When I travel, I don't go looking for trouble. I am deeply concerned about my own safety. I may visit places like Kosovo and Bosnia that were once dangerous, but I'm careful to avoid active war zones and places my government advises me not to go. I would never go anywhere near the Syrian conflict, but I have been to Istanbul several times, and on one of these trips, I encountered an American who was heading there to fight.
In November 2012, in a hostel in Istanbul, I met an American military veteran named Eric Harroun, who was heading to Syria to fight against the forces of Assad in Syria. I happened to share a hostel bunkroom with him, and he became my Facebook friend. Eric is deceased now, but not from anything that happened in Syria. He died of a drug overdose in Arizona in April 2014. While the manner of his death was unexpected, the fact of his death did not surprise me at all. I knew it was coming from the day I met him. Now that it has actually come to pass, I want to tell you why I believed his days were numbered.
There has been plenty written about Eric on the web (including an article in the
New York Times and a Wikipedia entry), but all of the articles I have seen have neglected a key fact: He was profoundly brain damaged.
Eric was a US Army veteran during the early era of the Iraq/Afghanistan wars, but according to Wikipedia, he never saw combat: "He was discharged after a jeep crash at his base in Fort Riley, Kansas, which left him with a serious head injury, resulting in a metal plate being inserted into his head by doctors" (apparently in 2003). This is consistent with what he told me in Istanbul.
It was obvious to me that Eric was mentally disabled. You couldn't tell it from the outside, but if you spent a little time with him, you could see how skewed his judgment was, even in a relatively safe place like Istanbul. We shared a bunkroom at the hostel for at least a week, during which time he exhibited numerous lapses of judgment in normal everyday tasks, like navigating the city. His brain just didn't work right.
Eric spoke Arabic. I asked him how he learned it, and he said his father came from an Arabic country. (I don't recall; Lebanon perhaps?) I don't know how much of the language he learned from his father and how much he learned later, but obviously having a parent who knows a foreign language gives you a running start. In Eric's case, I think speaking Arabic was a very dangerous thing. It gave him a pass to visit all the danger zones of the Middle East, and his brain injury meant he had no critical judgment holding him back.
In short, there was not an ounce of common sense in that boy. In heading for Syria, he had no clear idea what he was fighting for or against. He seemed to have little grasp of the factional nature of the Assad opposition. I think he was seeking out an adrenaline thrill but had none of the critical thinking skills or self-preservation instincts that keep any normal thrill-seeker alive.
My very first memory of him was in the hostel common area one afternoon (somewhere around Nov. 27, 2012). He had just come in from the streets of Istanbul after an hours-long expedition, and he was describing the ordeal he had gone through. He was trying to find an address in Istanbul. According to his own account, he kept asking people for directions, but he spoke to them in Arabic. He would have been much better using English. People said, "We don't speak Arabic here. We speak Turkish." It was incomprehensible to Eric that a Muslim country would not speak Arabic, so he kept using it. Eric eventually found the address he was looking for, but it took him many times longer than it would take anyone else.
At this point, I had no idea about his Syrian aspirations. I was only thinking, "What a jerk!" I had seen it many times: One of my fellow countrymen making a fool of himself in a foreign country. Some people should never be given passports because they only get themselves in trouble overseas, and I pegged Eric as one of them. Nonetheless, our relationship from that point on was friendly.
A few hours later, we were in the bunkroom together, exchanging the usual pleasantries—Where are you from? Where are you going? etc. That was when he told me about his plans to go to Syria to fight Assad. I was aghast! Here was a guy who couldn't even navigate the streets of a "safe" city, and he was heading into a war zone where nothing is clear. At this point, the Syrian Civil War had been going on for a year and a half, and things were already messy. There were factions fighting Assad who couldn't be regarded as any better (what we now know as "ISIS").
Eric was completely unable to grasp any nuance in the conflict. To him, things were black and white: Assad was bad, and anyone opposed to Assad was good. As I learned about his brain injury, I began to see that his lack of nuance judgment was probably organic. Some part his brain's higher functions had been damaged. It might have been an interesting case for Dr. Oliver Sacks to study, but in these circumstances I quickly saw that his disability would inevitably lead to death.
