Was Fort Hood Shooter Inspired by a Radical Imam?

Was Fort Hood Shooter Inspired by a Radical Imam?

Was the Army psychiatrist who is the main suspect in last week’s Fort Hood shooting massacre a disaffected loner who simply snapped on the eve of a deployment to Afghanistan? Or was Major Nidal Malik Hasan a Muslim extremist whose rampage was inspired by terrorist groups overseas?

As authorities continue to investigate the deadly episode, they are struggling to understand just what led Hasan to allegedly mow down so many at the Texas military base. And while there is no evidence that Hasan ever left the U.S. to have direct contact with groups like al-Qaeda, an official familiar with the federal investigations has confirmed to TIME that they are looking into possible links between Hasan and Anwar al-Awlaki, a New Mexico–born imam whose sermons in the Washington, D.C., area were attended by two of the 9/11 attackers.

It’s not yet clear if Hasan, who occasionally worshipped at a Virginia mosque where Awlaki was once a preacher, and Awlaki ever had direct contact. Late Monday, Nov. 9, the New York Times reported that U.S. intelligence agencies had intercepted some communications between the two over the past year or so but that “federal authorities dropped an inquiry into the matter after deciding that the messages warranted no further action.”

But Awlaki wouldn’t have had to be in close contact with Hasan to have an influence on the Army psychiatrist. Awlaki, who now preaches jihad from Yemen, has a following among radical Muslims in the U.S. and Europe through his website, where his fulminations against the West and his praise of al-Qaeda are available in English. And investigators going through Major Hasan’s computer records have found logs of frequent visits to Islamist websites. His shooting spree at Fort Hood certainly made an impression on the preacher. Awlaki’s latest Web posting praises Hasan as “a hero” and “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.”

Awlaki, who holds U.S. and Yemeni citizenship, was the imam of the Dar al-Hijrah mosque in Falls Church, Va., near Washington, in 2001, when Hasan may have been among his congregation. At his previous mosque, in San Diego, Awlaki had met Khaled al-Mihdar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, two of the 9/11 hijackers. The imam left the U.S. in 2002 and has not returned since. A congressional inquiry into the 9/11 attacks criticized the FBI for failing to adequately investigate his connections to extremists while in the U.S. Awlaki now lives in Sanaa and is associated with Al-Eman University, a religious school once attended by American Taliban member John Walker Lindh. The university’s founder, Abdel-Majed Zindani, was designated by the Bush Administration as a supporter of terrorism.

Although Awlaki was not known for fire-breathing sermons in San Diego or Falls Church, he seems to have undergone a radical change after moving to Yemen. Even so, his anti-Western screeds would not have gained any attention — he’s hardly the only imam in the country to hold such views — if they weren’t made available online in English.

His Web strategy has made Awlaki a familiar figure to Western counterterrorism officials and experts. “His website is very slick, and it’s in English — so he’s obviously looking to exert influence in the English-speaking world,” says Scott Stewart, a vice president at Stratfor, a global intelligence company. Stewart says it’s hard to know if Awlaki works for al-Qaeda “or just happened to have the same ideology,” but adds that it’s clear “he’s obviously toeing their ideological line.” So much so, in fact, that this summer Awlaki was banned from addressing, via videolink, an event in London to raise money for prisoners in Guantnamo Bay; the Kensington council declared that his views were inappropriate.

Like other radical Islamic ideologues, Awlaki doesn’t limit his anger to the West: some of his rage is directed at Arab regimes — like the Saudi royal family — that he deems to be American puppets or generally bad Muslims. He calls for “the jihad of the Arabian Peninsula that would free the heart of the Islamic world from the tyrants who are deceiving the [faithful].”

But in tone and topic, it’s clear that Awlaki is speaking mainly to a Western audience. His paean to Hasan includes encouragement to other Muslims in the U.S. military to follow his example. Awlaki argues that no “decent Muslim” can serve in a military that “is directly invading two Muslim countries and indirectly occupying the rest through its stooges.” And he adds, “In fact the only way a Muslim could Islamically justify serving as a soldier in the U.S. Army is if his intention is to follow the footsteps of men like Nidal [Hasan].” Indeed, Awlaki says all Muslims should join the holy war. In a how-to guide titled “44 Ways to Support Jihad,” he says, “Jihad today is obligatory on every capable Muslim. So as a Muslim who wants to please Allah it is your duty to find ways to practice it and support it.”

Most of the 44 ways involve helping the mujahedin, or holy warriors: giving them money, praying for them, preserving their secrets, sponsoring their families, providing moral encouragement and urging others to join the jihad. Believers are also exhorted to be physically fit, learn to use arms and spiritually prepare for holy war. But the author stops short of telling his readers to go out and fight nonbelievers. Instead, he suggests it is enough to have the “right intention” and to pray for “martyrdom.”

In a section titled “WWW Jihad,” Awlaki encourages followers to be “Internet mujahedin” by, among other things, “setting up websites to cover specific areas of Jihad, such as: mujahedin news, Muslim POWs and Jihad literature.”

In this, at least, Awlaki practices what he preaches.

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