In the wake of the November 5, 2009 Fort Hood shootings, Steve Hayes and I wrote about the FBI’s and Defense Department’s many failures with respect to Major Nidal Malik Hasan. Part of the piece focused on Hasan’s emails to al Qaeda cleric Anwar al Awlaki, which had not been made public at the time. Awlaki was subsequently killed in a U.S. drone strike in Yemen in 2011.
News reports cited officials who dismissed the emails as “benign.” The FBI released a statement saying that the emails were viewed as “consistent with research being conducted by Major Hasan in his position as a psychiatrist at the Walter Reed Medical Center.” The FBI’s statement continued: “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.”
Steve and I countered:
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.
Subsequently, we called for the emails between Hasan and Awlaki to be declassified and released to the public.
Last week, more than two and a half years after the Fort Hood Shootings, the content of Hasan’s emails were finally made public by the Webster Commission, which was headed by former FBI and CIA director William H. Webster and tasked with investigating the FBI’s possible failures. Hasan comes off as fawning fan boy in more than one dozen emails, even asking for Awlaki’s assistance in finding a wife. Awlaki’s two replies are fairly dismissive, promising to “keep an eye [out] for a sister” for Hasan to marry but offering him no real guidance and certainly no direct orders.
However, the content of the emails still should have set off more alarm bells inside the FBI. Here is the first email from Hasan to Awlaki, written in December 2008, including typos from the original:
There are many soldiers in the us armed forces that have converted to Islam while in the service. There are also many Muslims who join the armed forces for a myriad of different reasons. Some appear to have internal conflicts and have even killed or tried to kill other us soldiers in the name of Islam i.e. Hasan Akbar, etc. Others feel that there is no conflict. Previous Fatwas seem vague and not very definitive. Can you make some general comments about Muslims in the u.s. military.
Would you consider someone like Hasan Akbar or other soldiers that have committed such acts with the goal of helping Muslims/Islam (Lets just assume this for now) fighting Jihad and if they did die would you consider them shaheeds [note: martyrs].
Hasan Akbar is a U.S. soldier who attacked his fellow soldiers at the beginning of the Iraq War in 2003, killing two and wounding more than a dozen others. The Webster Commission correctly found that Hasan’s message “suggested that a U.S. soldier was seeking [Awlaki's] advice on committing violence against fellow soldiers.”
In a separate email in May 2009, Hasan asked Awlaki about the justifications for suicide bombings. The “logic” of the justifications for suicide bombings he had heard “make sense,” Hasan told Awlaki, and also made it acceptable to kill innocent bystanders. “So,” Hasan concluded, “I would assume that [a] suicide bomber whose aim is to kill enemy soldiers or their helpers but also kill innocents in the process is acceptable.”
In other emails, Hasan justified Hamas’s terrorist attacks and pined for a common Sunni-Shiite front to face Israel.
Incredibly, the FBI was not alone in concluding that Hasan’s jihadist beliefs were “consistent” with his research. Hasan had given a troubling presentation to his colleagues at Walter Reed Medical Center. During that presentation Hasan justified suicide bombings and warned of dire consequences if the U.S. military did not exempt Muslims from serving overseas in wars that Hasan portrayed as an assault on their fellow Muslims. Hasan also echoed the martyr’s call to action: “We love death more then [sic] you love life!” This is a common jihadist refrain.
The Defense Department never caught on. In one Officer Evaluation Report, the Webster Commission found, the "Department Chair of Psychiatry at Walter Reed wrote that Hasan's research on Islamic beliefs regarding military service during the Global War on Terror 'has extraordinary potential to inform national policy and military strategy.' “ (emphasis added)
Instead, Hasan killed 13 people and wounded dozens more. And the U.S. government has spent much of its time after the fact pretending that his ideology had nothing to do with it.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.