Substantive red flags have surfaced in the ongoing investigation of Fort Hood shooter Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan. This includes details that go well beyond his radical Islamist and anti-American beliefs. The most disturbing threads of evidence link Hasan to a prominent al Qaeda recruiter named Anwar al Awlaki (sometimes spelled Aulaqi).
The FBI dropped the ball when investigating Awlaki at least twice in the past. So one must ask: Will the FBI and other U.S. authorities properly investigate Awlaki, including his purported ties to Hasan, this time?
According to press reports, Nidal Malik Hasan attended the Dar al Hijrah Islamic Center in Falls Church, VA in 2001 and held his mother's funeral there on May 31, 2001. Two of the 9/11 hijackers also visited the same mosque and received assistance from its members during this period. Awlaki was an imam at the mosque at this time.
Awlaki is a known al Qaeda recruiter and spiritual guide. His sermons have inspired terrorists around the globe. Some might dismiss Hasan's visits to Dar al Hijrah at the same time Awlaki was preaching there as mere coincidence. But there are troubling signs that it cannot be dismissed so easily.
Early this morning, Awlaki posted a blog entry titled "Nidal Hassan Did the Right Thing" on his web site. In the post, Awlaki calls Hasan a "hero." Awlaki writes:
[Hasan] 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. This is a contradiction that many Muslims brush aside and just pretend that it doesn't exist. Any decent Muslim cannot live, understanding properly his duties towards his Creator and his fellow Muslims, and yet serve as a US soldier. The US is leading the war against terrorism which in reality is a war against Islam. Its army is directly invading two Muslim countries and indirectly occupying the rest through its stooges.
Nidal opened fire on soldiers who were on their way to be deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. How can there be any dispute about the virtue of what he has done? In fact the only way a Muslim could Islamically justify serving as a soldier in the US army is if his intention is to follow the footsteps of men like Nidal.
This is disturbing to say the least. Awlaki is calling on other Muslim servicemen to follow Hasan's lead. It also raises the possibility that Hasan had deeper ties to al Qaeda's international terrorist network than have been previously reported. In fact, ABC News reported a bombshell this morning:
U.S. intelligence agencies were aware months ago that Army Major Nidal Hasan was attempting to make contact with people associated with al Qaeda, two American officials briefed on classified material in the case told ABC News.
It is not known whether the intelligence agencies informed the Army that one of its officers was seeking to connect with suspected al Qaeda figures, the officials said.
ABC News does not say which al Qaeda associates Hasan tried to contact. It is certainly possible that Awlaki is one of them, but that is speculative at this point. The ABC News report also does not say if Hasan was successful in these efforts. But still, the mere fact that he tried to contact al Qaeda associates (if true) should give pause to those who wish to dismiss the broader implications of Hasan's shooting spree.
Right now, the key figure in the investigation, besides Hasan, is Awlaki. He has been known to U.S. authorities for more than a decade.
The Congressional Joint Inquiry into the September 11 attacks highlighted Awlaki's ties to the hijackers. Awlaki's name was withheld from the Joint Inquiry's final report. He is identified only as an "imam" on pages 178 and 179. However, those pages clearly deal with Awlaki as all of the details about the "imam" match Awlaki. Prior press accounts have also identified the "imam" discussed in the report as Awlaki.Awlaki first showed up on the FBI's radar in June 1999, when the Bureau opened an investigation into his activities. According to the Joint Inquiry's report, Awlaki "was in contact with a number of other persons of investigative interest." According to press accounts, one of these individuals procured supplies, including a satellite phone, for Osama bin Laden. And in early 2000, the Joint Inquiry found, Awlaki "was visited by a subject of a Los Angeles investigation closely associated with Blind Sheikh al Rahman" - the same man who offered guidance to the terrorist cells responsible for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and a follow-on plot against landmarks in New York. Rahman and his Egyptian-based terrorist organization were and remain core members of Osama bin Laden's international terrorist conspiracy.
