The Magazine

Connecting the Dots

The shooting at Fort Hood was no 'mystery.' It was an act of terrorism waiting to happen.

Nov 23, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 10 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES and THOMAS JOSCELYN
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At about 1:30 P.M. on November 5, Army Specialist Logan Burnette, a thick-chested, baby-faced soldier scheduled to deploy to Iraq in a few short weeks, was sitting in the back row of a small auditorium-like room at the Fort Hood Army base near Killeen, Texas. Burnette was joking with several other soldiers as they waited--and waited and waited--to see a doctor for a final pre-mobilization medical review.

"Out of nowhere," Burnette later recalled, "a man stood up in uniform, screamed 'Allahu Akbar,' and proceeded to open fire on myself and the rest of my fellow soldiers sitting there." One of the shots hit Burnette on his left pinky finger. Another on his left elbow. Another in the hip. The rampage continued for several minutes.

Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan, 39, went on a shooting rampage at Fort Hood that claimed 13 lives and wounded more than 40. Three hours later, while the base was still in lockdown, an FBI spokesman dismissed suggestions that the attack was terrorism and said that a link between Hasan and terrorist organizations "is not being discussed."

Yet, a little more than a week after the shooting we know that Hasan justified suicide bombings in an Internet posting. He lectured colleagues using the rhetoric of jihad. He warned darkly about "adverse events" if Muslims were not allowed to leave military service. He repeatedly sought counsel from a radical imam with known ties to al Qaeda. He tried to convert some of his patients to Islam--many of them soldiers troubled by their near-fatal experiences with jihadists. He printed business cards that made no mention of his military service but instead identified him as an "SOA," a soldier of Allah.

And U.S. authorities knew about some of this well before the attack at Fort Hood. At Walter Reed--where Hasan spent the six years before his posting to Fort Hood in July--his superiors wondered whether he might be "psychotic" and worried that he consistently sided with jihadists over his fellow soldiers. The FBI had intercepted emails Hasan had sent to Anwar al Awlaki, an al Qaeda supporter with strong ties to three 9/11 hijackers.

But the FBI did not know all that the Army knew. And the Army did not know all that the FBI knew. The participants in an FBI-led Joint Terrorism Task Force discussed Hasan's case briefly and concluded that it did not warrant an investigation. If they had performed even a cursory, unobtrusive examination of this man, his contacts, and his radical views, they would have quickly turned up a great deal of troubling information.

Since the shooting there have been dozens of theories floated about Hasan's motivations. On the night after the attack, CNN's Larry King interviewed the ubiquitous "Dr. Phil" McGraw, who speculated that Hasan's counseling of traumatized soldiers might have in turn traumatized him and caused him to snap. In his November 10 remarks at Fort Hood, President Barack Obama suggested the cause of the shooting was--and may remain--a mystery. "It may be hard to comprehend the twisted logic that led to this tragedy." The FBI agreed: "The investigation to date has not identified a motive, and a number of possibilities remain under consideration." One of them, according to an article in the Financial Times, was "anti-Muslim bias."

Here is another: Nidal Malik Hasan is a jihadist. That so many refuse to even consider this in the face of the overwhelming evidence might help explain why those whose job it was to keep us safe refused to see it back when it really mattered.

On May 31, 2001, Nidal Malik Hasan attended the funeral service for his mother, Hanan Ismail ("Nora" to those who knew her) at the Dar al Hijrah Islamic Center in Falls Church, Virginia. According to an obituary in the Roanoke Times, Nora was well-known "for her leadership in running the Capitol Restaurant," where she would "keep sometimes rowdy customers out of trouble and always had a warm meal for someone who otherwise would not have anything to eat that evening." Nora was just 49 years old when she died, and her husband passed away three years earlier. They had moved their family to Roanoke in the mid-1980s to pursue business interests and left behind three sons and a large extended family.

The Dar al Hijrah mosque describes itself as "one of the largest and most diverse Islamic Centers in the nation." It hosts hundreds of Muslims for prayers every Friday. At the time of Nora's funeral, a charismatic imam named Anwar al Awlaki was leading the weekly proceedings. Born in America and fluent in English, he was especially effective in dealing with the mosque's English-speaking membership. "Our community needed an imam who could speak English," said Dar al Hijrah's current imam, Johari Abdul-Malik, in a recent interview with PBS. "Not like many masjid, who have an imam who is from the old guard--he speaks broken English, if he speaks English at all--but someone who could convey that message with the full force of faith. [Awlaki] was that person. And he delivered that message dutifully."

According to ABC News, Awlaki preached at Nora's funeral. And Hasan, according to various reports, heard him many other times thereafter. It is not clear whether Hasan and Awlaki forged a close relationship when they worshipped together in Northern Virginia, but Hasan did directly seek Awlaki's counsel again.

Awlaki preached at Dar al Hijrah until April 2002 when he suddenly left the United States for his ancestral home in Yemen. Abdul-Malik, the mosque's current imam, told PBS that Awlaki complained about the "climate" in the United States. Awlaki told him: "You can't really do your work, because it's always anti-terrorism, investigating this. The FBI wants to talk to you."

