GIS Special Topical Studies
Iraq War 2003: Background, Lessons and Follow-On

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July 13, 2004

Questions Surround Syrian Intelligence Rôle in Journey of US Marine Cpl. Hassoun

Exclusive. Analysis. By Jason Fuchs, GIS UN Correspondent. Questions continued to surround the case of presumed abducted US Marine Cpl. Wassef Ali Hassoun. Hassoun had been reported missing on June 20, 2004, after “disappearing” on June 19, 2004, from his post in Iraq. On July 8, 2004, Hassoun presented himself at the US Embassy in Beirut after reportedly having spent the day before with relatives in Tripoli. Hassoun, now in Germany at the US Ramstein Air Base, continued to tell US military medical and psychological professionals that he had been captured by insurgents in Iraq, as had been originally thought. Nevertheless, GIS sources stressed that Cpl. Hassoun was not talking about how he had made the journey from Iraq to northern Lebanon.

On this point, GIS sources report that the 24-year-old US Marine translator had been moved to Lebanon by Syrian jihadists. Further, GIS sources detailed, the jihadists’ movement of Cpl. Hassoun had been apparently been conducted with the knowledge of and assistance from Syrian intelligence/security forces.

Very few details about what had happened to Cpl. Hassoun from June 19-July 8, 2004 had yet to emerge. Indeed, apart from a series of Islamist messages claiming credit for his supposed abduction and Mr. Hassoun’s own statements little else provided any indication as to what the circumstances of the Cpl.’s disappearance had, in fact, been. Yet, while the entire picture remained blurry, this one aspect of Cpl. Hassoun’s journey had recently come into focus. The fact that Damascus had been involved in any material way, shape or form in the movement of Cpl. Hassoun during the time period in which he was presumed to be under the control of Iraqi insurgents raised a number of serious questions for Washington, Baghdad and the Coalition.

This new information revealed by GIS sources did not mitigate the credibility of claims by an assortment of Iraqi Islamist groups linked to the Jordanian bin Laden-affiliated commander, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, that the Marine Cpl. had been taken hostage in late June 2004. The first claim had come on a June 27, 2004, videotape broadcast on the Qatar-based Arab satellite network Al Jazeera by a group that called itself the “Islamic Retaliation Movement/Armed Resistance Wing”. This videotape had been followed by a July 4 statement on the website of the Army of Ansar al-Sunna discounting Lebanese and Islamist on-line forum reports that Cpl. Hassoun had been beheaded. By July 6, another statement had been delivered to Al Jazeera, this time from “Islamic Response—the Security Wing of the Islamic Resistance of Iraq” claiming that the Marine Cpl. of Lebanese descent had been moved to “a safe place”.

It remained unclear to what extent Damascus had been involved in the Cpl. Hassoun affair, in particular, and the Abu Musab al-Zarqawi-led kidnappings, in general. A December 17, 2003, report in GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily entitled Imad Mugniyah Now in Iraq; “Iraqi Resistance” Set to Evolve in Response to US Offensive, Capture of Saddam had presaged:

“The model for this new insurgency strategy would be based on the campaign waged by Iran, Syria, and the HizbAllah to evict US Forces from Lebanon from 1982-1984 that saw then US Pres. Ronald Reagan withdraw US Marines from the country in February 1984 …The terrorist offensive conducted by Tehran and Damascus with their HizbAllah proxy forces in Lebanon had also included the kidnappings of key foreign nationals. It could be expected that Tehran, Damascus, and Mugniyah would revert back to the tactics that had brought them such strategic gain in the early 1980s.”

GIS sources noted that Zarqawi maintained “excellent” relations with both Syrian and especially Iranian intelligence services, adding that, through early July 2004, a key Zarqawi lieutenant remained in Damascus to coordinate operations with the Syrian Government.