Nidal Hasan’s “Fairly Benign” Correspondence with Anwar al Awlaki

When Nidal Hasan carried out his notorious massacre at Fort Hood in November 2009, it was quickly revealed that he had previously exchanged between ten and twenty emails with the extremist imam Anwar al Awlaki (the exact number was eighteen). Thereafter, a Joint Terrorism Task Force had taken “a look” at Hasan, but according to officials, they “concluded his communications with Awlaki were ‘fairly benign.’” This conclusion seemed dubious when it was first made public. But following the release of all eighteen emails that comprised their exchange (which can be found here, at J.M. Berger’s excellent website), the wrongheadedness of the conclusion is clear.

This blog entry provides an exposition of the email exchange, and outlines why initial claims about the benign nature of the exchange are so implausible. The entry is in part inspired by Charles Cameron’s inquiry into the exchange. On his blog, Cameron looks into the first of Hasan’s emails to Awlaki, and writes that he was struck by Hasan’s claim that “he was dealing with soldier patients returning from the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan who had doubts as to the religious legitimacy of killing fellow-Muslims in those wars.” Cameron notes that, “on the face of it, that’s a topic a psychiatrist who didn’t feel himself expert in his religion … might wish to consult with clergy about.” Cameron concedes that he hasn’t been following news reports closely–so rather than making an argument that the emails were benign, he is simply making a query about the subject, stating that he’d “welcome a pointer or pointers, and closure.”

What Was Known About Anwar al Awlaki?

Critical to determining whether this email exchange was benign, or tipped Hasan’s hand about what was to come, is understanding what was known about Anwar al Awlaki back in 2008-09 when the exchange occurred. Cameron notes that there was ambiguity about whether Awlaki was an extremist after he left his job as the imam of the Falls Church, Va. mosque–and in fact an Associated Press report notes that most of the worshipers “did not find him to be overtly political or radical.”

This might be a compelling data point if analysts knew nothing about Awlaki between the time he left the Falls Church mosque and 2008-09. But, in fact, he was a known quantity by then; it is not a coincidence that the JTTF took an immediate interest in Hasan upon seeing that he had sent emails to Awlaki. An extremely useful report in terms of understanding why Awlaki raised red flags even then was published by the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, A Ticking Time Bomb: Counterterrorism Lessons from the U.S. Government’s Failure to Prevent the Fort Hood Attack, from which we draw the data points in this section of our entry.

Essentially, by 2008-09, Anwar al Awlaki was known as a “radicalizer” within the U.S. intelligence community, had given public addresses agitating against the U.S., and had come up in multiple criminal cases as a key influence in homegrown terrorists’ radicalization. Specifically, in 2008 DHS undersecretary for intelligence and analysis Charlie Allen had already identified Awlaki as an “example of al Qaeda reach into the Homeland.” Awlaki, Allen said, “targets U.S. Muslims with radical online lectures encouraging terrorist attacks from his new home in Yemen.”

And this material was effective at actually motivating people to violence. The Senate report details in a number of bullet points how this effectiveness could be seen in a succession of court cases that all occurred prior to Hasan’s attack:

  • Over four years prior to the Fort Hood attack, Mahmud Brent. a man who admitted to attending a Lashkar-e-Taiba training camp in Pakistan was found with “audiotapes of lectures by Anwar al Awlaki.”
  • Nearly three years prior to the Fort Hood attack, six individuals planned to attack Fort Dix, New Jersey, and to kill “as many soldiers as possible.” The FBI arrested the group in May 2007. According to expert testimony at the trial, al Awlaki’s lecture explaining Constants on the Path to Jihad was a cornerstone of their radicalization to violent Islamist extremism.
  • Nearly a year and a half prior to the Fort Hood attack, U.S. citizen Barry Bujol was allegedly seeking al Awlaki’s advice and counsel on how to join a terrorist organization. In June 2009, the FBI arrested him for attempting to provide material support to AQAP. Bujol had emailed al Awlaki requesting assistance on “jihad” and wanting to help the “mujahideen,” and in response al Awlaki sent his 44 Ways of Supporting Jihad. Bujol believed that al Awlaki’s email would attest to his bona fides to AQAP.
  • A year and three months prior to the Fort Hood attack, Hysen Sherifi, one of seven men in North Carolina charged in a plot to attack the Marine base in Quantico, Virginia, allegedly told an informant that he was going “to send [the informant] more books on Islam and jihad and that one of the books was ’44 Ways to Help the Mujahidin’ by Anwar Awlaki .”
  • Four months prior to the Fort Hood attack, in a case investigated by the FBI’s Washington Field Office, U.S. citizen Zachary Chesser reached out to al Awlaki through al Awlaki’s Web site for spiritual guidance and solicited al Awlaki’s recommendations on his desire to join al-Shabaab in Somalia. In charging documents against Chesser, the FBI noted that “various Islamic terrorists were in contact with Awlaki before engaging in terrorist acts.” Chesser explained to investigators that “Awlaki inspires people to pursue jihad.” He watched online videos and listened to digitized lectures “almost obsessively” including those by his favorite spiritual leader, al Awlaki. Al Awlaki responded to two of Chesser’s messages.

In each of these criminal cases, Awlaki’s lectures played an important role in inspiring acts of violence against the United States. Was Hasan, like the individuals mentioned above, seeking guidance and validation from Awlaki as he considered whether to undertake violence? Or was the correspondence ambiguous at best? Let’s turn to the Hasan/Awlaki correspondence to explore this question. (Note that Hasan’s spelling and grammar can be described as idiosyncratic. The original spelling/grammar has been retained.)