But the FBI had a good reason for investigating Awlaki: He played a role in the biggest intelligence failure in American history.

The FBI first took notice of Awlaki in June 1999 when his contacts with al Qaeda terrorists, including one who had procured a satellite phone for Osama bin Laden, raised red flags. But after a brief investigation, lasting until March 2000, the FBI determined that the facts did not warrant further inquiry.

Prior to joining Dar al Hijrah, Awlaki was an imam in San Diego. In January 2000, he welcomed two al Qaeda operatives, Khalid al Mihdhar and Nawaf al Hazmi, into his community. They had been identified by U.S. intelligence not just as al Qaeda operatives but as attendees of a key terrorist summit in Kuala Lumpur. (U.S. authorities would later learn that both the USS Cole bombing and the September 11 attacks were discussed at the meeting.) Although the U.S. government knew al Mihdhar and al Hazmi were al Qaeda operatives, the intelligence and law enforcement community lost track of them when they entered the United States.

They were with Awlaki. And, when he moved from California to Northern Virginia in January 2001, they--as well as a third September 11 hijacker named Hani Hanjour--went with him. By the time a serious search for them got underway it was too late. Al Hazmi, al Mihdhar, and Hanjour all took part in September 11 attacks.

The FBI would later determine that al Mihdhar and al Hazmi "were closely affiliated" with Awlaki in San Diego. According to the Congressional Joint Inquiry into the September 11 attacks, Awlaki served as "their spiritual advisor." The Joint Inquiry also identified an unnamed member of the Dar al Hijrah congregation who helped al Hazmi and Hanjour find an apartment. After they had settled into the Falls Church area, this same follower drove them and two other future 9/11 hijackers to Connecticut and then New Jersey. "From the hotel in Connecticut where they stayed for two nights," the Joint Inquiry found, "a total of 75 calls were made to locate apartment[s], flight schools, and car rental agencies for the hijackers." Thus, Awlaki and a member of his congregation provided crucial assistance to the 9/11 hijackers as they planned their day of terror. There are further links between Awlaki and the attacks.

After 9/11, when authorities searched the German residence of Ramzi Binalshibh, the key link between the deployed hijackers in the United States and top al Qaeda members in Afghanistan, counterterrorism officials found the phone number for Dar al Hijrah. And the Joint Inquiry found that after would-be hijacker Zacarias Moussaoui and his roommate were arrested in August 2001, one of Awlaki's "close associates" attempted to post bail for Moussaoui's roommate.

The failure to track known al Qaeda operatives Khalid al Mihdhar and Nawaf al Hazmi after they entered the United States stands out as one of the most noteworthy failures in the run-up to 9/11. Anwar al Awlaki played a role in making that failure possible. He took some of the hijackers under his wing and aided them in blending into American society. Yet, the FBI decided that Awlaki, who is an American citizen, should not be arrested. They let him leave the country in 2002. The Bureau told Congress that while "there's a lot of smoke" surrounding Awlaki, there wasn't enough to hold him. So, Awlaki fled to Yemen--and a better "climate" for his work.

The U.S. government was concerned enough with Awlaki and his jihadist connections that it continued to monitor his activities once he was back in Yemen. He broadcast his sermons on the Internet, his fluent English making it possible for him to reach audiences that other radical clerics couldn't penetrate. He regularly called for violent jihad against the United States--his native country.

In 2006, the U.S. government asked the Yemenis to detain Awlaki. The jihadist-friendly government in Yemen complied, for a while anyway. But by 2007, Awlaki had been freed and was using his recent confinement as a propaganda tool to expand his reach. Thousands downloaded his lectures and pledged fealty to his radical cause.

Among those he influenced were the six Muslim immigrants who plotted an attack on Fort Dix, a U.S. Army base in New Jersey, in 2007. ABC News reported that court documents show that at least two of the men said they drew inspiration from Awlaki's fiery rhetoric. Major Nidal Malik Hasan drew on the same source.

In December 2008, the NSA intercepted a series of emails--as many as 20--sent by Hasan to Awlaki. There was no investigation. In a press release on November 9, the FBI explained why:

Major Hasan came to the attention of the FBI in December 2008 as part of an unrelated investigation being conducted by one of our Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTFs). JTTFs are FBI-led, multi-agency teams made up of FBI agents, other federal investigators--including those from the Department of Defense--and state and local law enforcement officers.

 

Investigators on the JTTF reviewed certain communications between Major Hasan and the subject of that investigation and assessed that the content of those communications was consistent with research being conducted by Major Hasan in his position as a psychiatrist at the Walter Reed Medical Center. Because the content of the communications was explainable by his research and nothing else derogatory was found, the JTTF concluded that Major Hasan was not involved in terrorist activities or terrorist planning. Other communications of which the FBI was aware were similar to the ones reviewed by the JTTF.

