By Philip Jankowski
Killeen Daily Herald
Perhaps worried about hurting Maj. Nidal Hasan's career, or sometimes thinking he might even be an asset, the FBI chose to ignore what now can be seen as the warning signs that preceded Nov. 5, 2009.
The agency began intercepting emails between the 41-year-old U.S. Army psychiatrist and radical Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki 11 months before the Fort Hood shooting that left 13 dead and 32 people injured.
In a report made public Thursday, an independent review of the FBI's actions surrounding the mass shooting painted a picture of the challenges faced by the agency's Joint Terrorism Task Force in identifying possible terrorists in the Internet age.
Hasan came under FBI scrutiny during an extensive investigation of Awlaki, the American-born Imam who became al-Qaida's public relations expert. The cleric was killed by a U.S. drone strike in Yemen in September 2011.
The charismatic cleric's website gained Hasan's attention on Dec. 17, 2008, when he sent his first message to al-Awlaki. Over the next six months, Hasan would send 16 emails to al-Awlaki, who the report states contributed to the radicalization of four homegrown terrorists, including Hasan.
FBI agents in San Diego cataloged Hasan's communications and for the most part labeled them as "not a product of interest," according to the report.
Some of the emails are innocuous, with Hasan asking for al-Awlaki's opinion on certain scripture. But Hasan's first email asks for al-Awlaki's opinion of Muslims serving in the Army.
"Some appear to have internal conflicts and have even killed or tried to kill other (U.S.) soldiers in the name of Islam," Hasan wrote.
He referenced Hasan Akbar, the U.S. soldier on death row for killing two soldiers while stationed in Kuwait. "Would you consider someone like Hasan Akbar or other soldiers that have committed such acts with the goal of helping Muslims/Islam (Let's just assume this for now) fighting Jihad and if they did die, would you consider them shaheeds (martyrs)?" he wrote.
That email "tripped the wire," the report states. San Diego agents correctly speculated that Hasan may be a member of the military, but a search of a Department of Defense database did not have an entry for Hasan.
Two weeks later, Hasan sent his second email, referencing Iran and Israel. Hasan, who was born in America but is of Palestinian descent, wrote, "I am curious about your opinion in regards to Israel catalyzing unitiy [sic] among all Muslims regardless of specific religious differences."
The email again was marked as "not a product of interest," but the agents continued to look into Hasan. They discovered he was listed as an active-duty soldier stationed at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
But a misinterpretation led the agents to believe Hasan was a communications officer.
The mix-up led the San Diego agent investigating Hasan to fear that Hasan had access to the al-Awlaki investigation. He contacted the Joint Terrorism Task Force's field office in Washington, notifying them of Hasan's existence in their jurisdiction.
The agent determined that although Hasan's communications were not "overtly nefarious, this type of contact … would be of great concern if the writer is actually (Hasan)."
At this point, the San Diego office intended to drop its inquiry into Hasan and let the Washington agents handle any further investigation. Their target was al-Awlaki.
But the Washington office did not assign the lead for nearly two months and an agent did not even read it until five months after the case arrived.
During that time, Hasan sent al-Awlaki 12 emails and received two responses. Some of the messages conveyed an anti-Israel attitude.
"How is it that Israel and the U.S. can get away with so much in the way of mischief that they create on earth but if an Islamic group makes an error, they are ripped apart by the enemies of Islam, some of which call themselves Muslim," Hasan wrote in a Jan. 18, 2009, email.
Al-Awlaki responded Feb. 19, 2009, after Hasan inquired about setting up a $5,000 scholarship to be awarded by al-Awlaki. Al-Awlaki politely declined Hasan's offer, later noting that "red tape" would likely bar Hasan from sending any money to him.
Hasan responded the same day, and in a postscript tells al-Awlaki he is single and asks the cleric if he has any recommendations for a wife. Al-Awlaki later responded that he would "keep an eye out for a sister."
When the Washington agent finally looked into Hasan, he only had access to officer evaluation reports that conveyed Hasan in a positive light, not knowing that his local commanders had placed Hasan on probation and remediation.
Files at Walter Reed placed Hasan in the bottom 25 percent of residents at the hospital. He often failed to meet basic job expectations, such as attendance, the report states.
The Washington field office considered bringing in either Hasan or his supervisor for an interview, but concluded that interviewing Hasan would jeopardize the al-Awlaki investigation. An agent also feared that "an interview would probably be briefed up the Army chain of command; and that this would harm Hasan's career."
They then determined Hasan was not a probable terrorist. Four days later, Hasan sent al-Awlaki an email asking for the cleric's views on suicide bombing.
When the San Diego agent learned Washington had not interviewed Hasan or a commander, he became upset and noted to the task force officer that the investigation seemed rushed or "slim." On June 15, 2009, the San Diego task force officer spoke with his counterpart in Washington and was rebuked.
"This is not San Diego, it's D.C., and (the Washington Field Office) doesn't go out and interview every Muslim guy who visits extremist websites," the Washington agent is quoted as saying. He had determined that Hasan was actually performing research for the Army. "This guy has legitimate work related reasons to be going to these sites and engaging in dialogue."
The following day, Hasan sent his final message to al-Awlaki, in which he references Adam's expulsion from Eden.
Arrival at Fort Hood
One month later, Hasan transferred to Fort Hood to prepare for a deployment to Afghanistan. In October, he learned he would leave for the war-torn country in less than a month.
On Oct. 30, 2009, he sent his brother, Anas Hasan, an email. Hasan told his brother his deployment was imminent and made arrangements giving Anas Hasan power of attorney.
Though he states he was not aware of any psychiatrist in Iraq or Afghanistan being killed, he tells his brother to donate all of his savings to the poor and charity in the case of his death. "It's always good to be prepared."
Ten days later, 13 people were killed at Fort Hood.
The report determines, "This message would raise suspicion only in hindsight. Read in the context of Hasan's impending deployment to Afghanistan, the message appears innocuous and the likely act of a soldier about to be deployed to a combat zone."
Contact Philip Jankowski at firstname.lastname@example.org or (254) 501-7553. Follow him on Twitter at KDHcrime.