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Farris Hassan: Journalist or Jihadist ?

January 15, 2006

Farris Hassan: Journalist or Jihadist?

By Joe Kaufman and Beila Rabinowitz

January 16, 2006 - Miami, FL - - The AP story was splashed all over the papers and television - 'U.S. Teen Runs Off to Iraq by Himself.'

On the internet, people playfully compared his saga to the 80's comedy hit 'Ferris Bueller's Day Off.' Farris Hassan was the talk and toast of the entire country, "...a young man who feels guilty about the comfort he enjoys, who is brilliant but foolhardy, a boy brimming with idealism and the desire to make a difference." This is the way he was described in one news report. However, could it be that this was a false image? Is it possible that Farris Hassan, a self-proclaimed irreligious person, was none of the above, but instead was a darkened soul, going abroad to seek martyrdom and wage jihad in the cause of Allah?

On December 11th, Hassan left the comforts of his home in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. His destination was Iraq, a country racked by the horrors of war and uncertainty. He was a wealthy kid, born into money and privilege. He was enrolled in a high tuition prep school, Pine Crest. He had just received a $50,000 Infiniti for his birthday. He resided in lavish digs overlooking the ocean. For a hobby, he traded stocks. He was a straight A student. He was on the football team. At 16, his life was made! So why would he do a crazy thing like leave town - and all of his riches - for the threat of beheadings and car bombs?

According to Hassan, his motives were completely altruistic. He said he had picked the war in Iraq as the subject for his "immersion journalism" class, and therefore, needed to go there to live (immerse himself in) the story. [According to Pine Crest's principal, the school doesn't even offer a journalism class.] Hassan stated that he chose this (subject) out of humanitarian concerns for the Iraqi people. On an MSNBC interview with Rita Cosby, he stated, "after seeing the news and the distress that people were going through, I really felt compelled and I was consumed by passion to do something, to go over there and volunteer for the Red Cross or something like - something along those lines - to help the Iraqis rebuild their lives. I was looking forward to help maybe disbursing some food or just bringing a smile or two to some children there."

Wealth does not make one immune to jihad. On the contrary, many with backgrounds similar to Hassan's have rejected their privileged lives for what most people consider the unthinkable.

Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, a young British-born Muslim, also was from a wealthy family, also went to the best prep schools (He studied at the London School of Economics.) And like Hassan, Sheikh was an athlete (an arm wrestler), got straight A grades, and was not religious. And Sheikh's friends, too, considered him to be amiable and extremely charitable. And just like Hassan, he was concerned with overseas events; in his case, it was what he considered to be injustices taking place in Bosnia. But setting all that aside, ultimately Saeed Sheikh chose terrorism, as he was convicted by a Pakistani court for the brutal murder and dismemberment of Wall Street Journal writer Daniel Pearl.

Irfan Kathwari, the American-born son of Ethan Allen Furniture tycoon Farooq Kathwari, also was not religious, also was an athlete (basketball), and also was highly intelligent. He was reportedly studying medicine at Harvard, when - because of the onset of the Persian Gulf War against Iraq - he suddenly felt the need to relocate at a university in Islamabad, Pakistan. In 1992, at the age of 19, he was killed as a mujahideen fighter in Afghanistan, while waging holy war against a group of Indian military personnel.

Nadeem Ahmed Khateeb, the son of wealthy Kashmiris, fled his home for Pakistan at age 19 to train in guerilla warfare in Afghanistan. He returned home to Kashmir and demanded that his parents send him to pilot school in the United States. He enrolled in the South-Eastern School of Aeronautics in Georgia, where he trained as a commercial pilot and also worked as an instructor. He gave up his lucrative career to return to Pakistan, where he joined the Kashmiri Jihad, and was killed in an attack along with two other "martyrs."

There are many more cases of educated and affluent jihadists, the likes of which include: Osama bin Laden, Khaleed Sheikh Mohammed, Ramzi Yousef, and the 9/11 hijackers. If Farris Hassan was making this trip for nefarious reasons, indeed, he would not be the first.

Hassan's initial stop was Amsterdam, Netherlands. He claims he bought a ticket on KLM Airlines, because "its policy allows minors to travel alone." It is unclear as to how much time, if any, he spent in Holland, but it was possible that he had heard of a case - that occurred less than a month before his arrival of three Dutch youths of Turkish and Moroccan origin, who had left for what they said was a "holiday vacation" without telling their parents and leaving their cell phones at home because they didn't want to be found.

Three months prior to their trip, Said El Massaoudi, Ramazan Keskin and Driss (family name unknown) had become practicing Muslims under the tutelage of known jihad recruiter, Murat O (a.k.a. "Ibrahim the Turk"). Enroute to Chechnya, they were arrested in Azerbaijan. They claimed that they had went "shopping" in the capitol Baku and had decided on their destination because a friend had told them about the "beautiful mountains [and] rivers" in the country. After being beaten and jailed in Azerbijan, the trio were escorted home by a Dutch government official and questioned by the security services. The media coverage of the story noted that one of the young men had contact with a jailed member of the Hofstad terrorist group and implied that the trip had been an abortive attempt at "Jihad tourism," which was a known practice among Muslim youth in Holland. In the MSNBC interview, Hassan lamented that he hopes no one attempts to copy his actions, melodramatically adding that "God forbid one of them gets their head cut off." But did he, in reality, copy the actions of the Dutch 'Jihad tourists'?

