RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Marine Cpl. Wassef Ali Hassoun disappeared from his unit in Iraq nearly a decade ago under mysterious circumstances. A week later, a photo of a blindfolded Hassoun with a sword poised above his head turned up on Al-Jazeera television. There was even a claim that he was beheaded.
Hassoun turned up days later in Lebanon, and said he had been kidnapped by Islamic extremists and held for 19 days. But the military doubted his story and he was brought back to the U.S. to face charges, including desertion and theft. Just before a military grand jury hearing in January 2005, he vanished again and didn’t turn up until recently when he surrendered in the Middle East.
Hassoun, who was born in Lebanon and is a naturalized American citizen, was being held Monday at a North Carolina brig, a Marine spokesman said. The Marines can hold Hassoun for up to four months while a two-star general waits for prosecutors to recommend charges and he decides what to do, said Lt. Col. Cliff W. Gilmore of the II Marine Expeditionary Force, a spokesman for the unit Hassoun was assigned to.
A statement Sunday by Marine Corps headquarters said the Naval Criminal Investigative Service “worked with” Hassoun to turn himself in, return to the United States and face charges under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. It provided no details about where Hassoun was when he made these arrangements.
The Hassoun case comes on the heels of the release of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was freed by members a group linked to the Taliban in exchange for five Afghans held at the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detention center. Members of Bergdahl’s unit have said he walked away on his own and should face desertion charges.
Hassoun enlisted in the Marine Corps in January 2002 and was trained as a motor vehicle operator. He was serving as an Arabic translator at the time of his disappearance in Fallujah in western Iraq in June 2004. Seven days later, the photo appeared on Al-Jazeera television.
A group called the National Islamic Resistance/1920 Revolution Brigade claimed to be holding him captive. There was also a statement on the Internet claiming to be from an Iraqi guerrilla group that falsely said Hassoun had been beheaded.
Soon after the photo and statements, Hassoun contacted American officials in Beirut, Lebanon, on July 8, 2004, saying he had been kidnapped.
The circumstances of his original disappearance have never been fully explained. Documents from the military investigation obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune in 2005 said that many in Hassoun’s unit believed the photo was faked and they felt “betrayed.”
He was returned to Camp Lejeune and charged with desertion, loss of government property, theft of a military firearm for allegedly leaving with a 9 mm service pistol and theft of a Humvee.
Hassoun said in a public statement after his return to the U.S. in 2004 that he had been captured by insurgents in Iraq and was still a loyal Marine.
“I did not desert my post,” he told reporters. “I was captured and held against my will by anti-coalition forces for 19 days. This was a very difficult and challenging time for me.”
Once back in the U.S., he was allowed to visit relatives in West Jordan, Utah, in December 2004 when he disappeared again. A hearing, called an Article 32 proceeding, was canceled in January 2005. His commanders then officially classified him as a deserter.
Maj. Gen. Raymond Fox, commander of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force at Lejeune, will decide how to adjudicate the case, which could mean a court-martial.
“When he went back into deserter status, that Article 32 investigation was suspended and the charges were withdrawn because we don’t conduct those investigations in absentia,” Gilmore said.