Fort Hood suspect's links to imam under scrutiny

By Spencer S. Hsu and Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 9, 2009

Federal investigators are examining possible links between Fort Hood shooting suspect Maj. Nidal M. Hasan and an American-born imam who U.S. authorities say has become a supporter and leading promoter of al-Qaeda since leaving a Northern Virginia mosque, officials said.

Hasan attended the Dar al-Hijrah mosque in Falls Church in 2001, when its spiritual leader was Anwar al-Aulaqi, a figure who crossed paths with al-Qaeda associates, including two Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers, one senior U.S. official said.

Since Aulaqi left in 2002 and settled in Yemen, his lectures promoting the strategies of an al-Qaeda military leader have shown up in computer files of suspects in terrorism cases in the United States, Canada and Britain, officials said. It is not clear whether Hasan knew the preacher well then or only later through his lectures on the Internet.

A federal law enforcement official said Sunday that investigators' operating theory remains that Hasan acted alone and without provocation or exhortation from an overseas person. However, new leads are being pursued based on information gleaned from a methodical review by investigators of Hasan's computer and his multiple e-mail accounts. Those include visits to Web sites espousing radical Islamist ideas, another senior official said.

A challenge for investigators is sorting out a potential thicket of psychological, ideological or religious motivations behind Hasan's alleged actions. Hasan's possible contact with extremists such as Aulaqi would complicate matters, suggesting that U.S. authorities may have missed chances to prevent the cleric from instigating this incident and others. But if it turns out that Hasan acted in the throes of an emotional breakdown, his questionable ties could be misinterpreted in ways that damage U.S. outreach to the Muslim world or provoke an overreaction that divides Americans.

"There's a massive effort here to look at the Web sites he visited," the law enforcement official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the ongoing probe. "That's part of what's ongoing: what you learn from it, then you've got to figure out what it means." He added: "The important thing is, the jury's still out on motivation."

A former senior U.S. counterterrorism official said that "connections to Aulaqi would be problematic on many levels," calling him "a radicalizer of the first order" with many al-Qaeda ties.

"That said, many people attended that mosque who are not terrorist suspects," the official said. "The question will be whether the shooter kept in contact with Aulaqi and sought spiritual guidance from him. If that is the case, then this changes the complexion of this case a bit."

Shaker Elsayed, the senior imam at Dar al-Hijrah -- a long-established mosque whose thousands of worshipers form one of the largest traditional Muslim congregations on the East Coast -- said Hasan had prayed there since 2008 and sought his help to find a wife. But he could not verify whether Hasan ever met Aulaqi.

However, supporters of the mosque, who have spoken often with law enforcement authorities and reporters, note that Aulaqi spent only a year there, publicly condemned the Sept. 11 attacks and was not known to give radical speeches at the time. "If anybody knows about Aulaqi, it should be the FBI, and I applaud them" for their efforts, Elsayed said.

On Sunday, Army Chief of Staff George W. Casey Jr. cautioned troops against jumping to conclusions about what might have motivated Hasan, an Army psychiatrist, to allegedly shoot and kill 13 people and wound 38 Thursday at the nation's largest Army post.

"I'm concerned that this increased speculation could cause a backlash against some of our Muslim soldiers. And I've asked our Army leaders to be on the lookout for that," Casey told CNN's "State of the Union."

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