WASHINGTON – A Marine who was declared a deserter nearly 10 years ago after disappearing in Iraq and then returning to the U.S. claiming he had been kidnapped, only to disappear again, is back in U.S. custody, officials said Sunday.
Cpl. Wassef Ali Hassoun, 34, turned himself in and was being flown Sunday from an undisclosed location in the Middle East to Norfolk, Va. He is to be moved Monday to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, according to a spokesman, Capt. Eric Flanagan.
Maj. Gen. Raymond Fox, commander of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force at Lejeune, will determine whether to court martial Hassoun.
Hassoun disappeared from his unit in Iraq's western desert in June 2004. The following month he turned up unharmed in Beirut, Lebanon and blamed his disappearance on Islamic extremist kidnappers. He was returned to Lejeune and was about to face the military equivalent of a grand jury hearing when he disappeared again.
Flanagan, said the Hassoun case is unrelated to the matter of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who disappeared from his post in eastern Afghanistan in June 2009 under unexplained circumstances. Members of Bergdahl's unit have said he walked away on his own and should face desertion charges.
The Bergdahl case triggered a flood of controversy in part because of questions about the deal the U.S. struck with the Taliban to gain his release May 31, after five years in captivity, in exchange for freeing five senior Taliban commanders from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Bergdahl has not commented publicly on the circumstances of his disappearance and the Army has made no charges against him.
It is unclear where Hassoun, 34, has spent the past nine years after disappearing during a visit with relatives in Utah in December 2004. Nor is it known why he chose to turn himself in now. He was born in Lebanon and is a naturalized American citizen.
He enlisted in the Marine Corps in January 2002 and was trained as a motor vehicle operator. At the time of his disappearance from a Marine camp in Fallujah in western Iraq in June 2004 he was serving as an Arabic translator. That was a particularly difficult year for the Marines in Iraq. In April they launched an offensive to retake Fallujah from Islamic extremists but were ordered to pull back, only to launch a second offensive in November that succeeded in regaining control of the city but at the expense of dozens of Marine lives.
Seven days after his June 2004 disappearance, a photo of a blindfolded Hassoun with a sword poised above his head turned up on Al-Jazeera television. A group called the National Islamic Resistance/1920 Revolution Brigade claimed to be holding him captive.
On July 8, 2004, Hassoun contacted American officials in Beirut, Lebanon, claiming to have been kidnapped. He was returned to the U.S. and eventually to Camp Lejeune. After a Navy investigation, the military charged Hassoun with desertion, loss of government property, theft of a military firearm for allegedly leaving the Fallujah camp with a 9 mm service pistol, and theft of a Humvee.
Shortly after his return to the U.S., Hassoun said in a public statement 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."
In the initial months following his return to Lejeune, Hassoun was not held in confinement because charges had not yet been brought against him. He was considered non-deployable until the case was resolved, but he was allowed to make personal trips.
A January 2005 hearing on the matter was canceled when Hassoun failed to return to Camp Lejeune from his Utah visit. His commanders then officially classified him as a deserter, authorizing civilian police to apprehend him.
A short time later Hassoun was been placed on a Navy list of "most wanted" fugitives. A mug shot of him appeared on a Navy criminal justice Web site, which claimed the missing corporal used the alias "Jafar."
In a February 2005 interview with the Associated Press in Salt Lake City, Hassoun's brother, Mohamad, said Wassef Ali Hassoun was a victim of anti-Muslim bias in the U.S. military. The Marine Corps denied this.
The brother also said the pressure of facing desertion charges was partly to blame for Hassoun's decision to flee while in Utah.
"Instead of them giving him medals and making him feel good about his service and what he was doing for his country, they gave him an Article 32," Hassoun said of the military court proceedings that his brother was to have faced in January 2005.
Family members have said they last saw him on Dec. 29, 2004.