American Charged With Using Weapon of Mass Destruction that Isn’t a Weapon of Mass Destruction

An American fighting with Syrian rebels faces life in prison for firing an RPG against a government we're trying to oust.

Eric Harroun firing RPG, which is a WMD according to the USG. WTF.

An American fighting with Syrian rebels has been charged with “conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction” for firing an RPG against regime forces.

WaPo/AP (“US Army veteran charged with fighting with al-Qaida in Syria, using weapon of mass destruction“):

 A U.S. Army veteran, who boasted on Facebook of his military adventures with Syrian rebels, was charged Thursday with firing rocket propelled grenades as part of an attack led by an al-Qaida group against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Eric Harroun, 30, of Phoenix, was charged in U.S. District Court in Alexandria with conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction — specifically, a rocket propelled grenade launcher — outside the U.S.

According to an FBI affidavit, Harroun, who served three years in the Army before being medically discharged, was engaged in military action in Syria, siding with rebel forces against the Syrian government, from January to March of this year.

Harroun told FBI investigators that he traveled to Turkey in November hoping to join the Free Syrian Army, a rebel group. In January, he crossed the border and made contact with the Free Syrian Army, which outfitted him two Russian rifles, according to the affidavit.

Within days, Harroun participated in an attack on a Syrian army encampment that was carried out jointly by the Free Syrian Army and the al-Nusrah Front, commonly known as “al-Qaida in Iraq” and designated a terrorist group by the U.S., according to the affidavit.

After that battle, Harroun retreated in the back of an al-Nusrah truck. Harroun told the FBI that at the al-Nusrah camp, he was initially treated like a prisoner but was later accepted by the other members and participated in several attacks with them, according to the affidavit.

Harroun said al-Nusrah fighters would ask him why the U.S. had designated them as terrorists, according to the affidavit.

Harroun used RPG launchers in the attacks and once, on his Facebook page, claimed credit for downing a Syrian helicopter. According to the affidavit, Harroun told the FBI that he shot an estimated 10 people in his various battles, though he was unsure if he had ever killed anyone.

Since when is an RPG a weapon of mass destruction? It’s controversial enough that the definition includes low level chemical, biological, and radiological weapons that aren’t actually capable of mass destruction; many prefer to limit the use to nuclear weapons. But, unless RPG technology has improved vastly since I last fired one, there’s no possible way that it should fall into the category. Taking out a tank or a low-flying helicopter is destructive, no doubt, but it ain’t massive.

Nor, according to 18 USC § 2332a, would an RPG seem to qualify as a WMD:

(2) the term “weapon of mass destruction” means—

(A) any destructive device as defined in section 921 of this title;
(B) any weapon that is designed or intended to cause death or serious bodily injury through the release, dissemination, or impact of toxic or poisonous chemicals, or their precursors;
(C) any weapon involving a biological agent, toxin, or vector (as those terms are defined in section 178 of this title); or
(D) any weapon that is designed to release radiation or radioactivity at a level dangerous to human life;

Alas, following the trail to section 921, we see that:

(4) The term “destructive device” means—

(A) any explosive, incendiary, or poison gas—

(i) bomb,
(ii) grenade,
(iii) rocket having a propellant charge of more than four ounces,
(iv) missile having an explosive or incendiary charge of more than one-quarter ounce,
(v) mine, or
(vi) device similar to any of the devices described in the preceding clauses;
(B) any type of weapon (other than a shotgun or a shotgun shell which the Attorney General finds is generally recognized as particularly suitable for sporting purposes) by whatever name known which will, or which may be readily converted to, expel a projectile by the action of an explosive or other propellant, and which has any barrel with a bore of more than one-half inch in diameter; and
(C) any combination of parts either designed or intended for use in converting any device into any destructive device described in subparagraph (A) or (B) and from which a destructive device may be readily assembled.

So, quite literally, the US Government has classified, for the purposes of criminal law, as a weapon of mass destruction virtually every military grade weapon.

Additionally, while I’m by no means an expert on terrorist networks,  al-Nusrah Front is not commonly known as “al-Qaida in Iraq;” that’s a completely separate group (more commonly called al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia or AQIM) that, as the name implies, operates in Iraq and has been around for a decade. Al-Nusra front was founded a year or so ago in Syria as part of the anti-Assad movement. Aaron Zelin says there’s “circumstantial evidence” that the al-Nusrah Front (he prefers Jabhat al-Nusra) iss affiliated with a completely different group called the Islamic State of Iraq. But he questions the degree to which it’s a true al Qaeda faction, arguing that “The rebellion has been radicalized over time by the brutal tactics of the regime, creating a more Islamist fighting force than when the armed rebellion first started gaining steam.”

Furthermore, I’m not exactly sure why Harroun’s actions should be illegal. Yes, the US Government has designated Jabhat al-Nusra a terrorist group. But there’s no evidence in the news reports that Harroun has engaged in terrorism or any anti-American activities; he’s participating in a rebellion that that same government is tacitly training and supplying with weapons  (almost certainly including RPGs!) against a regime that same government is working to oust from power.  And there’s actually a time-honored tradition of Americans fighting in other people’s civil wars.

Now, Harroun may be a wacko. He’s proclaimed “the only good Zionist is a dead Zionist” and has boasted of future plans to travel to Palestine to do somethingoranother about “Israeli atrocities ” But–again, based only on the reporting I’ve seen—he doesn’t appear to be an al Qaeda sympathizer, much less a terrorist. Indeed, the government tacitly acknowledges this.

