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
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.