By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, November 16, 2009
SANAA, YEMEN -- In his first interview with a journalist since the Fort Hood rampage, Yemeni American cleric Anwar al-Aulaqi said that he neither ordered nor pressured Maj. Nidal M. Hasan to harm Americans, but that he considered himself a confidant of the Army psychiatrist who was given a glimpse via e-mail into Hasan's growing discomfort with the U.S. military.
The cleric said he thought he played a role in transforming Hasan into a devout Muslim eight years ago, when Hasan listened to his lectures at the Dar al-Hijra mosque in Northern Virginia. Aulaqi said that Hasan "trusted" him and that the two developed an e-mail correspondence over the past year.
The portrait of the alleged Fort Hood shooter offered by Aulaqi provides some hints as to Hasan's mind-set and motivations in the months leading up to the Nov. 5 rampage, in which 13 were killed. Aulaqi's comments also add to questions over whether U.S. authorities, who were aware of at least some of Hasan's e-mails to Aulaqi, should have sensed a potential threat. U.S. intelligence agencies intercepted e-mails from Hasan, but the FBI concluded that they posed no serious danger and that an investigation was unnecessary, said federal law enforcement officials.
Aulaqi declined to be interviewed by an American journalist with The Washington Post. But he provided an account of his relationship with Hasan -- which consisted of a correspondence of a dozen or so e-mails -- to Abdulelah Hider Shaea, a Yemeni journalist and terrorism expert with close ties to Aulaqi whom The Post contacted to conduct the interview. The Post reimbursed Shaea's travel expenses but did not pay him.
On Sunday, Shaea offered details of his interview with Aulaqi, an influential preacher whose sermons and writings supporting jihad have attracted a wide following among radical Islamists. Shaea allowed a Post reporter to view a video recording of a man who closely resembles pictures of Aulaqi sitting in front of his laptop computer reading the e-mails, and to hear an audiotape in which a man, who like Aulaqi speaks English with an American accent, discusses his e-mail correspondence with Hasan.
The quotes in this article are based on Shaea's handwritten notes. Shaea said he was allowed to review the e-mails between Hasan and Aulaqi, but they were not provided to The Post.
The thick-bearded, white-robed Aulaqi, who was born in New Mexico, served as an imam at two mosques attended by three of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers -- Virginia's Dar al-Hijra and another in California. Aulaqi, who is in his late 30s, is also fluent in Arabic. U.S. officials have accused him of working with al-Qaeda networks in the Persian Gulf after leaving Northern Virginia. In mid-2006, he was detained in Yemen, his ancestral homeland, at the request of U.S. authorities. He was released in December 2007.
Explaining why he wrote on his Web site that Hasan was a "hero," According to Shaea, Aulaqi said: "I blessed the act because it was against a military target. And the soldiers who were killed were not normal soldiers, but those who were trained and prepared to go to Afghanistan and Iraq."
Aulaqi's views are controversial, earning him not only designation by U.S. counterterrorism officials as a leading English-language promoter and supporter of al-Qaeda, but also criticism from other fundamentalist Islamic clerics. Sheik Salman al-Awdah, a Saudi religious leader, gave an interview last week calling the massacre at Fort Hood "unjustified," "irrational" and "inadvisable" because it will cause a backlash against Muslims in America and Europe.
But Aulaqi's statements reflect the increasingly radical path he has taken since settling in Yemen in 2004. Print, video and audio files of his words have been found on the private hard drives of terrorism suspects in Canada in 2006 and in the United States in 2007 and 2008. He also wrote congratulations to al Shabaab, an Islamic extremist group leading an insurgency in Somalia, after it apparently used the first U.S.-citizen suicide bomber last fall.
"Fighting against the US army is an Islamic duty today," Aulaqi allegedly wrote on his Web site after Hasan's ties to him were reported after the shootings. "The only way a Muslim could Islamically justify serving as a soldier in the US army is if his intention is to follow the footsteps of men like Nidal."
On Dec. 23, 2008, days after he said Hasan first e-mailed him, Aulaqi also posted online words encouraging attacks on U.S. soldiers, writing: "The bullets of the fighters of Afghanistan and Iraq are a reflection of the feelings of the Muslims towards America," according to the NEFA Foundation, a private South Carolina group that monitors extremist Web sites.
Aulaqi is an "example of al-Qaeda reach into" the United States, U.S. officials said publicly in October 2008, years after his ties to the Sept. 11 hijackers were probed by the 9/11 Commission. The panel also revealed earlier FBI investigations into his connections to al-Qaeda associates.
Aulaqi described Hasan as a man who took his Muslim faith seriously, and who was eager to understand how to interpret Islamic sharia law. In the e-mails, Hasan appeared to question U.S. involvement in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and often used "evidence from sharia that what America was doing should be confronted," the cleric told Shaea.
"So Nidal was providing evidence to Anwar, not vice versa," said Shaea. "Anwar felt, after seeing Nidal's e-mails, that [Hasan] had wide knowledge of sharia law." Shaea said he interviewed Aulaqi in his house on Saturday in Shabwa, a province in southern Yemen that has become an extremist stronghold and where al-Qaeda is seeking to create a haven.
Aulaqi told Shaea that Hasan first reached out to him in an e-mail dated Dec. 17, 2008. He described Hasan introducing himself and writing: "Do you remember me? I used to pray with you at the Virginia mosque."
Initially, Aulaqi said he did not recall Hasan and did not reply to the e-mail. But after Hasan sent two or three more e-mails, the cleric said he "started to remember who he was," according to Shaea.
Aulaqi said Hasan viewed him as a confidant. "It was clear from his e-mails that Nidal trusted me. Nidal told me: 'I speak with you about issues that I never speak with anyone else,' " he told Shaea.
The cleric said Hasan informed him that he had become a devout Muslim around the time Aulaqi was preaching at Dar al-Hijrah, in 2001 and 2002. "Anwar said, 'Maybe Nidal was affected by one of my lectures,'" said Shaea.
Of the dozen or so e-mails, said Shaea, Aulaqi replied to Hasan two or three times. Aulaqi declined to comment on what he told Hasan. Asked whether Hasan mentioned Fort Hood as a target in his e-mails, Shaea declined to comment.
Aulaqi said Hasan's alleged shooting spree was allowed under Islam because it was a form of jihad. "There are some people in the United States who said this shooting has nothing to do with Islam, that it was not permissible under Islam," he said, according to Shaea. "But I would say it is permissible. . . . America was the one who first brought the battle to Muslim countries."
The cleric also denounced what he described as contradictory behavior by Muslims who condemned Hasan's actions and "let him down." According to Shaea, he said: "They say American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan should be killed, so how can they say the American soldier should not be killed at the moment they are going to Iraq and Afghanistan?"
Staff writer Spencer S. Hsu in Washington contributed to this report.