Harroun is not charged with providing material support to a terrorist group, but instead conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction outside the U.S., a law that applies to U.S. nationals operating anywhere in the world. The statute makes no distinction or exception for an individual who may be fighting a hostile regime.

He faces life in prison.

FILED UNDER: Law and the Courts, Terrorism
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Tsar Nicholas says:

    Yet another needless and incongruous federal prosecution.

    The background of a fellow by the name of Neil MacBride, the US Attorney who delivered this particular charge, should not surprise anyone:

    In addition to his service in the Department of Justice, Mr. MacBride served as chief counsel and staff director for Senator Joseph R. Biden, Jr., Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Drugs, where his work focused on crime and drug policy, counter-terrorism and intelligence matters and corporate fraud.

    Related topic: When actual conservatives talk about cutting the federal government they’re not merely whistling dixie. If you give the DOJ and its constituent US Attorneys offices a bunch of money, sure enough, they’ll spend every last penny. Meaning a ton of needless federal prosecutions, in various arenas. Cut the budget of DOJ, however, especially a real cut, not merely a reduction in spending growth, and voila, fewer federal prosecutions and ipso facto forced prioritization to those matters on which the Feds really should be focused.

    Pretty much everything related to the Feds ultimately comes down to tax and spending priorities. Spending less public money means less wasting of public money. It’s actually that simple.




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  2. James Joyner says:

    @Tsar Nicholas: Very few conservatives, indeed, advocate cutting funding for law enforcement, much less counter-terrorism.




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  3. Craig Davis says:

    We conservatives do, however, advocate the reduction of most bureaucracies, which is not the same thing as cutting law enforcement and counter-terrorism. Fewer bosses sometimes equals more workers and, properly directed, means more funds for actual work for the workers.




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  4. Mike says:

    After not finding any WMDs in Iraq, I guess we have to change the definition.




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  5. Argon says:

    No mass was destroyed by the weapon. A better term would be ‘weapon of massive destruction’.




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  6. Rob in CT says:

    Absurd.

    There is a certain comedic aspect, though. Remember all the claims, once nobody could find any WMDs in Iraq, that they’d been sent to Syria? Well, here ya go! Maybe this is a super duper Iraqi RPG.

    That’s the best I’ve got, sorry.




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  7. Rob in CT says:

    I do wonder if this is one reason why he’s been targetted:

    Now, Harroun may be a wacko. He’s proclaimed “the only good Zionist is a dead Zionist” and has boasted of future plans to travel to Palestine to do somethingoranother about “Israeli atrocities ”

    The other being it’s double plus ungood to have lots of attention on some wacky American fighting against the Syria government when, as you say, the US government is “quietly” doing a lot more than that. Questions might be asked.




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  8. john personna says:

    So, if someone fired an RPG in your local shopping mall, would you NOT want such a law available?

    To my mind this is all about it being overseas and in a war zone, and not at all about whether grenades are “mass” enough.




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  9. Tony W says:

    Shocking he is from Arizona – I guess it’s the new Florida….




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  10. MM says:

    @john personna: how would this law specifically help where laws against murder or attempted murder would not?




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  11. john personna says:

    @MM:

    I don’t know, when a felon is up for early release, is it the stack of felonies against him that matters?

    I assume that “throwing the book at someone” is about getting maximum sentence, and not just a prosecution exercise.




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  12. TastyBits says:

    Is there any reason why this guy cannot be placed on a kill list? If not by President Obama, what about a future president? Would President Cheney make any difference?




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  13. Anderson says:

    “So, if someone fired an RPG in your local shopping mall, would you NOT want such a law available?”

    No, I would not. Existing laws cover that problem just fine. This looks like a foolish and abusive prosecution.




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  14. A U.S. Army veteran, who boasted on Facebook of his military adventures with Syrian rebels, was charged Thursday with firing rocket propelled grenades as part of an attack led by an al-Qaida group against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

    The rest of that sentence should read:

    “Because he couldn’t be charged for boasting about it on Facebook.”




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  15. Franklin says:

    @Argon: Christ, I can’t believe I never noticed the physical difficulty of that term before. I guess only nuclear weapons might qualify. And then, it’s not really destruction but conversion to energy.




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  16. john personna says:

    @Anderson:

    Seriously, I should loose sleep because someone who shoots RPGs might be overly prosecuted?

    Pause to think about that in the panoply of injustices.




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  17. Amanda says:

    Will this Law be applied to Americans who join the Israeli forces?




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  18. Steph says:

    @Tsar Nicholas: Well expressed!!! This is addressed to the world: Referencing this young lad standing trial for disgustingly, wrong reasons (despite my personal feelings towards his beliefs) – I am shocked that he hasn’t just disappeared. It would be wiser of the government not to taunt us with their manipulation of Laws. It is never as scary when the person goes missing – possibilty of them going undergroud and chilling on the beach in Costa Rica is still there. Shocked he isn’t labeled a “Terrorist”.




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  19. john personna says:

    @Amanda:

    I’d think joining a foreign army (not at war with the US) would fall outside the “war on terror” laws. On the other hand, we probably have left questionable behavior by Israeli settlers with US citizenship to Israel, as their problem.




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