 

The "subject of that investigation" is Anwar al Awlaki. News stories that followed the FBI statement--driven no doubt by FBI officials speaking on background--almost all used the word "benign" to describe the messages Hasan had sent to Awlaki.

That may be correct. Those communications have not been released to the public, and it may very well be the case that Hasan was not taking direct orders from Awlaki. But that misses the point. Even if the content of the communications was benign, their mere existence should have been troubling: A Muslim officer in the U.S. Army was seeking guidance--spiritual? academic?--from an openly pro-jihad cleric whose past was so troubling he had been investigated by the U.S. intelligence community on three separate occasions and whose words had inspired a plot to attack a U.S. Army installation.

A February 2009 report from a respected counterterrorism think tank called the NEFA Foundation released at approximately the same time the JTTF was reviewing Hasan's communications with Awlaki, described the imam this way. "There is no other comparable pro-al Qaeda American figure who has such tremendous access to audiences or who has such credibility." Awlaki, the report concluded, "may be a key player in al Qaeda's efforts to radicalize and incite American Muslims to commit terrorist acts." It is no wonder, then, that Awlaki praised the Fort Hood attack in a blog posting, calling Hasan a "hero" and a "man of conscience."

If Hasan's communications with Awlaki were disturbing on their own, they were even more worrisome seen in the context of his increasingly bizarre professional behavior over the past several years.

Hasan had long been known as a quiet, somewhat detached man. But as the United States fought two wars in Muslim lands, he became more outspoken and more radical in his religious expression.

During one particularly disturbing June 2007 presentation at Walter Reed, first reported by the Washington Post, Hasan showed a slide that raised questions about the ability of Muslims to serve. "It's getting harder and harder for Muslims in the service to morally justify being in a military that seems constantly engaged against fellow Muslims." (Awlaki has repeatedly made similar claims, saying that the war on terror is really a "war on Islam.")

Hasan lectured at Walter Reed about the evolution in Islamic thinking on jihad. At first, Hasan said, the Koran was filled with mainly peaceful verses and "Muslims were not permitted to defend themselves/fight." But as the situation on the ground changed, so did the verses. After the Muslim emigration to Medina, "Self defense was allowed" and then "offensive fighting was allowed." As a result, "Later verses abrogated former ie: peaceful verses no longer apply."

Hasan followed this line of thinking through to its natural conclusion by citing a passage that calls for uncompromising warfare:

 

Fight those who do not believe in Allah, nor in the latter day, nor do they prohibit what Allah and His messenger have prohibited, nor follow the religion of truth, out of those who have been given the Book, until they pay the tax in acknowledgement of superiority and they are in a state of subjection.

 

This is standard jihadist thinking--subjugation of all those who refuse to convert to Islam is a divine -commandment. But Hasan took it a step further. In the June 2007 presentation, he echoed the martyr's call to action: "We love death more then [sic] you love life!"

Hasan further warned about the likelihood of "adverse events" if the Defense Department did not heed his warnings. He said that Muslim soldiers "should not serve in any capacity that renders them at risk to hurting/killing believers unjustly." Hasan concluded his presentation by recommending that the Department of Defense allow Muslims to abstain from warfare as "conscientious objectors."

Beyond the substance of his lecture, what made it so striking was that his presentation was to have focused on psychiatry, not jihad.

This new outspokenness caused concern among his colleagues and superiors. According to a story by National Public Radio's Daniel Zwerdling:

 

The officials say he antagonized some students and faculty by espousing what they perceived to be extremist Islamic views. His supervisors at Walter Reed had even reprimanded him for telling at least one patient that "Islam can save your soul."

 

Senior officials in the psychiatric program at Walter Reed held a series of meetings about Hasan to share their concerns. NPR reported two chilling possibilities that concerned Hasan's colleagues:

 

One official involved in the conversations had reportedly told colleagues that he worried that if Hasan deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan, he might leak secret military information to Islamic extremists. Another official reportedly wondered aloud to colleagues whether Hasan might be capable of committing fratricide, like the Muslim U.S. Army sergeant who, in 2003, killed two fellow soldiers and injured 14 others by setting off grenades at a base in Kuwait.

 

Despite these concerns, Nidal Malik Hasan was promoted to the rank of major in May of this year.

It is still unclear precisely how much the Army knew from the FBI about Hasan's troubling contacts and how much the FBI knew from the Army about Hasan's troubled mind. But what is not in question is the fact that too little information was shared and too little attention paid to a man whose words and actions demanded attention.

Barack Obama announced late last week that John Brennan, a top White House counterterrorism official, would review all the intelligence on Hasan. In his radio address on Saturday, Obama promised that the review would include Hasan's "views and contacts."

That's nice. But the seriousness of this atrocity, the acuteness of the intelligence failure, and the administration's demonstrated commitment to political correctness over honest inquiry all demand a comprehensive external investigation. The truth about what happened will give us the best chance of ensuring the prevention of future "adverse events."

 

Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD. Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.