When an RPG Became a WMD

Eric Harroun Faces Court

The [law] puts RPGs right up there with revolutionary war muskets and bombs bursting in the air.
— John Mueller, adviser in defence and foreign policy to Ohio State, March 29 2013

Let us appreciate the irony. A U.S. citizen fights for an opposition group against a government that is no longer recognised as legitimate, credible and legal in the eyes of the international community. (International here is loose, variegated and questionable.) The group he so happens to fight for was the Syrian al-Nusra front. The dolts in the US State Department have decided that the group is a “terror group”, as distinct from other groups, who presumably do not dabble in “terror” so much as watering the tree of patriotism with a good deal of blood.

This is the bad comedy that is facing Eric Harroun, who served in the U.S. Army from 2000 to 2003 and found himself in the octane-driven circumstances of attempting to overthrow the steely cool Bashir al-Assad. But what is the beef of FBI agent Paul Higginbotham against this American veteran? Harroun, it seemed, crossed into Syria in January 2013 to fight alongside members of the Jabhat al-Nusra group against Assad. All of that is fine, till one consults the list of terrorist organisations to find al-Nusra firmly planted there.

Criminal it might be to fight alongside a designated terror organisation, but the foolishness of the accusation is bound to throw us into hysterics of laughter when we read that Harroun is charged with “conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction, i.e. a Rocker Propelled Grenade, outside the United States, in violation of 18 U.S.C. 2332a(b).”

Ever since Iraq was invaded in March 2003, the political satirists have struggled to find briefs and chart new waters. The joke factory has been taken over by the error prone psychopaths. The term “Weapons of Mass Destruction” is not so much a confection of weasel words as a combination of conjured fancy. The conjuring trick, however, has persisted, much like irritable bowel syndrome. Here, we find the reductio ad absurdum – officials in the U.S. government believing that a rocket propelled grenade is a WMD equivalent to the destructive power of a nuclear device. President Bush must be proud, for it bears the cerebral strength and lightness of his reasoning.

Harroun’s treatment strikes a chord for those familiar with the treatment of Australian convict David Hicks, who trained with Al Qaeda in Afghanistan at a time when it was fashionable to do so. Both were a bit sparse in the top drawer, but they, as no doubt their mothers might say “meant well”. Harroun was medically discharged in 2004 after a car accident, and has found the adventures of travel and war irresistible. Being a creature of social media, he has happily posted pictures of his exploits on Facebook, showing, incidentally, his love of “WMDs”, at least those that fall within U.S. law. Not perhaps the brightest thing to do, but hardly, in the current political climate, as foolish as you might think.

Naturally, Harroun should have done the good thing and killed for the Free Syrian Army with weapons that were not, shall we say, of the WMD character. They are the pin-up boys of the moment, the feted thugs who titillate the security establishments in Europe and the United States with calls of liberation. Every gangster has a soft spot, every murderer, a kind streak. But he evidently found the violence offered by al-Nusra that much more exotic.

As Spencer Ackerman claims, writing in Wired (Mar 29), “U.S. law isn’t particularly diligent about differentiating dangerous weapons from apocalyptic ones.” W. Seth Carus of the Centre for the Study of Weapons of Mass Destruction has also commented on the evolution of the term in an occasional paper (No. 8, Jan 2012), noting that “high explosives” found its way into the definition over time. Lunacy is common place among the armchair experts.

A “destructive device” is more likely the term to be used for Harroun, but the case has already produced its own absurdities, with more to come. Some of us are bound to be very entertained.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com. Read other articles by Binoy.