy magazine in April 2013. “I like my beer and my smoke and I like my women. I’m not about the praying five times a day.”
On returning to the U.S. in March, Harroun was voluntarily interviewed by the FBI, then arrested by federal agents. He was charged with conspiring to use WMDs with a U.S.-designated terrorist group. If he had been convicted, he could have faced the death penalty. Instead he spent just six months in jail and was released on a plea deal in September.