By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 18, 2009
Three weeks before Maj. Nidal M. Hasan purchased the semiautomatic pistol allegedly used in the Fort Hood attack, a radical Yemeni American cleric whom he frequently e-mailed gave a broad religious blessing to Muslims who attack "government armies in the Muslim world."
"These armies are the defenders of apostasy," Anwar al-Aulaqi wrote in English on his Internet site July 15 from Yemen, according to the NEFA Foundation, a private South Carolina group that monitors extremist sites. "Blessed are those who fight against them and blessed are those shuhada [martyrs] who are killed by them."
Aulaqi's incendiary rhetoric has been captured in witness statements and on computer hard drives of terrorism suspects in Toronto, New Jersey and Minneapolis in recent years. But current and former U.S. officials say the New Mexico-born imam has skated the line between advocating violent extremism and committing a crime that would land him in the U.S. legal system.
At the simplest level, Aulaqi's emergence as a spiritual adviser in contact with Hasan returns investigators to the question of what could have been done to stop the 39-year-old Army psychiatrist before he allegedly committed his first crime -- bringing an unauthorized weapon onto a military base. More broadly, U.S. counterterrorism officials say, it intensifies a debate over how to prevent Americans from "self-radicalizing" by turning to al-Qaeda supporters on the Internet, such as Aulaqi.
"What do we do as a society about people who are espousing a radical, violent ideology but who are not committing a criminal act?" asked Juan Zarate, a White House counterterrorism adviser from 2005 to 2009 who now is at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Given the nature of our society and protections of our Constitution, it's a very difficult question."
Military authorities say they continue to pursue all possible motives behind the Nov. 5 massacre at the Army's largest domestic base of 13 people as they rested before deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan. Hasan's lawyer has said his "mental responsibility" will be part of his defense against charges of premeditated murder.
Intelligence analysts, counterterrorism officials and Congress are already turning to whether Hasan may be part of a larger trend of "homegrown radicalization" and whether changes are needed in how law enforcement investigates individuals absent evidence of crime, what kind of information intelligence agencies can collect on U.S. citizens, or how such sensitive information can be used and shared with others.
"These are questions we've been asking ourselves for years," a current U.S. counterterrorism official said, adding that they remain "largely unanswered." The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
The debate is gaining attention. This year alone, authorities have alleged that two unconnected white supremacists and an Islamist extremist were responsible for the killings of three police officers in Pittsburgh, a guard at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and a soldier at a military recruitment center in Little Rock. Museum shooting suspect James von Brunn, for example, sought online instruction and support from neo-Nazi radicals.
For all the concerns raised in connection with Aulaqi's association with two Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers and earlier investigations into his interaction with al-Qaeda affiliates, the FBI reported that it did not have reason to prosecute or detain him before he left the United States in 2002.
Since then, according to trial records, news accounts and speeches by U.S. officials, Aulaqi's profile has grown. In December 2005, several youths listened to Aulaqi's "Constants on the Path of Jihad" speech on a laptop, six months before they were charged among a group known as the "Toronto 18," which was accused of planning to blow up downtown Toronto and military targets, the Toronto Star reported last month.
In February and March 2007, a man later convicted of conspiring with a group of Muslim immigrants to kill soldiers at Fort Dix, N.J., instructed colleagues to download Aulaqi's lectures. "He gave the fatwa," the man said on an FBI wiretap, adding that the cleric gave religious approval for attacks on American soil.
Last year, Somali American youths listened to the imam's lectures before leaving Minnesota to join an Islamist insurgency in Somalia linked to al-Qaeda. In December, Aulaqi wrote a note of congratulations to the al-Shabab insurgency, much as he did last week in an online post calling Hasan a "hero."
Sen. Susan Collins (Maine), the senior Republican on the Senate homeland security committee, which is set to hold a hearing on the Fort Hood shootings Thursday, said the issues of domestic radicalization and homegrown terrorism are only dimly understood.
"Our knowledge is so fragmentary and preliminary that it is premature to identify whether [Fort Hood] was a case where there were bad judgment calls that defeated an otherwise sound system of information-sharing, or whether there were fundamental gaps and unnecessary restrictions that impeded the investigation," Collins said. "That's what I hope our homeland security committee investigation and hearings will eventually answer."