Eric and I were roommates for a little more than a week, so I got to know him fairly well. He told me about his previous visits to Egypt during their unrest. I had been to Egypt, too—during a lull in the storm—but even in a period of relative peace, the country frightened me. Eric had been deliberately diving into the most dangerous protests, with no regard for his own safety. One of the people he met in Egypt was now fighting in Syria, and Eric planned to hook up with him at the border. I can't remember why Eric was staying so long in Istanbul, but it may have been related to difficulties in contacting that person. According to Wikipedia, Eric crossed into Syria on Jan 7, 2013, about 6 weeks after I met him, and was already in trouble three days later, separated from his unit and apparently as lost as he was on the streets of Istanbul.
Things got interesting when I told Eric I had been to Israel several times. You could tell he had trouble processing this, since it was neither black nor white. In his simple world-view, anyone who had anything to do with Israel was automatically the enemy. His brain couldn't differentiate any subtleties within a category. On the other hand, I was an American, standing right in front of him, obviously not a threat. I pointed out that I had also visited Palestine and Egypt and that visiting Israel didn't mean I agreed with their policies. From that point on, Eric referred to me as a Mossad agent, but our relations remained warm. When he accepted my friend request on Nov. 30, he understood I was a potential Israeli agent (in his view) but apparently felt okay about it.
Getting to know Eric, I started becoming really worried about him. He had an obvious mental disorder, and I felt he faced almost certain death in Syria. If I were a rebel leader, I wouldn't want him fighting on my side because his judgment was so poor. Because he was an American, he was more likely to become a political pawn. Even if Assad was bad, Eric was not going to help anyone's cause by going to Syria. He was just going to get himself killed—or worse: captured by one side or the other.
One evening, I decided to give him a friendly talk, trying to dissuade him from going to Syria. I gave it my best. I repeated back to him his own observation that his brain had been "totally fucked up" by his injury. I said something to the effect of: "You have no judgment, dude! Your brain injury has taken it away from you. It took you three hours in Istanbul finding an address anyone else could find in twenty minutes. If you get out there in a war zone, you won't be able to tell friend from foe. Not everyone fighting Assad is good. Some of those guys could be just as dangerous as Assad's forces, but because of your brain injury, you won't be able to tell the difference. If you go to Syria, you are going to die, dude. I don't know how to put this more bluntly: You are going to die!"
Eric listened respectfully and said he would think about what I said, but I knew I didn't have any effect on him. His actions weren't under rational control, so nothing I said would stop him.
I felt comfortable after that. At least I tried.
I friended him on Facebook and followed his posts. A few weeks after I left Turkey, he posted photos and videos of himself in Jihadist garb, seeming to wage war against Assad's forces. In my mind, it was all for show. I think the social media postings making him seem like a Jihadist fighter were more important to him than anything he actually did in Syria. According to the Wikipedia page, he was only in Syria for a little more than a month (Jan 7 to Feb 10, 2013), just enough time to collect some war stories and lots of good material for Facebook.
To me, his most remarkable accomplishment in Syria was that he came out alive!
Via Istanbul, he eventually made his way back to the USA, where he was arrested. The only reason he was arrested (I read in another article) was that he went to the U.S. Government and explicitly told them he had been in Syria fighting Assad. The government didn't come to him; he want to them! This is consistent with the Eric I knew, seeing things in black and white and possessing no critical judgment whatsoever. As far as I knew, he was incapable of lying or hiding his intent—which isn't necessarily a good thing. He was a loyal American, so why shouldn't he tell his government what he had been up to? His prosecution was public, and there were a lot of news articles about it. None of the articles seemed to pick up on his brain injury.
When I learned of Eric's arrest, I was relieved! At least that meant he was safe. Up to that point, his intention was to return to Syria to continue the fight (or so he claimed). At least being arrested meant he would stay alive a little longer.
But Eric couldn't escape his brain injury. When I learned he had died a few months ago, I wasn't surprised. One way or another, he was a time bomb waiting to go off. Dying of a drug overdose was plausible to me, because he didn't have the judgment to, say, decide how much drugs were too much. There were worse ways to die, like being beheaded on an ISIS video. Eric at least died painlessly without causing as much distress to others as he might have.
I don't regret meeting Eric. It was a window into a piece of history. The important thing to me is that I made a reasonable effort to dissuade him. I probably wasn't the only one. I'm sure his family was deeply distressed by the direction his life went, but I doubt there was anything they could have done either. It all came down to that brain injury in 2003. From that point on, his critical judgment was gone and his fate was sealed.