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U.S. tracked Fort Hood suspect before shooting

Intelligence agencies intercepted communications between Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, who is accused of shooting to death 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas, and a radical cleric in Yemen.
/ Source: The New York Times

Intelligence agencies intercepted communications last year and earlier this year between Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, who is accused of shooting to death 13 people at Fort Hood, Tex., and a radical cleric in Yemen known for his incendiary anti-American teachings. But federal authorities dropped an inquiry into the matter after deciding the messages warranted no further action, government officials said on Monday.

Maj. Hasan’s exchanges with Anwar al-Awlaki, once a spiritual leader at a mosque in suburban Virginia where Maj. Hasan worshipped, indicate that the troubled military psychiatrist came to the attention of the authorities long before last Thursday’s shooting rampage at Fort Hood, but left him in his post. It is not clear what was said in the exchanges, believed to be e-mail messages, and whether they would have offered a hint at the major’s outspoken views or his declining emotional state.

The communications, the subject of an inquiry by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Army investigators, provide the first indication that Maj. Hasan was in direct communication with the cleric, who on Monday praised Maj. Hasan on his Web site, saying the Army psychiatrist “did the right thing” in attacking soldiers preparing to deploy to Afghanistan and Iraq.

Missed warning signs?
Depending on what is contained in the exchanges, the disclosure of the government’s decision not to take any steps against Maj. Hasan may provoke criticism of the F.B.I. and Army investigators for missing possible warning signs of an alleged mass killer. F.B.I., military and intelligence officials were preparing to brief reporters on the matter Monday night.

But federal officials briefed on the case said their decision to break off the investigation was reasonable based on the information about Maj. Hasan that was compiled at the time, which they said gave no indication he was likely to engage in violence.

The officials said the communications do not alter the prevailing theory that Maj. Hasan acted by himself, lashing out as a result of combination of factors, including his outspoken opposition to American policy in Iraq and Afghanistan and his deepening religious fervor as a Muslim.

Maj. Hasan, who was shot by a police officer, has regained consciousness and is able to talk at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, though it is unclear if he has spoken to federal investigators about the shooting rampage. “He is critical but stable,” a hospital spokeswoman, Maria Gallegos, said.

Ms. Gallegos added that Maj. Hasan, a psychiatrist by training, had come out of a coma on Saturday and has been conversing with his doctors ever since. He was in a coma when he arrived in San Antonio on Friday.

A lawyer for Maj. Hasan told the Associated Press on Monday he had asked investigators not to question his client and expressed doubt he could get a fair trial. The lawyer, retired Col. John P. Galligan, said he was contacted by Maj. Hasan’s family on Monday and was traveling to San Antonio to consult with him.

‘He is a man of conscience’
Mr. Awlaki, an American citizen born in New Mexico to Yemeni parents, wrote on Monday on his English-language website that Mr. Hasan was “a hero.” The cleric said, “He 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.”

He added, “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.”

After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New York and Washington, Mr. Awlaki was quoted disapproving of such violence, and was portrayed as a moderate figure who might provide a bridge between Islam and Western Democracies. But since leaving the U.S. in 2002 for London, and later Yemen, Mr. Awlaki has become a prominent proponent of militant Islam via his Web site,

“He’s one of the most popular figures among hard-line, English-speaking jihadis around the world,” said Jarret Brachman, author of “Global Jihadism” and a terrorism consultant to the government.

Mr. Brachman said Mr. Awlaki is especially appealing to young Muslims who are curious about radical ideas but not yet committed. “He’s American, he’s funny, and he speaks in a very understandable way,” Mr. Brachman said.

On his Web site, Mr. Awlaki invites comments or questions from visitors under the heading “Contact the Sheikh.”

The Toronto Star reported last month that a group of young Canadians charged with plotting attacks against military and government targets were inspired, in part, by listening to Mr. Awlaki’s sermons online.

In 2000 and 2001, Mr. Awlaki served as an imam at two mosques in the United States frequented by three future 9/11 hijackers. Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi attended the Rabat mosque in San Diego, where Mr. Awlaki later admitted meeting Hazmi several times but “claimed not to remember any specifics of what they discussed,” according to the report of the national 9/11 commission.

Both Hazmi and another hijacker, Hani Hanjour, later attended the Dar al Hijra mosque in Falls, Church, Virginia after Mr. Awlaki had moved there in early 2001. The 9/11 commission report expressed “suspicion” about the coincidence, but said its investigators were unable to find Mr. Awlaki in Yemen to question him.

Unclear if they met at mosque
Mr. Hasan attended the same Virginia mosque, but it is not known whether they met there.

Mr. Awlaki, who is in his late 30s, was born in New Mexico of Yemeni parents, but returned to Yemen with his family as a child. He received a religious education in Yemen and later earned degrees in engineering at Colorado State and in education leadership at San Diego State, according to a biography on his Web site.

His writings urge Muslims to dedicate themselves to defending Islam, including pursuing “arms training,” in such works as “44 Ways of Supporting Jihad.”

At Fort Hood, the army constructed giant walls of grey containers around the headquarters of III Corps in advance of a memorial service to be held Tuesday for the 13 people killed when Maj. Hassan opened fire in a center where soldiers get vaccinated before being sent abroad.

“We are creating a venue back there that is somewhat private and clear of observation,” said Lt. General Robert Cone, the base’s commander.

President Obama and his wife are expected to attend the ceremony and the president will speak to a crowd that will include the survivors of the attack and the families of the victims. The ceremony will include prayers, a roll call of the dead and a 21-gun salute.

Lt. Gen. Cone said 15 people remain hospitalized with gunshot wounds, and 8 of those are in intensive care. Another 27 soldiers wounded are recovering and will attend the ceremony, he said.

As Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, the Connecticut independent, called for an investigation into how the army missed signs Major Hasan had become a violent opponent of the wars, Lt. Gen. Cone said his officers were reviewing their records to see if any other soldiers had emotional problems that could make them a threat. He said they were not focusing on Muslim soldiers. “What we’re looking for is people with personal problems, not at all related to their religion,” he said.

This article, "appeared first in The New York Times.