On Monday, ABC News first reported that Fort Hood shooter Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan had reached out to al Qaeda associates prior to his attack. There were good reasons to speculate that one of these al Qaeda figures is Anwar al Awlaki -- an al Qaeda recruiter who acted as a "spiritual advisor" to two of the 9/11 hijackers. Awlaki preached at a mosque Hasan attended in 2001 and praised Hasan's attack on his web site Monday morning.
It turns out that informed speculation was correct, according to the Associated Press and the New York Times. Beginning in December of last year, authorities found that Hasan communicated with Awlaki "10 to 20 times." But no formal investigation was ever launched. Why?
The FBI has offered this muddled response:
At this point, there is no information to indicate Major Malik Nidal Hasan had any co-conspirators or was part of a broader terrorist plot. The investigation to date has not identified a motive, and a number of possibilities remain under consideration. â€¦
There has been and continues to be a great deal of reported information about what was or might have been known to the government about Major Hasan prior to the shooting.
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.
This is remarkable -- in the worst possible way.
The "subject of that investigation" mentioned by the FBI is Awlaki. And Hasan's communications with Awlaki should have been a major red flag. Yet, the FBI says that investigators concluded these communications were consistent with Hasan's "research and nothing else derogatory was found."
That is incredible.
Awlaki is an active al Qaeda cleric and recruiter. Undoubtedly, that's why he was being investigated in December 2008 in the first place. Moreover, Awlaki and his followers assisted three 9/11 hijackers here on U.S. soil before their day of terror and, according to the Congressional Joint Inquiry into the September 11 attacks, Awlaki was a "spiritual advisor" for at least two of them.
Why would a member of the U.S. military contact a major al Qaeda ideologue to discuss his research? The only way that could be justifiable is if that American serviceman was collecting intelligence on Awlaki and his operations. But there is no evidence that this was the case here.
In fact, as press accounts have noted, "no formal investigation" into Hasan's communications with Awlaki was ever launched. How, then, could anyone say that his communications were consistent with anything at all -- other than an Islamic extremist reaching out to a known al Qaeda patron?
The rest of the FBI's statement is even worse.
The FBI says no motive has been determined. But we know that Hasan holds extreme Islamist beliefs. There is abundant evidence to that effect. So, yes, we have at the very least determined a partial motive.
The FBI says "there is no information to indicate Major Malik Nidal Hasan had any co-conspirators or was part of a broader terrorist plot." But there is information connecting Hasan to possible co-conspirators. He communicated with a known al Qaeda ideologue and recruiter between 10 and 20 times and that same al Qaeda figure has openly praised Hasan's mass killing on his web site.
How dense can the FBI be? Yes, all of the pieces of Hasan's story still need to be put together. But to say there is no evidence of a "broader terrorist plot" is myopic to the point of absurdity.
Moreover, when JTTF "investigators" evaluated Hasan's communications with Awlaki prior to the Fort Hood shooting, they concluded that he "was not involved in terrorist activities or terrorist planning."
That was wrong. Hasan was plotting terror. There are 13 dead Americans and 29 more wounded to prove it. So, a reevaluation of his discussions (presumably emails) with Awlaki is necessary before the FBI jumps to any conclusions about the breadth of this terrorist plot.In all likelihood, what we are witnessing here is the third intelligence and law enforcement failure with respect to Awlaki.
The first failure came in 2000. The FBI began investigating Awlaki in 1999 but shuttered the investigation in March 2000 because the Bureau determined he did not warrant further scrutiny.
That was a mistake.
In January 2000, two of the 9/11 hijackers met up with Awlaki at his mosque in San Diego. Awlaki became their "spiritual advisor." Awlaki then moved to the Dar al Hijrah mosque in Falls Church, Virginia. Two 9/11 hijackers (including one of the hijackers Awlaki had met with in San Diego) followed him there and received assistance from the mosque's members. Al Qaeda's September 11 point man, Ramzi Binalshibh, kept contact information for the Dar al Hijrah mosque at his residence. So, Awlaki and his mosques had substantive ties to three of the 9/11 hijackers and the terrorist who was responsible for coordinating their activities.
The second failure came in 2002. The FBI investigated Awlaki again after the September 11 attacks and found there was a lot of "smoke," but told the 9/11 Commission and the Congressional Joint Inquiry that they did not have enough evidence to detain him. So, Awlaki relocated first to the UK and then Yemen. There, his al Qaeda role has only grown -- despite being briefly detained by the Yemeni government at the request of U.S. officials in 2006.
Letting Awlaki go was the second big mistake.
Now we have a third failure. Despite the fact that Hasan had reached out to Awlaki, who had been investigated twice before because of his ties to al Qaeda, "no formal investigation" into the Hasan-Awlaki connection was ever launched.
How can that possibly be? A member of the U.S. military with ostensible extremist beliefs reaches out to a prominent al Qaeda cleric and the U.S. government concluded there was nothing to worry about? Really?
To give you a sense of how absurd this is, consider the NEFA Foundation's short dossier on Awlaki, which was released in February of this year. NEFA reported:
"Anwar al Awlaki (a.k.a. Anwar al Aulaqi), an American who lives in Yemen, who is regarded as an Islamic scholar, may be a key player in Al-Qaida's efforts to radicalize and incite American Muslims to commit terrorist acts."
NEFA went on to warn:
"Al Awlaki is a highly regarded, American-born, pro-Jihad ideologue with access to a young audience in the United States, even from his location in Yemen. There is no other comparable pro-Al-Qaida American figure who has such tremendous access to audiences or who has such credibility."
So NEFA, a small not-for-profit organization, was able to connect the dots on Awlaki. But the U.S. government (which spends billions of dollars a year tracking the terrorist threat) has apparently been unable to do so -- repeatedly. There were ample reasons to worry about any American -- let alone an American serviceman with extremist beliefs and access to military facilities -- reaching out to a prominent al Qaeda cleric. Yet, according to the FBI, the U.S. government concluded those contacts were not a possible threat.
This is the third time that the U.S. government has had an intelligence failure with respect to Anwar al Awlaki.
Congress should push forward with its investigation into the Fort Hood shootings to ensure there isn't a fourth.