President Obama exchanged five Taliban officials for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl last month, sparking outcry among those who suspect the soldier deserted his unit in eastern Afghanistan in 2009 before being taken captive. It’s an extraordinary story regardless of the details, but another case involving a Marine who disappeared in Iraq, then reappeared in Lebanon, and then disappeared again, may be even stranger, and it’s poised to jump firmly into the spotlight.
Marine Cpl. Wassef Ali Hassoun, 34, was taken into custody after the Naval Criminal Investigative Service “worked with Cpl. Hassoun to turn himself in and return to the United States to face charges under the Uniformed [sic] Code of Military Justice,” Marine officials said in a statement released Sunday night. He is expected to return to Camp Lejeune, N.C., on Monday, where he could face charges in a case overseen by Maj. Gen. Raymond Fox, the commanding general of II Marine Expeditionary Force.
The background on Hassoun’s case, explored a bit in this Checkpoint post last month, is astonishing. Hassoun, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Lebanon, disappeared from a Marine base outside Fallujah, Iraq, on June 19, 2004. At the time, it was believed that he was captured by militants.
A video of Hassoun was distributed a week later showing him captured and blindfolded, prompting the Pentagon to announce that he had been captured. At one point, he was reported on Islamist militant Web sites to have been beheaded.
The claims turned out to be bogus. Hassoun re-emerged at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut in July 2004 and then held a news conference at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va., saying that he was not a deserter and had been kidnapped.
Shortly beforehand, two people had been killed and several wounded in a firefight near his family’s home in northern Lebanon, where the relatives had been trading gunfire with another clan taunting them over Hassoun’s ties to the United States.
The Marine Corps charged Hassoun with desertion in December 2004, following a five-month investigation into his disappearance. It also charged him with the theft of a 9mm pistol he allegedly took from his base in Iraq, and with wrongful appropriation of a government vehicle.
Hassoun vanished again the following month, in January 2005, after failing to return to Camp Lejeune after taking leave to see family in Utah, authorities said. Little was heard about him again until 2011, when his family contacted a publicist in Los Angeles to seek a $1 million book and movie deal, according to an Associated Press account at the time. The publicist told the AP that Hassoun’s brother said the missing Marine was living in Lebanon with family.
Marine officials have been cagey so far in releasing more information about what happened to Hassoun, but officials said Sunday that he turned himself into NCIS and was being flown back from an undisclosed location in the Middle East.
It isn’t clear if Hassoun left his post in Iraq to visit family in Lebanon. If he did so, it would have required traveling through Iraq’s western Anbar province at a particularly violent time, and then either flying or traveling by ground through Syria, Jordan or both.
At least one other U.S. service member was kidnapped and killed after leaving his base in Iraq. Then-Spec. Ahmed K. Altaie, an Iraq-born interpreter in the U.S. Army, who was captured in Baghdad in October 2006 and subsequently executed. His family did not receive his remains until 2012, when they were turned over to the Iraqi government by the Shiite militant group Asaib Ahl al-Haq. His family said he sneaked away from Iraq’s heavily fortified Green Zone frequently to see his wife in Iraq.
Meanwhile, no charges have been filed against Bergdahl. An investigation into what happened in his case remains open, military officials say.
UPDATE: July 1, 3:55 p.m.: This post has been updated to reflect that the Marine Corps news release incorrectly referred to the “Uniformed Code of Military Justice.” It is the Uniform Code of Military Justice.”