By Carol Cratty
U.S. authorities had a former soldier they were investigating removed from a "no-fly" list and allowed him to travel from Turkey to the United States where he was promptly arrested on charges related to fighting alongside a terror group in Syria.
That unusual step, revealed on Monday by a federal prosecutor in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Virginia, allowed authorities to get Eric Harroun back in the United States without having to ask Turkish authorities to arrest him.
Harroun, 30, of Phoenix, was not in FBI custody during the flight, but agents were aboard and observed him, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Carter Burwell.
He did not say when Harroun had been placed on the "no-fly" list or whether he was aware of it.
The FBI interviewed Harroun three times in March in Istanbul about his alleged activities in Syria.
An FBI affidavit said Harroun crossed into the war-torn country in January and fought forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. He posted photos and videos of himself on the Internet handling rocket-propelled grenades and other weapons, it said.
The United States never asked Turkish authorities to arrest him.
Harroun flew to Washington's Dulles airport in Virginia on March 27 and agreed to another interview.
Agents arrested him then on the charge of conspiring to use a rocket-propelled grenade while fighting with the al-Nusrah Front, a branch of al Qaeda in Iraq.
The United States broadly supports the rebel effort in Syria. But officials have said militants have infiltrated opposition groups.
Al-Nursa is said to be one of the best-armed and efficient fighting groups among the Syrian opposition, but has been designated by the United States as a terrorist organization.
Harroun's lawyer, Geremy Kamens, said his client was charged with fighting the Syrian regime - opposed by the United States. Additionally, he pointed out an FBI agent who testified at Monday's hearing said there was no evidence Harroun was involved in any terror activities.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Ivan Davis ruled Monday the government had enough evidence to allow the case to proceed, and ordered Harroun to remain in jail pending trial.
Davis rejected any form of bail and said he found Harroun's admissions during his FBI interviews to be convincing.
"There is no stronger case than the defendant's own confession," said Davis.
The judge also said Harroun had bragged about his actions in Syria on social media.
Harroun said nothing in court. He has not been asked to enter a plea and has not been formally indicted yet.
According to a March 28 affidavit, Harroun entered Syria and later told the FBI his intention was to fight with the Free Syrian Army, the main rebel group.
Harroun allegedly told the FBI he participated in a joint attack with the rebel force and the al-Nusra Front and jumped in the back of an al-Nusra truck and was taken to one of its camps.
Harroun allegedly told the FBI the al-Nusra fighters initially treated him like a prisoner and took his weapons, but later he was accepted and assigned to an team equipped with rocket propelled grenades.
The affidavit said he posted photos and videos on the Internet showing himself handling weapons including RPGs.
Burwell said at Monday's hearing that Harroun knowingly worked with al-Nusra and said the group wanted to make him its Adam Gadahn. Burwell said Harroun refused.
Gadahn is the California man who became a spokesman for al Qaeda.
Burwell said the offense Harroun faces is a serious terrorism charge that carries 30 years to life in prison, if he is convicted.
Harroun allegedly said he tried to recruit 300 people, including U.S. citizens to fight in Syria. Harroun's lawyer scoffed at that claim and suggested the prosecutor had simply tallied up the number of Harroun's Facebook friends.
According to the court affidavit, Harroun told the FBI that he estimated shooting 10 people during fighting in Syria but didn't know if any of them were killed.
His attorney questioned the FBI agent who wrote the document and asked if the agency could verify he shot people and said there is no video of him actually firing an RPG.
FBI agent Paul Higginbotham said the government had no independent confirmation.
Kamens said after Harroun was taken to the al-Nusra camp he wanted to return to his own group. He said Harroun had told authorities he was afraid if he didn't participate in attacks with al-Nusra its members would assume he was an American spy and kill him.
Harroun served in the U.S. Army from 2000 to 2003 but was never stationed overseas.