The media pined for Baghdad Boy last Tuesday night. Six satellite television trucks jammed the teen's usually quiet street near Las Olas on the Intracoastal. About 40 reporters and crew members mulled about the front yard of his mother's mansion with the TV lights on and the microphones ready.
What would he say? How would Farris Hassan, the 16-year-old Pine Crest student who had made a dangerous sojourn to Iraq over the holidays, explain himself? He'd already made headlines from Pascagoula to Pakistan. Would this be Baghdad Boy's first news conference?
Burly, and momentarily surly, CNN correspondent John Zarrella didn't seem to expect much. He muttered to no one in particular, "I'm standing here for nothing."
That was after he'd been waiting more than an hour. Farris had already stood them up the night before, saying he needed to study for a calculus test. Another hour went by with nothing. And the idle time led to a lot of idle speculation. Peering at the ten-foot-high wooden doors leading into the stately home, one NBC crewman remarked that the $4 million digs reminded him of other gaudy buildings he'd seen.
"This place looks like one of Saddam Hussein's palaces," he said. "When he opens the door, we're going to see the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in the background. The kid should come out in camos and one of those berets."
Behind him, neighbors gathered. One said she'd heard from a friend of a friend of a friend that big news was soon going to break about Farris.
"This story doesn't make sense," she said. "Someone very close to the family said his father had gotten into all kinds of trouble over terrorism in New Orleans and the kid was really going over there to join al Qaeda."
Al Qaeda? Terrorism? It couldn't be true. After all, the headlines across the globe showed that Farris' hazardous trip was a "quest for knowledge" and that he went to Iraq to "promote democracy."
He was just a boy with a dream.
Unfortunately, nothing is ever that simple when it comes to the Iraq War and the Middle East. Although an al Qaeda mission doesn't seem realistic, there are some disturbing questions about Farris Hassan's journey that have been left happily unanswered by the swarming, yelping media seals. And most of them center on his father, Dr. Redha Hassan, a 57-year-old anesthesiologist who does indeed have a rather shady past that we'll explore a bit later.
First, though, it seems to me that Dr. Hassan, who didn't respond to my requests for an interview, should be charged with child endangerment. The man admitted that he arranged for his son's flight into Baghdad through "political connections" even though he knew foreigners like Farris were targeted for kidnappings and, potentially, beheadings.
His excuse for facilitating his son's trip into a war zone was that if he didn't let him go, it would have left an emotional scar. What a sensitive father, willing to risk his son's being cut ear to ear just to save him from disappointment.
We all know now that Farris is a spoiled rich kid, but that excuse is ridiculous. And it gets even more unbelievable when you consider that Dr. Hassan was suspected by the federal government of conspiring to commit terrorism 20 years ago. Didn't hear about that one? Probably because it hasn't been reported, at least not in all its weird glory. You see, the FBI arrested Dr. Hassan back in 1985 after he tried to manufacture thousands of false Iraqi passports and military identification cards. The doctor's capture happened in Fort Lauderdale, but the covert web of Hassan's cohorts stretched across the world. Also arrested were two of Hassan's brothers, Nouri and Ali, and a "pro-Khomeini" activist named Salah Jawad Schubber.
At the time, the ayatollah's country was at war with Saddam Hussein, whom Hassan apparently had good reason to hate. He has claimed that a brother was murdered by the imprisoned dictator and that he was involved in a resistance movement against Saddam when he was Farris' age.
In other words, the good doctor was radicalized, which makes his alliance with pro-Iranian Shiite Muslims understandable. The problem is that, at the time, the United States was in cahoots with Saddam and considered Iran one of its bitterest foes. And that may be one reason why the FBI took Dr. Hassan's covert and apparently illegal activities very seriously.
The investigation began after the FBI received a tip from Redha Hassan's next-door-neighbor, a printing store owner named Joel Feinstein. Hassan had asked Feinstein, who now lives in retirement in Pompano Beach, if he would make the passports and IDs. In all, he wanted 4,000 fake documents.
