‘Pssst, buddy. Wanna buy a bridge?’

By Barbara Simpson

Truth is stranger than fiction. Right now, we don’t know which is which. Things are strange. First he was gone from his base in Iraq, then reported lured and kidnapped, then threatened, then beheaded, then alive, then safe, then back in U.S. custody.

Huh? It’s a sure thing, this didn’t just happen. I don’t believe for a minute, this wasn’t planned and executed with cunning to cause disruption in the military and in American minds. Like a cat toying with a mouse, I think we’ve been had.

The issue deals with a 24-year-old Muslim man – a member of the U.S. Marine Corps. For all intents and purposes, he joined, served and met his obligations. For all intents and purposes, he was loyal to the Corps and our country.

So far, so good. Maybe.

That’s because things got wiggy and moved into the realm of “The Twilight Zone.” We’re there now: lots of rumors, lots of contradictions, lots of mystery and no answers.

The man is Cpl. Wassef Ali Hassoun. Born in Lebanon, he attended American schools there. In 1999, he moved to the United States, and lived in Utah with his brothers. He joined the Marines in 2001. Hassoun was with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, on his second Iraq tour, serving as a translator.

Hassoun disappeared June 20, reported missing from the base near Fallujah. The military knew he was gone, noting he was on “unauthorized leave,” but didn’t publicize it. Civilians would say he was AWOL – absent without leave.

AWOL is not good, but it especially isn’t good when it takes place in the middle of a war, on foreign soil, in the realm of the enemy, at a time of terrorism, when the enemy is out to humiliate, torture and kill Americans – especially the military – and to add to the intrigue, it especially isn’t good when the man who disappeared is of the same ethnic stock and religion as the terrorists.

His ethnicity and religion present a sticky-wicket for the military and those investigating what happened, especially because it’s extremely far-fetched that militant Islamist terrorists would kidnap or kill one of their own religion, especially one who ostensibly practiced Islam.

It also raises the issue no one wants to address publicly: Is there a problem for the military to have Muslims in their ranks? There’ve already been instances of turncoats and violence and instances of those who don’t want to fight their religious brothers.

There are, although sotto voce, concerns about loyalty. That is clearly politically incorrect even to contemplate, but the real possibility exists. When there are American Muslims in this country who do not speak out against Islamic terrorism because they fear retribution, it’s not far-fetched to consider that Muslims in our military, who are engaged in battles against fellow Muslims, might have similar qualms.

The public learned about Hassoun when, seven days after he disappeared from the base, Al-Jazeera aired a tape of a blindfolded man, identified as the missing Marine. It said he was the hostage of a group called Islamic Response. The men standing behind him with swords, threatened to behead him.

Rumors flew. First, reports, he’d left the base to join a wife in Lebanon. Then, that he was involved romantically with a Muslim woman. Then, that he was lured off base by a woman, who betrayed him to terrorists. Then, he’d complained to fellow Marines about the war and the killing of Muslims. Then, he was distraught after seeing the death of a gunner hit at point-blank range. Then, reports he cleared out his locker and took money from his bank account before he disappeared.

Six days after the tape was released came word he was beheaded. Then, every day, another story: he was safe, militants were holding him, his family said he was released, an official in Lebanon said he was released after pledging to quit the military.

Then, he apparently called the U.S. Embassy in Beirut and asked to be met at a coffee shop. But he didn’t show up. After another call, he did, and was picked up by U.S. officials. As I write this, he’s said to be on his way to a U.S. base in Germany where he’ll be examined, interrogated and debriefed.

Other bizarre events leave more questions: a raging fight and gun battle in the Tripoli neighborhood where Hassoun’s family lives. Two people were killed, another injured. Hassoun’s brother said residents had accused Hassoun of treason because he fought with Marines in Iraq.

While not said to be “under detention” – I can’t imagine why not – the Naval Criminal Investigative service is investigating. They’re not using the word “desertion” – a White House official involved in counterterrorism is quoted in the Los Angeles Times as saying, “Not interested in serving is a better way to put it.” Oh.

Let’s hope they’re not afraid of accusing a Muslim of desertion – an offense that can carry the death penalty.

There’s another word they’re avoiding: hoax. I’m not a gambler, but if I were, I’d put my money on that one.