By Scott Wilson, Carrie Johnson and Spencer S. Hsu
Saturday, November 7, 2009
Investigators on Friday bore down on the possible motives of Maj. Nidal M. Hasan, the alleged Fort Hood gunman, to determine whether his actions were driven by stress related to his upcoming deployment to Afghanistan or to an Islamist political ideology.
Law enforcement officials also faced questions about whether they had missed possible warning signs. Six months ago, investigators came across Internet postings, allegedly by Hasan, that indicated sympathy for suicide bombers and empathized with the plight of Muslim civilians killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to a federal official briefed on the situation. The official, and another source, said investigators never confirmed whether Hasan was the author of the postings and did not pursue the matter.
The postings were among a handful of possible red flags that preceded Thursday's rampage, in which 13 people were killed and 38 were wounded in the deadliest mass shooting on a U.S. military installation to date. Friends and acquaintances said Hasan had been increasingly agitated over the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he reportedly said the U.S. "war on terror" was a "war on Muslims." Officials have seized Hasan's computer to determine his role in the blog posts and other writings.
Investigators cautioned that it was too early to assign a motive to Hasan. Some evidence suggested that stress may have played a factor. Hasan had spent nearly his entire Army medical career at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in the District, caring for trauma victims.
Regardless of his motive, lawmakers expressed puzzlement Friday that one of the Army's own could have perpetrated such an attack. Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said the panel would review how the military can better "spot troubled personnel like him in the future."
Abercrombie said the committee has begun examining "stress factors and psychological preparedness as a major institutional concern."
The shootings are said to have deeply troubled President Obama. He has made repairing U.S. relations with the Islamic world an important element of his foreign policy, but now there is the potential of a public backlash against Muslim Americans. Speaking Friday in the White House Rose Garden, Obama said, "We don't know all the answers yet, and I would caution against jumping to conclusions until we have all the facts."
Hasan's parents came from a Palestinian village not far from Jerusalem, although he was born and raised in the United States. In the blog posts, he is alleged to have compared suicide bombers to soldiers who fall on grenades to save comrades.
The FBI contends with a heavy volume of Internet comments from white supremacists, religious radicals and other fringe groups.
Additionally, under Justice Department guidelines, the FBI cannot open an investigation based solely on a person's speech, even if it demonstrates racist or extremist tendencies. The rules applied to James W. von Brunn, the alleged Holocaust Memorial Museum shooter whose writings had come to the attention of law enforcement but who was not investigated before the deadly attack this year.
U.S. authorities have disclosed at least 10 domestic terrorism investigations in the past year, the most since 2001. A number of them involved plots or attacks against U.S. military personnel within the United States.
In September, federal prosecutors charged two North Carolina men with conspiring to kill personnel at the U.S. Marine Corps base at Quantico. In June, Abdul Hakim Mujahid Muhammad, an American Muslim convert, allegedly shot and killed a soldier and wounded another at a military recruiting center at Little Rock in what he said was retaliation for U.S. counterterrorism policies worldwide.
In April, the last of five men convicted of planning to kill soldiers at Fort Dix, N.J., a plot inspired by foreign terrorist groups, was sentenced to 33 years in prison.
"I'm not saying it's part of an organized campaign or a systematic strategy, but we're seeing a sea change when we have once a month a plot that is related somehow to Afghanistan, Iraq, or what these people see is a war against Islam," said Bruce Hoffman, professor of security studies at Georgetown University. "It's too easy to dismiss them as unstable individuals when they have expressed strong religious beliefs with politics."
Fort Hood investigators face a challenge similar to the one faced by officials after the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in April 1995. At the time, officials sought to determine whether bombers Timothy J. McVeigh, an Army veteran with a distinguished record, and Terry L. Nichols, acted alone or were part of a larger violent movement.
"I do not know if it is a current or a lasting trend," Frank J. Cilluffo, a Bush White House aide who now leads George Washington University's Homeland Security Policy Institute. "But obviously it is something we need to be concerned about, because some folks obviously won't be on our radar screen."
The U.S. military's Northern Command did not raise the threat level for American military forces after the Fort Hood attack, keeping it at the lowest level. Northcom spokesman Michael Kucharek said, "We looked at it and view it as an isolated incident."
Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the Army chief of staff, said Friday he had asked Fort Hood commanders to review force protection measures after the shootings, which he called "a kick in the gut." Army officials said that such reviews are ongoing at all installations nationwide, but that there had been no overarching order to raise the level of alert.
On Army posts, weapons and ammunition used for training, as well as soldiers' private firearms, are stored in fortified rooms. If soldiers live in private housing on the posts, they are required to register personal weapons with the provost marshal, but doing so is left largely up to them.
When Hasan was shot, military investigators say, he was armed with at least two personal weapons.