"He said, 'They're for my family,'" recalls the 71-year-old Feinstein. "I said, 'You must have a big family. '"
Feinstein notified the FBI and within an hour had two agents sitting at his kitchen table. He agreed to work as an informant in the investigation, though to this day, he still doesn't know exactly how Hassan planned to use the fake papers. "I figured they would try to get into the country to get into military installations in Iraq to get sensitive information or blow them up," he says. "The investigation went to Europe and around the world."
The bust occurred in Feinstein's house one morning after an unidentified man flew from Europe to South Florida to take a look at the documents.
"There must have been 20 or 30 agents who plowed into the house with rifles, shotguns, automatic weapons," Feinstein remembers. "It was unreal. They arrested everybody."
He said that his FBI handlers told him the investigation led to the breakup of a plot to assassinate Rajiv Ghandi, then India's prime minister. While such plots were common (Ghandi was killed by a suicide bomber in 1991), I couldn't find independent verification of that allegation, though there is no reason to suspect Feinstein of lying.
The State Department clearly suspected that Hassan had terrorism on his mind.
"Any time you have people trying to obtain fake passports, the possibility of terrorism raises its head," a government spokesman said after Hassan's arrest.
The charges, however, were later dropped, and Hassan was allowed to continue living and practicing medicine in the United States.
"The FBI got Hassan to work with them," Feinstein says. "They sat him down and scared the shit out of him."
If Feinstein is correct, Hassan has been in the employ of the U.S. government. But with the hated Hussein out of power, where does the doctor stand now?
Well, he's sounding to me a lot like the South Florida version of Ahmad Chalabi, the Iraqi exile and leader of the self-styled Iraqi National Congress. Chalabi, a convicted bank embezzler, had close Pentagon ties and spread lies to help encourage popular support for the war. After that, he was accused of spying on behalf of the Iranian government. Today, he seems to be back in America's good graces and was named Iraq's oil minister this past spring. The Iraqi people, however, largely despise him, as evidenced by his abysmal showing in the recent Iraqi election. Preliminary returns show that he failed to win election to the new Parliament and that his Iraqi National Congress was shut out across the land, winning only half of 1 percent of the vote.
Like Chalabi, Dr. Hassan has a dubious past and unsettling ties to Iran. But what about the propaganda? That's where his son Farris comes into the picture. Before leaving for Iraq, the Young Republican sent out an e-mail to friends that began: "There is a struggle in Iraq between good and evil, between those striving for freedom and liberty and those striving for death and destruction... Those terrorists are not human but pure evil."
Ah, the robotic parroting of the architects of the war, the utter lack of intelligent analysis, the mind-numbing repetition of the e word... Dick Cheney couldn't have put it better.
I asked the boy's Baghdad-born mother, Shatha Atiya, if her son might be taking on the radical tendencies of his father. Atiya, a tall and striking 48-year-old psychologist who divorced Dr. Hassan in 1999, seemed horrified by the suggestion.
"Nobody should ever confuse Farris' simplicity and naivete with something that happened with his father 20 years ago," she told me.
I asked her, on a whim, if her ex-husband is linked to the CIA. She laughed. "I'm not going to talk about him," she said. "You'll have to ask him yourself."
That's one of many questions that will have to go unanswered for now. One reason for that is Farris never showed last Tuesday night, proving Zarrella right. Instead, he gave an exclusive interview to MSNBC that aired Monday and Tuesday nights. In it, he basically admitted that his father knew about his travel plans and offered that, while in Lebanon, he'd visited the offices of the Islamist group Hezbollah, which has carried out countless terrorist acts.
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"With each group of persons I immersed myself, I changed my persona," he told interviewer Rita Cosby. "When I was with Christians, I told them that I was a Lebanese Christian, an American Christian, and my name was Jason.
"And when I met with the Hezbollah leader... I told [him] that I work for a school newspaper and that I wanted to show Americans that Hezbollah is, in fact, a good organization that's fighting for the Shiite people in Lebanon."
So the kid's a chameleon and, apparently, a born liar. I wonder what role he was playing while immersed with Rita Cosby. Oh yeah, it was the idealistic rich American boy who played hooky from school to promote democracy.
Forget journalism. This kid's got a future with the CIA.