Fort Hood shooting: Was Nidal Malik Hasan inspired by militant cleric?

Alleged Fort Hood shooter Major Nidal Malik Hasan had ties to US-born militant Moslem cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, a leading figure seeking to recruit English speakers to violent jihad.

Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences/Reuters
Major Nidal Malik Hasan.

The investigation of Major Nidal Malik Hasan, the Army psychiatrist suspected of murdering 12 soldiers and wounding 30 others in last week's shooting rampage at Fort Hood in Texas, is uncovering evidence of a man deeply interested in the minority branch of Islam that views non-Muslims as dangerous infidels and endorses the use of violence to deter America from its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and from support for Israel.

Medical colleagues in the Army have told reporters that he gave a presentation in which he warned in graphic detail of the torments waiting for nonbelievers in hell. Army investigators say there is no evidence yet that the actions he's accused of committing were carried out with anyone's assistance, but they have also zeroed in on his apparent email contact with miliant preacher Anwar al-Awlaki, who was born in New Mexico in 1971 and is now believed to be living in his parents' homeland of Yemen.

Mr. Awlaki is a leading light among militant Sunni preachers seeking to reach out to English-speaking Muslims and encourage them to engage in jihad in the West. He's at the forefront of the effort to create more "homegrown" jihadis, whose language skills and passports help them operate in the US and Europe.

Awlaki maintained a website presented in impeccable English until Tuesday, when its contents were deleted. The site had a an "Ask the Sheikh" button in which users could email him with questions. It devoted much of its contents to the glories of jihad. Awlaki even authored a treatise urging Muslims to violence called the "44 Ways to Support Jihad" which begins with a hadith, or story about the life of the Prophet Mohammed, that encapsulates his view of faith and conflict. "The Messenger of Allah says: ‘Whoever dies and has not fought or intended to fight has died on a branch of hypocrisy.' "

Awlaki's writings have been found on the computers of British, US, and Canadian terror suspects in recent years, among them the New Jersey men accused of plotting an attack against Fort Dix in 2007. US court documents have alleged that he used a US-based Islamic charity to send money to Al Qaeda. They also allege that he once asked American-born militant cleric Ali al-Timimi – who is now serving a life sentence for urging followers to fight the US in Afghanistan – to help him recruit fighters here.

On Monday, a post attributed to the preacher praised Hasan as "a hero. He is a man of conscience who could not bear living the contradiction of being a Muslim and serving in an army that is fighting against his own people."

Awlaki, who may have briefly served as a Muslim chaplain at George Washington University according to his now-defunct website and a 2001 article by National Geographic News, also lashed out at Muslims who condemned the murders, branding them as traitors and hypocrites. "The Muslim organizations in America came out in a pitiful chorus condemning Nidal’s operation. Nidal has killed soldiers who were about to be deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan in order to kill Muslims. The American Muslims who condemned his actions have committed treason against the Muslim Ummah and have fallen into hypocrisy."

Muslims in Awlaki's school, often referred to as salafis (a term that refers to the early followers of the prophet Mohammed), practice takfir, which brands fellow Muslims they disagree with as apostates deserving death.

ABC News cited unnamed US investigators as saying that the contacts with al-Awlaki were deemed benign and didn't involve direct calls to illegal action. "We don't have any indication that (Hasan) was directed, we don't have any indication that there were co-conspirators but, once again, this is fairly early on in what may be a complex and long-term investigation," a senior investigative official said.

The Sept. 11 Commission report, released in 2004, found that Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdar – Saudi Arabians who helped hijack and fly American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon – had made contact with Awlaki, then prayer leader at the Rabat mosque in the San Diego suburb of La Mesa, soon after they moved to San Diego in February 2000. Awlaki, interviewed by the FBI after the attack, said he remembered Hazmi after being shown his picture. But he said he didn't remember what he had discussed with the man.

Awlaki left San Diego later that year and became preacher at Dar al-Hijrah Mosque in Falls Church, Va., which Major Hasan attended in 2001. Hazmi attended this mosque a few times before carrying out the Sept. 11 attack, a confluence that "may or may not have been coincidental,'' the 9/11 Commission wrote. "We have been unable to learn enough about Aulaqi's (note: the preferred spelling in the 9/11 report) relationship with Hazmi and Mihdhar to reach a conclusion."

The FBI and the 9/11 Commission concluded that Awlaki was a preacher the two men respected. The cleric was investigated by the FBI in 1999 and 2000 after "learning that he had been contacted as a possible procurement agent for Bin Laden." The FBI found evidence that he knew members of the Holy Land Foundation, a group that was disbanded in 2008 after five of its founders were given life sentences for funneling money to the militant Palestinian group Hamas. It also found that he had "other extremist connections" but that "none of this information was considered strong enough to support a criminal prosecution."

Awlaki left the US in 2002 and lived in Britain for two years, where he traveled in militant Islamic circles, before moving to Yemen in 2004. According to a videotape he published on the Internet in 2007 he was briefly held and interrogated by Yemeni authorities and FBI agents in that country, and was later released. On his now disbanded website he claimed to be working as a lecturer in Islam at Iman University in Sanaa, Yemen.

A 2004 press release from the Treasury Department announced the designation of the school's founder Abd-al-Majid al-Zindani as a "specially designated global terrorist." In it, the government alleged that "Iman students are suspected of being responsible, and were arrested, for recent terrorist attacks, including the assassination of three American missionaries and the assassination of the number two leader for the Yemeni Socialist party, Jarallah Omar. Notably, John Walker Lindh was also a student at Al Iman University before he joined the Taliban."

Awlaki is presumed to still be in Yemen.

With mounting evidence of Hasan's involvement in the Fort Hood murders and his ties to Awlaki, the cleric's outreach efforts are likely to be hampered, or at least forced further underground. The closing of his website is one sign of this. The US also has ongoing investigation efforts in Yemen.

But short of his arrest, Awlaki is unlikely to desist, argues Evan Kohlmann, a leading researcher into the propaganda operations of jihad groups. Writing in the Counterterrorism Blog on Monday, Mr. Kohlmann points to Awlaki's English-language 2008 sermon, "Constants on the Path of Jihad,'' in which Awlaki wrote: "Jihad must continue regardless because it does not depend on any particular leader or individual… Jihad does not depend on any particular land. It is global. When the Muslim is in his land, he performs jihad… No borders or barriers stop it."

"It is thus perhaps little surprise that Anwar al-Awlaki's name and his sermon on "Constants on the Path of Jihad" seem to surface in every single homegrown terrorism investigation, whether in the U.S., the U.K., Canada, or beyond,'' writes Kohlmann.

(This article was updated after publication to include source of claims for his role at George Washington University).

Who is Nidal Malik Hasan and what might have motivated him?

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