Unassuming on the surface, but roiling within

By William Wan, Kafia A. Hosh and Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 7, 2009

Army Maj. Nidal M. Hasan's anger was building.

He felt stuck in the Army, and family members said the military wouldn't let him out.

He disagreed with American policy in Iraq and Afghanistan, telling colleagues that the war against terror was a war against Muslims and that his religion came first.

He was a stranger to those with whom he prayed daily.

And even those who liked Hasan and saw him every day viewed him as an odd recluse who was often standoffish. They didn't know him very well and are trying to understand how he could be the man authorities think shot dozens of people at Fort Hood in Texas on Thursday in a rampage that has left 13 dead.

Two days before the shootings, he calmly walked around his apartment complex in Killeen, Tex., giving away his possessions: the microwave, the clothes rack, the shirts and suits that were practically new. But the people getting his belongings said they hardly knew him, and he barely spoke as he doled out his things.

The owner of a halal restaurant near the Silver Spring mosque where he worshiped before his recent move to Fort Hood said he would come in alone and rarely got into extended conversations, even though he'd eat there a couple of times a week.

He wasn't nearly as reticent in sharing his political beliefs. Val Finnell, a classmate of Hasan's at the Uniformed Services University in Bethesda a few years ago, recalled a presentation that "started out with a semblance of a health issue but his PowerPoint turned into his view that the war was against Muslims. He brought that up throughout the year."

When he was challenged by others in the class, Finnell said, "he became emotionally upset."

Authorities said they were exploring whether Hasan was the author of an Internet posting that said suicide bombers were heroes with a noble cause.

A colleague at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where Hasan was stationed for his psychiatry residency, said co-workers avoided referring patients to him.

His aunt said he was constantly berated for his Muslim beliefs and "must have snapped."

Hasan had a long history in the Washington area but seemingly very few friends. At the Silver Spring mosque where he prayed, he was considered a nice enough person, "but not to the point of socializing," said Mona Ayad, the center's administrative assistant, who only caught glimpses of him in the hallway. "He looked like he was very lonely most of the time."

They noticed his passion -- he donated to the needy, wanted to meet someone and settle down, handed out copies of the Koran -- and had thought he would be the last person "to do something like this," said Ezeddine Benyedder, who met Hasan at the mosque. "He was my role model when it came to the Islam life. He was so devout. He would come to the early morning prayers -- even in the summer when it began at 4 a.m. or 5 a.m., the early prayers I wouldn't go to, he would be there."

Hasan was born in Arlington County and grew up mostly in Vinton, outside Roanoke. His father, Malik, who emigrated at age 16 from a Palestinian village in the West Bank, operated a beer hall and a bar and grill. Nidal attended Arlington's Wakefield High School for a year and graduated from William Fleming High School in Roanoke.

Over the objections of his parents, both of whom are deceased, he joined the Army after high school, studied at Barstow Community College in California and Virginia Western Community College in Roanoke, and eventually graduated with honors as a biochemistry major from Virginia Tech in 1995.

He arrived at the Bethesda campus of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in 1997 and graduated in 2003 as a medical doctor. His served his internship and psychiatry residence at Walter Reed and returned to the university in 2007, where he completed a disaster and military psychiatry fellowship in June before being transferred to Fort Hood, said Sharon Willis, a university spokeswoman.

While at Walter Reed, he spent most of his time between work and the Muslim Community Center in Silver Spring. He was intent on finding a wife and attended two of the Islamic Society of Washington's annual matrimonial matchmaking events, telling people it was time for him to settle down. On a form, he said his top choice was an Arab woman, followed by someone of Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi descent.

But he couldn't find anyone who appealed to him.

"He was very disappointed," said Faizul Khan, a former imam at the mosque. "He said he didn't like the selection of women he met. He was very picky."

Arshad Qureshi, chairman of the board of trustees at center, said Hasan left no impressions. "He was a face in the crowd, one of literally a thousand people who came here for prayers," he said.

Benyedder, one of the few people who became close with Hasan at the mosque, saw no signs of anger or frustration. But after he heard what Hasan had been accused of, he couldn't help but remember a presentation Hasan gave in the community center's library about nine months ago.

Hasan approached a group after prayers and asked for feedback on a talk about the role of Muslims in the military that he prepared for his Army superiors, Benyedder said. Hasan argued that if military duties contradicted a soldier's religion, the soldier should be released from duty.

"At the time, it seemed like he was talking in general, but now I look back I cannot be sure whether he was talking about himself," Benyedder said. "I wonder. I know this man, but I cannot make sense of what he did and why. He never told me directly he hated being in the military, but over time, I could see him being less engaged."

After 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Hasan seemed to grow more disenchanted with his duties. "He did not talk war or politics, but he did tell me once the war started that what he worried most about was having to fight against other Muslims," Benyedder said. "He did not feel it was right."

On Friday, holed up in the offices of Hasan's old mosque, Imam Mohamed Abdullahi struggled with what he would say to his Muslim believers during the Friday prayer sermon.

"To be honest, I'm deeply saddened by what happened," he said amid his preparation. "This is against Islam, and yet Islam is being linked to this." Juliana Roberson, 46, who was at prayers Friday, was perhaps the most confused and saw a side of Hasan that few others did. She said Hasan was on the center's Zakat Committee, which distributed money to needy members.

Often, she said, Hasan gave money to programs, helped members find housing and bought food for the youth program's meetings, Roberson said. She is worried about how Hasan's role as a suspect in the Fort Hood shootings is affecting the 50 or so kids and young adults in the program.

"This is devastating because they know him personally," she said. "The kids looked up to him."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company