Despite these disturbing ties, the FBI closed its investigation into Awlaki in March of 2000. "In the case closing memorandum," the Joint Inquiry found, the FBI agent in charge of the investigation said that Awlaki had been "fully identified and does not meet the criterion for [further] investigation."
That was a major mistake.
Just two months prior, in January of 2000, 9/11 hijackers Nawaf al Hazmi and Khalid al Mihdhar arrived in San Diego. At the time, Awlaki was an imam at a local mosque. The FBI "developed information" after the September 11 attacks, according to the Joint Inquiry, showing that "al Hazmi and al Mihdhar were closely affiliated with an imam in San Diego who reportedly served as their spiritual advisor during their time in San Diego."
The Joint Inquiry added: "Several persons informed the FBI after September 11 that this imam had closed-door meetings in San Diego with al-Mihdhar, al-Hazmi, and another individual, whom" had been asked "to help the hijackers."
That imam was Awlaki, who moved to Falls Church, Virginia in 2001. Al Hazmi and another 9/11 hijacker, Hani Hanjour, followed Awlaki there and "began to attend the mosque with which the imam was associated" in April 2001. That would be the Dar al Hijrah Islamic Center - the same establishment where the Fort Hood shooter held his mother's funeral in May 2001.
One member of the Dar al Hijrah mosque helped the two hijackers (Hazmi and Hanjour) find an apartment and drove them to Connecticut and New Jersey. The Joint Inquiry noted: "From the hotel in Connecticut where they stayed for two nights, a total of 75 calls were made to locate apartments, flight schools, and car rental agencies for the hijackers."
Al Hazmi and Hanjour were not the only 9/11 conspirators with ties to Dar al Hijrah. "During a search of Ramzi Binalshibh's residence in Germany, police found the phone number for the imam's mosque." That is, the point man for the September 11 operation, Binalshibh, found it important to keep the mosque's information close by.
So, at least three of the hijackers (Hazmi, Mihdhar and Hanjour) had important ties to Awlaki. And another 9/11 conspirator, Ramzi Binalshibh, kept the contact information for Awlaki's mosque in his apartment. After September 11, one FBI agent who reported to the Joint Inquiry stated the obvious: "there's a lot of smoke there" with respect to Awlaki's ties to the hijackers.
Yet, amazingly, the FBI allowed him to leave the country in 2002. As the Washington Post has reported, "The FBI told the 9/11 Commission and Congress that it did not have reason to detain" Awlaki.
That was a major mistake, too.
Awlaki became an even more prolific al Qaeda recruiter after relocating to Yemen, where he has reportedly taken direct part in terrorist planning. U.S. authorities asked the Yemeni government to detain him in 2006, but as evidenced by his fully operational web site, Awlaki was freed in short order and is allowed to continue his operations.
Now, of course, the investigation into Hasan is still in its early stages. Nothing is definitive at this point. But the FBI seems to be willing to dismiss evidence connecting Hasan to a broader terrorist conspiracy out of hand. Within hours of the shootings, an FBI source told Fox News that terrorism was "not being discussed" in this matter. This is absurd on its face as Hasan's attack, even if it is not connected to any other bad actors, is clearly an act of terrorism.
At this point, authorities are right to be cautious in adding up the details surrounding Hasan's putative ties to known al Qaeda associates. It is possible that these threads of evidence appear to be more sensational than they really are. But there are some basic questions that need to be answered:
What was Hasan's relationship (if any) with Awlaki in 2001, when they were both at the Dar al Hijrah mosque?
Did Hasan come into contact with the 9/11 hijackers? If so, what was the nature of that contact?
Did Hasan remain in contact with Awlaki? If so, how frequently? And, when was the last time Hasan chatted (either by phone or email) with Awlaki?
Did Hasan contact (or attempt to contact) other al Qaeda associates, as reported by ABC News? If so, who are these other al Qaeda associates? (Note: Given ABC News's reporting it is possible that Hasan contacted Awlaki as well as other al Qaeda associates.)
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, will the FBI and other agencies seriously investigate these ties?
That remains to be seen.