By DAVID JOHNSTON and SCOTT SHANE
Published: November 9, 2009
WASHINGTON — Intelligence agencies intercepted communications last year and this year between the military psychiatrist accused of shooting to death 13 people at Fort Hood, Tex., and a radical cleric in Yemen known for his incendiary anti-American teachings.
But the federal authorities dropped an inquiry into the matter after deciding that the messages from the psychiatrist, Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, did not suggest any threat of violence and concluding that no further action was warranted, government officials said Monday.
Major Hasan’s 10 to 20 messages to Anwar al-Awlaki, once a spiritual leader at a mosque in suburban Virginia where Major Hasan worshiped, indicate that the troubled military psychiatrist came to the attention of the authorities long before last Thursday’s shooting rampage at Fort Hood, but that the authorities left him in his post.
Counterterrorism and military officials said Monday night that the communications, first intercepted last December as part of an unrelated investigation, were consistent with a research project the psychiatrist was then conducting at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington on post-traumatic stress disorder.
“There was no indication that Major Hasan was planning an imminent attack at all, or that he was directed to do anything,” one senior investigator said. He and the other officials spoke on the condition of anonymity, saying the case was under investigation.
The officials said the Departments of Defense and Justice had decided Major Hasan would be prosecuted in a military court, an indication that investigators believe he acted alone. Government lawyers had said his case might be tried in civilian court if he were believed to have conspired with nonmilitary defendants.
In a statement, the Federal Bureau of Investigation said, “At this point, there is no information to indicate Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan had any co-conspirators or was part of a broader terrorist plot.” The statement concluded that “because the content of the communications was explainable by his research and nothing else was found,” investigators decided “that Major Hasan was not involved in terrorist activities or terrorist planning.”
Officials said the F.B.I. and the Defense Department would be reviewing their earlier assessment of Major Hasan to determine whether it was handled correctly.
Given the radical views of Mr. Awlaki, however, the conduct of the F.B.I. and the military is likely to come under intense scrutiny from Congress. Representative Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, on Monday asked intelligence and law enforcement officials to preserve all records of their dealings with Major Hasan.
The communications provide the first indication that Major Hasan was in direct communication with anyone who espoused militant views. On Monday, Mr. Awlaki praised Major Hasan on his Web site, saying that he “did the right thing” in attacking soldiers preparing to deploy to Afghanistan and Iraq.
The officials said the communications did not alter the prevailing theory that Major Hasan acted by himself, lashing out as a result of combination of factors, including his outspoken opposition to American policy in Iraq and Afghanistan and his deepening religious fervor as a Muslim.
Major Hasan, who was shot by a police officer, has regained consciousness at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio and is able to talk, though he declined on Sunday to speak to federal investigators about the shooting rampage. “He is critical but stable,” said a hospital spokeswoman, Maria Gallegos.
Ms. Gallegos added that Major Hasan had come out of a coma on Saturday and had been conversing with his doctors ever since. A lawyer for Major Hasan told The Associated Press on Monday that he had asked investigators not to question his client and expressed doubt that he could get a fair trial. The lawyer, John P. Galligan, a retired Army colonel, said he was contacted by Major Hasan’s family on Monday and was traveling to San Antonio to consult with him.
The imam whom Major Hasan made contact with is an American citizen born in New Mexico to Yemeni parents. He wrote on Monday on his English-language Web site that Major Hasan was “a hero.” The cleric said, “He is a man of conscience who could not bear living the contradiction of being a Muslim and serving in an army that is fighting against his own people.”
Mr. Awlaki added, “The only way a Muslim could Islamically justify serving as a soldier in the U.S. Army is if his intention is to follow the footsteps of men like Nidal.”
After the Sept. 11 attacks, Mr. Awlaki was quoted as disapproving of such violence and was portrayed as a moderate figure who might provide a bridge between Islam and Western democracies. But since leaving the United States in 2002 for London and later Yemen, Mr. Awlaki has become, through his Web site, a prominent proponent of militant Islam.
“He’s one of the most popular figures among hard-line, English-speaking jihadis around the world,” said Jarret Brachman, the author of “Global Jihadism” and a terrorism consultant to the government.
Mr. Brachman said Mr. Awlaki was especially appealing to young Muslims who are curious about radical ideas but not yet committed. “He’s American, he’s funny, and he speaks in a very understandable way,” Mr. Brachman said.
In 2000 and 2001, Mr. Awlaki served as an imam at two mosques in the United States frequented by three future Sept. 11 hijackers. Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi attended the Rabat mosque in San Diego, where Mr. Awlaki later admitted meeting Mr. Hazmi several times but “claimed not to remember any specifics of what they discussed,” according to the report of the national Sept. 11 commission.
Both Mr. Hazmi and another hijacker, Hani Hanjour, later attended the Dar al Hijrah mosque in Falls Church, Va., after Mr. Awlaki had moved there in early 2001. The Sept. 11 commission report expressed “suspicion” about the coincidence, but said its investigators were unable to find Mr. Awlaki to question him.
Major Hasan attended the same Virginia mosque, but it is not known whether they met there.
Mr. Awlaki, who is in his late 30s, had returned to Yemen with his family as a child. He received a religious education in Yemen and later earned degrees in engineering at Colorado State and in education leadership at San Diego State, according to his Web site.
His writings urge Muslims to dedicate themselves to defending Islam, including pursuing “arms training,” in such works as “44 Ways of Supporting Jihad.”
At Fort Hood, the Army erected walls of gray containers around the headquarters of III Corps in advance of a memorial service Tuesday for the 13 people killed when, the authorities say, Major Hasan opened fire in a center where soldiers get vaccinated before being sent abroad.
President Obama and his wife, Michelle, are expected to attend the ceremony, and the president will speak to a crowd that will include the survivors of the attack and the families of the victims.
James C. McKinley Jr. contributed reporting from Killeen, Tex.