Farris Hassan: Youthful Idealist or Bumbling Jihadist?

Call me overly suspicious, but the story of 16-year-old Farris Hassan traveling to Iraq on a whim strikes me as unbelievable. The Florida teen of Iraqi descent was all over the news in December when he apparently took off without telling his family and headed to Iraq to see what all the fuss was about. Hassan was able to finance his plane ticket to Kuwait with money he earned trading stocks on the Internet.

All the media coverage portrayed Hassan as a naïve young man who simply wanted to, in his own words, "experience…the same hardships ordinary Iraqis experience everyday." In an essay written by Hassan and e-mailed to his teacher from Kuwait, he seemed to have pro-American views and he spoke passionately about the need to defeat the terrorists in Iraq. He was also interested in a career in journalism and after taking a course in "immersion journalism," he made the decision to go to Iraq. In the process, he found himself smack dab in the middle of a war zone.

But perhaps there’s more to the story than meets the eye.

Hassan’s route to Iraq certainly raises questions. He first tried to enter the country by taking a taxi from Kuwait City across the border and was stopped by U.S. troops, who, understandably, questioned his reasons for crossing into Iraq. It was during the last Iraqi election and the Kuwait-Iraq border had been shut down due to security concerns. But they seem not to have considered him worthy of custody, for he was eventually turned away. He apparently tried to make the crossing one more time, but encountered the same fate.

He then made his way to Lebanon where he stayed with family members in Beirut for ten days. This on the advice of his parents whom he contacted from Kuwait, but did not tell his exact location. (There was some confusion about how much his father knew, for Hassan claims to have told his mother nothing, but shared some information with his father.) The Beirut family members helped him catch a plane to Baghdad on December 25th and he stayed at a hotel popular among Americans and journalists, The Palestine Hotel.

There was a mysterious two-day period in which Hassan claimed to have left the hotel only once. During this time, he says that he contacted Fox News, but with no response. Then on the third day, he walked into an Associated Press (AP) office and tried to pass himself off as a student doing research. AP staffers became suspicious and called the U.S. Embassy, which had been alerted by his parents to look for Hassan. A lieutenant from the 101st Airborne eventually came and picked Hassan up and he was returned to the United States soon afterwards.

Despite the improbability of Hassan’s story, the media by and large bought it. Although an AP article on the subject does say this:

Most of Hassan’s wild tale could not be corroborated, but his larger story arc was in line with details provided by friends and family members back home.

How trustworthy those friends and family members are is unknown.

The case would seem to be closed, but now we find that Hassan just happened to visit the local office of the terrorist group Hezbollah while in Beirut, again with the assistance of his ever-helpful family members. According to a New York Daily News article:

For the two-hour meeting with the militant group’s head of media relations - arranged by family friends Farris stayed with in Beirut - the teen says he posed as an American student writing a sympathetic article about Hezbollah, a group known to support Palestinian suicide bombers.

In part one of a an interview with MSNBC’s Rita Cosby that aired on January 9th and that the New York Daily News article quotes, Hassan described his little adventure in more detail:

"I had to travel through alleyways and I finally walked - this was in the southern Shiite section of Beirut, the poorest section. So walking through alleyways, going up crooked staircases with bullet holes in the walls. And there was no sign saying, this is the Hezbollah office, of course not."

Here he tells of his conversation with the Hezbollah leader:

"I actually sort of nailed him on one point. He told me that Palestine belongs to the Palestinians because they've been there for centuries and all the Jews there should go back to Europe. And I told him, well, the Christians have been in Lebanon long before the Muslims, and 50 years ago, they were indisputably the majority. Under your same premise, shouldn't the Shiite newcomers return to their homelands? And he, in fact, was stumped by that. We both knew I had got him, and for and I’m not exaggerating. For the next 30 seconds, we both started cracking up and laughing."

While Hassan’s words were all well and good, had he himself been a Christian or a Jew, he certainly wouldn’t have come out of that meeting alive, let alone yucking it up with a terrorist. Hassan told the AP that he doesn’t have "any religious affiliation," but Islamists aren’t too fond of secularists either.

Interestingly, during his interview with Rita Cosby, Hassan described his ability to transform himself into whatever identity was needed to fit his environment. While in Lebanon, he apparently also visited Christians and "Palestinian refugees," as he put it, and in both cases, he pretended that he was one of them in order to blend in. Such skills would certainly come in handy as a journalist, but they also provide a glimpse into Hassan’s propensity for deception.

To be fair, he came across as very patriotic in the interview and also enthusiastic about helping people. One has to wonder why he didn’t simply join a humanitarian organization in the U.S. and go to Iraq that way.  Or even better, eventually join the U.S. military, for which he professed to have a lot of respect. 

It’s possible that Hassan was either an aspiring journalist whose trip to Iraq turned out to be something of a publicity stunt or, as the media portrayed him, just another American kid acting out his dreams.

But there’s something fishy about this whole story and it could be that the media and, by extension, American viewers, may have been taken for a ride. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time.

For all our sakes, I sincerely hope my suspicions are proven wrong.