From Amsterdam, Hassan headed to Kuwait City. Hassan claims that he twice tried to cross the Kuwait-Iraq border via taxi, but was turned away due to Iraqi elections. His father, Redha Hasssan, who admitted to being in Iraq at the time (and also claimed he had returned home on December 10th, a day before Farris left), told Farris to travel to the Lebanese capitol of Beirut to stay with family friends. Farris spent ten days in Beirut. While he was there, according to Farris on the MSNBC interview, these family friends set up a meeting for him with a media relations officer of the terrorist group Hezbollah. This was most probably at Hezbollah's Central Press Office. When the subject of Hezbollah originally came up, it's interesting to watch Hassan's reactions. Especially of interest was when he began to discuss how the meeting came about. It looked as if he started nervously and then paused and caught himself, before he continued his answer. If he was hiding something, what could it have been?

COSBY: "You actually met, you were telling me, with one of the leaders of Hezbollah.

HASSAN: "Yes."

COSBY: "How did that come about?"

HASSAN: "Well [looks down], fortunately my...[thinking] umm...[looks up] the family with whom I was staying with was able to arrange several appointments with amazing figures"

Questions: 1. What other "amazing figures" did the "family friends" arrange for Farris to meet? 2. Was the father, at any time, with Farris, in Iraq and/or Kuwait? 3. Did the father help to arrange for the meeting with Hezbollah? And 4. Was the meeting with Hezbollah more than just an innocent interview? Was Hezbollah, in fact, interviewing Farris Hassan?

Hezbollah is a Shiite Muslim organization, based in Lebanon, with direct physical and spiritual ties to Iran. The group's leader (Secretary General) is Hassan Nasrallah. As stated in the New York Times, Hezbollah "has established a significant presence in Iraq." Muqtada al-Sadr, the son of a Grand Ayatollah that was murdered by Saddam Hussein's regime, is said to be the head of Hezbollah in Iraq. According to the New Statesman, Iranians "have dubbed al-Sadr 'the new Nasrallah,'" and "Hezbollah cadres have been training al-Sadr's Mahdi army inside Iraq for nearly a year, and have resolved to drive the Americans out of Iraq as they drove the Israeli army out of southern Lebanon."

Given their names, Farris Hassan's parents are most likely Shiites. This jibes with the fact that his father, Redha, admitted to having been involved in the anti-Saddam resistance when he was around Farris's age. He also admitted to having taken part in an assassination attempt. In addition, the father was arrested, along with two of Farris's uncles, in 1985, for forging 2000 Iraqi passports and military I.D. cards. Also arrested was a "pro-Khomeini" activist named Salah Jawad Shubber, who pled guilty to conspiracy charges.

Redha Hassan defended his actions, saying he was "trying to get passports to refugees who lived in poverty." This last bit of information is of interest, as Redha was the President of a now defunct Florida non-profit called World Orphanage & Refugee Relief Foundation. Was there any connection? Also of interest is that, in the original incorporation papers, he went by two names, Redha K. Hassan and Redha K. Alsawaf. Listed as co-directors of the "relief" group are his ex-wife, Shatha; his daughter, Shehnaz; and his brother that was arrested with him, Ali.

The arrests were made right in the middle of the Iran-Iraq War, when Ayatollah Khomeini was encouraging his former Shiite comrades in Iraq to overthrow Saddam. Was Farris influenced by any of this? And was he influenced enough to become a "comrade" himself?

According to Farris Hassan, he began thinking about traveling to Iraq in November, which was the same month that suicide bombers attacked two crowded Shiite mosques in the town of Khanneqin. Found in his bedroom at his mother's house is a copy of the Quran. Before heading off on his adventure, he was said to have spent time at a local mosque, even staying up till 6:00 AM one night, talking politics with a group of Muslims. This mosque could have very well been the Assidiq Islamic Educational Foundation, the only Shiite mosque in South Florida. In February of 2005, the mosque's imam, Sayed Mohammad Jawad Al-Qazwini, was quoted as saying, "Thus rule number one, fight for the sake of Allah. Who must you fight? Those who start the war against you. Those who establish the war against you. Those who initiate the war against the Muslims."

Did Farris take all of this to heart? Was he going to Iraq to avenge attacks carried out against his fellow Shiites? Or maybe he was going to Iraq to join up with Al-Sadr's Hezbollah militia to fight against the "American occupation." Or within all of the lies and contradictions within his and his family's stories was there a bit of truth?

From a factual standpoint this much is certain - any Muslim youth whose father places his son under the supervision of friends tied to a terrorist organization or facilitates his child's trip into a country where he can easily be blown up or worse has the potential to become a jihadist. It's too early to predict if Farris Hassan will choose the path of his immersion journalism fantasy or if he will take the road that his father once traveled on, in search of fate.

Perhaps there's a clue to this in one of Hassan's statements. He says, "I've always felt that life is not worth living without taking great risks, in order to achieve great things. I've always thought that we will all die someday, whether it's at 66 years old or 16 years old. And that, if I am to die, I'd rather have it happen in trying to do something good, in trying to help my fellow man." It all comes down to what his definition of "good" is and which "man" he is trying to help.

Joe Kaufman is the Chairman of Americans Against Hate and the host of the Politics of Terrorism radio show. Beila Rabinowitz is the Director of Militant Islam Monitor.

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