WASHINGTON — The FBI and the Army last year investigated
contacts between a Yemen-based militant Islamist prayer leader and the Army
psychiatrist accused of last week’s deadly shooting rampage at Fort Hood,
Texas, but they dropped the case after concluding that he didn’t pose a
terrorist threat, a senior federal law enforcement official said Monday.
The disclosure on Monday that Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan
communicated with an imam who had ties to Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers was sure to
raise the question of whether U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies
had information that, if properly shared and investigated, might have helped to
prevent the attack.
Even before that disclosure, lawmakers were calling for
inquiries into whether the Army, the FBI and the U.S. intelligence community
missed warning signs about Hasan’s increasing radicalization in the months
before last Thursday’s killing spree.
“I think the very fact that you’ve got a major in the
U.S. Army contacting this guy (a radical imam), or attempting to contact him,
would raise some red flags,” said Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich., the ranking
Republican on the House Intelligence Committee. Hoekstra said his office has
been contacted by U.S. officials involved in the case who believe that “the
system just broke down.”
The federal law enforcement official, speaking on the
condition of anonymity because the case is ongoing, said that all the facts are
not yet known because the FBI and Army are poring over numerous e-mails sent by
Hasan to Awlaki and other Islamist figures.
But he said that the information known to authorities at the
time did not in any way suggest that Hasan was growing violent or that he was
involved in “any terrorist planning or plotting.”
“I don’t know if it will greatly affect our assessment
of the case, what motivated him. It remains to be seen whether this means
anything or not,” said the federal official, adding that authorities still
believe Hasan acted alone when firing a minutes-long spray of bullets that
killed 13 people and injured another 29.
The official said that Hasan did not appear to have known
Awlaki in person, except perhaps in passing, even though the militant prayer
leader was the imam at a Virginia mosque that Hasan attended in 2001.
The mosque drew the attention of the FBI at the time, and
later the Sept. 11 commission, because of Awlaki’s connection to at least two
of the Sept. 11 hijackers, who may have followed him from a mosque in San Diego
to the Dar al-Hijrah Islamic Center in Falls Church, Va., in early 2001.
Awlaki, a U.S. citizen, left the United States in 2002 and
is believed to be in Yemen and actively supporting the Islamist jihad, or holy
war against the West, through his Web site.
Several U.S. officials said U.S. intelligence agencies first
intercepted communications between Hasan and Awlaki starting in late 2008 as a
result of another investigation, and that the information was given to one
U.S.-based multi-agency Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTFF) and then to another
one based at the Washington Field Office because of Hasan’s assignment at the
Walter Reed medical center.
The Washington task force, which included FBI agents and
Army criminal investigative personnel, launched a probe and determined that
Hasan was contacting the radical cleric — who has ties to other
al-Qaida-affiliated individuals — “within the context of the doctor’s
position and what he was doing at the time, conducting research … on the
issues of Muslims in the military and the effects of war in Muslim
The federal official said Hasan had “reached out to
Awlaki several times before he got a response,” and that there was little
in the correspondence to raise serious red flags.
But Hoekstra expressed frustration with the handling of the
intelligence on Hasan, saying that authorities underestimated the significance
of the material they had obtained.
Awlaki’s responses to Hasan were regarded by U.S.
authorities as “relatively innocuous,” Hoekstra said. Even so, the
lawmaker said, the communications should have triggered a serious response
“regardless of the content.”
Authorities appear to have been looking for evidence of
direction from overseas or communication involving a developing plot, Hoekstra
said. “They’re looking for somebody to say, ‘Go,’ ” Hoekstra said.
“But I don’t think that’s the kind of organization
(al-Qaida) is trying to set up. They’re more in the world of: ‘If you see an
opportunity, take advantage of it, and you don’t have to get it approved at
The federal official defended the bureau’s handling of the
matter. “The process worked,” the official said. “It was
evaluated by one JTTF and sent to another JTTF based on what information they
had at the time. More investigation was done, and ultimately a judgment was
made that” it did not merit further investigation.
Authorities continue to pore over Hasan’s e-mails and other
information to see who else he contacted and whether authorities dropped the
ball by not continuing to investigate Hasan.
“If we find in his e-mails that he reached out to all
kinds of other people for input,” that assessment could change, said the
official. “We just don’t have the full context yet.”
Hasan appears to have surfaced on U.S. surveillance
inadvertently. The National Security Agency eavesdrops on electronic
communications around the world, and routinely monitors the e-mails and calls
of figures such as Awlaki.
The emerging details are likely to draw parallels with
intelligence breakdowns that preceded the Sept. 11 attacks, when the CIA, NSA,
FBI and other agencies failed to recognize or share information that may have
helped uncover the plot.
Fixing those problems was the focus of a sweeping overhaul
of the U.S. intelligence community.
Congressional investigators “are going to be taking a
look at all of the information and making decisions on whether people should
have been notified along the way,” said a congressional official who has
been briefed on the Hasan probe. “I think that’s going to depend on the
nature of the communications.”
The Senate’s Homeland Security oversight committee said it
will investigate the shootings and what authorities knew about Hasan’s possible
motives and his connections to radical Islamists, either online or in person.
The committee will hold its first hearing next week, an
unusually quick turnaround for such a public second-guessing.
Hoekstra sent a letter to the heads of the FBI, the CIA, the
Directorate of National Intelligence and the National Security Agency directing
their agencies to preserve all documents and materials “relevant to the
Fort Hood attack and any related investigations or intelligence collection
On his Web site, Awlaki frequently counsels his followers in
what is acceptable under Islamic law. He has authorized acts of violence,
including terrorist acts, under Islamic law by saying they were done to defend
Muslims around the world from Western governments bent on destroying Islam.
Tribune Newspapers reported that soon after midnight Monday,
after Awlaki’s name was publicly linked to Hasan’s, a posting on his Web site
was titled “Nidal Hassan Did the Right Thing.”
A second official said, “There are indications that
contacts were attempted, but that doesn’t mean that we’ve got a full-fledged
al-Qaida network here trying to attack the military.”
Officials emphasized that there is no evidence that Hasan
received direction or input on his plan in the days or months before the
attacks, in which he fired off more than 100 rounds from a pair of
semi-automatic handguns, killing 13 and injuring 29 others.
Via McClatchy-Tribune News Service.