The final report from an investigation headed by former FBI and CIA director William H. Webster into the FBI’s handling of information concerning Major Nidal Malik Hasan, who went on a shooting rampage at Fort Hood, Texas on Nov. 5, 2009, has been released to the public.
FBI agents first became suspicious of Hasan months before the shooting, when it was discovered that he was emailing al Qaeda cleric Anwar al Awlaki, who was subsequently killed in a US drone strike in Yemen last year. Following the shooting, transcripts of Hasan’s emails to Awlaki, as well as two replies from Awlaki to Hasan, had been withheld from the public. But the text of the emails is included in the Webster Commission’s final report.
Hasan began emailing Awlaki on Dec. 17, 2008. At the time, the FBI already had Awlaki under investigation because of his multiple ties to terrorists around the globe. The Webster Commission found that Hasan’s emails “tripped the wire” around Awlaki, meaning that Awlaki’s emails were being monitored and Hasan drew suspicion when his first email popped up in Awlaki’s inbox.
Awlaki’s emails were being intercepted by US officials at the time, presumably by the National Security Agency (NSA).
Hasan comes off as a fawning fanboy in many of the emails, praising Awlaki and even asking the al Qaeda cleric for help in finding a wife. The FBI found that many of these emails did not warrant further investigation, but even some of the most innocuously worded emails contain troubling insinuations.
For instance, Hasan repeatedly asks Awlaki how he can send him funds. At the time, Awlaki was a well-known jihadist preacher with well-known al Qaeda sympathies, even if his links to the international terror network were not yet fully or widely appreciated.
Hasan also defends terrorist attacks by Hamas in the emails and asks about Iran, which he says “is the only government that is not afraid to openly voice its discontent in a straight forward and firm way.” Hasan wonders if Sunni and Shiites can overcome their religious differences to form a united opposition to Israel.
Even if most of the emails can be portrayed as not worthy of further scrutiny, at least two of them clearly were. This includes the first email Hasan sent. The email, including typographical errors and misspellings, reads:
There are many soldiers in the us armed forces that have converted to Islam while in the service. There are also many Muslims who join the armed forces for a myriad of different reasons. Some appear to have internal conflicts and have even killed or tried to kill other us soldiers in the name of Islam i.e. Hasan Akbar, etc. Others feel that there is no conflict. Previous Fatwas seem vague and not very definitive. Can you make some general comments about Muslims in the u.s. military.
Would you consider someone like Hasan Akbar or other soldiers that have committed such acts with the goal of helping Muslims/Islam (Lets just assume this for now) fighting Jihad and if they did die would you consider them shaheeds.
Hasan Akbar is a US soldier who attacked his fellow soldiers at the beginning of the Iraq War in 2003, killing two and wounding more than a dozen others.
Awlaki did not respond to this specific email from Hasan in December 2008. In hindsight, it could have provided an eerie warning of what was to come less than one year later. The Webster Commission found that the message “suggested that a US soldier was seeking [Awlaki’s] advice on committing violence against fellow soldiers.”
Awlaki did issue a public response of sorts, even if unintentionally and indirectly, to this first email from Hasan, months later in July 2009. Hasan was on Awlaki’s email list and received and stored at least 29 public missives from the ideologue. In one of them, Awlaki discussed “Fighting Against Government Armies in the Muslim World” and called any Muslim fighting on behalf of America and its allies a “heartless beast, bent on evil, who sells his religion for a few dollars.”
“They are the worst of creation,” Awlaki wrote. “Blessed are those who fight against them and blessed are those shuhada [martyrs] who are killed by them.”
Awlaki’s message was clear: A Muslim who fights on behalf of America is the real traitor. (Never mind all of the Muslims killed indiscriminately and even intentionally by al Qaeda, its affiliates and allies.)
We will perhaps never know if Awlaki intended this public message for Hasan. The Webster Commission “found no direct connection between the personal messages” Hasan sent to Awlaki and “the mass-mailed ones” Awlaki sent out to all of his followers.
The two direct responses from Awlaki that Hasan did receive contain no instructions or overt plotting. In one, Awlaki promised he would “keep an eye [out] for a sister” for Hasan to marry.
Another unanswered email from Hasan to Awlaki contained a harbinger of things to come, however.
On May 31, 2009, Hasan asked Awlaki about the justifications for suicide bombings. Hasan claimed that he had heard someone defend such attacks by comparing a suicide bomber to an American soldier who jumps on a grenade to defend his fellow soldiers. Hasan offered as another example the hypothetical case of a suicide bomber who sneaks into his enemy’s camp and detonates his bomb, thereby killing the enemy and stifling an attack planned for the next day.
The suicide bomber’s “intention was to save his people/fellow soldiers and the strategy was to sacrifice his life,” Hasan wrote. The “logic” of these arguments “make sense,” Hasan told Awlaki, and also made it acceptable to kill innocent bystanders. “So,” Hasan concluded, “I would assume that [a] suicide bomber whose aim is to kill enemy soldiers or their helpers but also kill innocents in the process is acceptable.”
The Webster Commission “found shortcomings” in the FBI’s policies and procedures that led its agents to miss the hallmarks of Hasan’s radicalization. At one point, officials concluded that Hasan’s emails to Awlaki were consistent with his research into the psychological effects of the post-9/11 wars.
The FBI was not alone in making this mistake. Hasan had presented his jihadist views, including the justifications for suicide bombings, in a presentation to his colleagues at Walter Reed Medical Center. Hasan even included the common jihadist refrain, “We love death more than you love life,” in the presentation.
The presentation did not prevent Hasan from being promoted. In one Officer Evaluation Report, the Webster Commission found, the “Department Chair of Psychiatry at Walter Reed wrote that Hasan’s research on Islamic beliefs regarding military service during the Global War on Terror ‘has extraordinary potential to inform national policy and military strategy.'”
Instead, Hasan killed 13 people and wounded dozens more.
Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD’s Long War Journal.