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Authorities scrutinize links between Fort Hood suspect, imam said to back al-Qaeda

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."

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said he planned an investigation to determine whether the shootings constituted a terrorist attack and whether the Army missed warning signs about Hasan's ideological views. The House Armed Services and intelligence committees are also likely to investigate, an official said.

Investigators, intelligence analysts and forensic psychologists remain particularly keen on conducting their own psychological assessment of Hasan. A key to understanding his possible motive will be piecing together accounts from co-workers and neighbors, as well as his own writings, to determine the relationship between his emotional state and any attraction to more militant ideologies, even those justifying suicide attacks, officials said.

Hasan, 39, the unmarried child of Palestinian immigrants who was born in Arlington, attended Dar al-Hijrah at the time of his mother's May 2001 death, an event that acquaintances said led to his increased religiosity. In recent years, he worshipped regularly at the Muslim Community Center in Silver Spring, which is regarded as moderate.

People who know him have said that his alleged actions at Fort Hood may have been triggered by a number of factors, including the Sept. 11 attacks and the U.S.-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, Hasan's counseling of returning veterans with psychiatric problems, reported anti-Muslim harassment from Army colleagues and his moral doubts about his upcoming deployment to Afghanistan.

Aulaqi has been identified as a spiritual adviser of 9/11 hijackers Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi; the 9/11 Commission Report and a subsequent congressional report noted that they met with Aulaqi at a mosque in San Diego in 2000 and after he moved to Dar al-Hijrah in 2001.

The FBI investigated Aulaqi nearly a decade ago, after he briefly served as vice president of the U.S. branch of a Yemeni charity that federal prosecutors later described as a front organization used to support al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. The FBI learned that he also may have been contacted by a bin Laden "procurement agent," who served as fundraiser for a charity that the Treasury Department designated a bin Laden financier, and said that Aulaqi's group was its Yemeni partner.

The FBI also learned that Aulaqi was visited in early 2000 by a close associate of Omar Abdel Rahman, the man known as "the blind sheik" who was convicted in connection with the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. But the FBI reported that it did not have reason to prosecute or detain Aulaqi, who left the United States in 2002 and has lived in Yemen since 2004.

Yemeni authorities detained him in mid-2006 at the request of the U.S. government, then released him at the end of 2007. Since then, Britain has barred him from speaking there, and U.S. authorities have called him an al-Qaeda supporter who has worked with its networks in the Persian Gulf and plotted attacks against the United States and its allies.

Aulaqi "targets U.S. Muslims with radical online lectures encouraging terrorist attacks from his new home in Yemen," Charles Allen, then-chief intelligence officer for the Homeland Security Department, said in October 2008, calling him an "example of al-Qaeda reach into" the United States."

Aulaqi "speaks to North Americans better than anybody else" overseas, Allen added in an interview. Aulaqi's listeners include small extremist elements in the United States and Canada, including at least one Somali American youth from Minneapolis who joined al-Shabab, an extremist Islamist insurgent group that has pledged fealty to bin Laden.

Current and former lawmakers, including former Senate intelligence committee chairman Bob Graham, who led the congressional inquiry into the Sept. 11 attacks, have accused the FBI of bungling investigations of Aulaqi before and after the strikes.

But investigators are being cautious and pragmatic. Hasan's contacts a decade ago at a mosque attended by thousands may not prove meaningful. Similarly, people may hear fiery rhetoric or extremist views from a pulpit or online but may not be motivated to act on it.

Still, terrorism experts say they expect future cases of conflicted individuals who become radicalized and take up violence. "I don't see any conspiracy, and I don't see at this stage any real tie to 9/11 per se," Allen said. However, he added, Hasan "seems to me to be very much a self-radicalized or inspired individual. . . . I feel this will be our problem over the next five years."

Staff writers Joby Warrick, Ben Pershing, Mary Beth Sheridan and Ann Scott Tyson contributed to this report.

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