Nidal Hasan’s Exchange with Anwar al Awlaki

First email to Awlaki, Dec. 17, 2008. Nidal Hasan’s first email to Anwar al Awlaki alarmingly invoked Hasan Akbar, a Muslim soldier who was convicted of the double-murder of two officers in a grenade attack in Kuwait in 2003 (also wounding 14 other soldiers). Akbar has the distinction of being “the first U.S. service member prosecuted on charges of murdering fellow troops in wartime since the Vietnam War era.” Hasan wrote to Awlaki that “there are many soldiers in the us armed forces that have converted to Islam while in the service…. Some appear to have internal conflicts and have even killed or tried to kill other us soldiers in the name of Islam i.e. Hasan Akbar, etc. Others feel that there is no conflict. Previous Fatwas seem vague and not very definitive.”

As Cameron notes, one might be inclined to see this as a psychiatrist reaching out to an Islamic scholar because he was confronted with fellow Muslim soldiers who felt conflicted about America’s wars. Or was Awlaki instead referring to “some soldiers” who appeared to have internal conflicts as a stand-in for his own internal conflicts? In pondering this question, it is worth noting an oddity in the question Hasan ultimately posed to Awlaki. This is the entirety of what he asked: “Can you make some general comments about Muslims in the u.s. military. Would you consider someone like Hasan Akbar or other soldiers that have committed such acts with the goal of helping Muslims/Islam (Lets just assume this for now) fighting Jihad and if they did die would you consider them shaheeds.” (The Arabic word shahid can be translated as either witness or martyr; here he was asking if Akbar would have been a martyr if he had died during his attack.) Hasan went on to say that though these questions may be difficult, “you seem to be one of the only ones that has lived in the u.s. has a good understadning of the the Qur’an and Sunna and is not afraid of being direct.”

So Hasan affirmed that Awlaki was one of the only scholars who, understanding the Qur’an and sunna well, was “not afraid of being direct.” But more significant, his question to Awlaki didn’t actually deal with the valid question that he raised, the feeling of inner conflict between one’s faith and serving in the U.S. military. Instead, he leaped right to a question that should rightly trigger alarm: if Hasan Akbar died while attacking fellow soldiers, would he be a martyr? Hasan skipped over questions about whether serving in the U.S. military is religiously acceptable; whether going to war against fellow Muslims is a violation of religious principles. Instead, in addressing “some” soldiers who felt conflicted about fighting fellow Muslims, Hasan right away asked whether it was permissible to kill other U.S. soldiers in the way Hasan Akbar.

Fourth email to Awlaki [no date provided]. In a political diatribe, Hasan made clear that rather than feeling “internally conflicted,” his allegiances were not with the United States. He wrote that “the Western world makes clear that it does not want Islamic rule to prevail. Again- they make that quite clear; not only in their own lands but in the lands of the Muslims as witnessed by their mighty plotting around the world.”

Fifth and sixth emails to Awlaki, Feb. 16, 2009. In the first email sent this day, Hasan wrote: “Please have alternative to donate to your web site. For example, checks/money orders may be sent to This can assure privacy for some who are concerned.” His second email was largely the same: “Please have alternative methods to donate to your web site. For example, checks/money orders may be sent to This can assure privacy for some who are concerned and maximize the amount given.” At this point, Hasan had not only expressed his great admiration for Awlaki, but expressed the desire to donate money to him as well. Further, he wanted to find a secure way to send Awlaki money, thus indicating that he understood that there were perceived problems with doing so.

Seventh email to Awlaki, Feb. 16, 2009. Hasan wrote that an advertisement would be posted in the March 2009 issue of the publication Muslim Link advertising a $5,000 scholarship prize for the best essay entitled “Why is Anwar Al Awlaki a great activist and leader.” He asked Awlaki to personally award the prize. This reference to a scholarship prize prompted the only two emails in this exchange that Awlaki would send to Hasan (the other sixteen were from Hasan to Awlaki). In the first response email, Awlaki noted that he doesn’t travel, “so I wont be able to physically award the prize.”

Hasan sent a follow-up email on Feb. 19 explaining that the essay contest would not in fact occur. He wrote that “obstacles have been placed by Muslims in the communtity that are petrified by potential repercussions.” Among other things, this indicates that Hasan is well aware of the controversies that have surrounded Awlaki. Hasan in fact castigated those Muslims who would not stand with Awlaki:

Allah willing everything will work out in such a way that pleases Allah (SWT). You have a very huge following but even among those there seems to be a large majority that are paralyzed by fear of losing some aspect of dunya. They would prefer to keep their admiration for you in their hearts. In any case, my personal experiences have taught me that if you align yourself to close to Allah (SWT) you will likely not have many friends but pleny of hardships. Even the Prophets use to say when is the help of Allah (SWT) coming.

The Muslims who found Awlaki too controversial are portrayed as not only cowardly but also betrayers of their own faith, desiring the life of this world (dunya) over God’s pleasures. Not ending there, Hasan goes on to offer Awlaki any kind of assistance he may need, stating that “I believe my biggest strength is my financial situation.” He wrote that he was looking forward (inshallah; God willing) to seeing Awlaki in Jannah (heaven), where they will see each other “sipping on non-intoxicating wine in reclined thrones and in absolute and unending happiness.”

If there were any doubt at this point about Hasan’s feelings toward Awlaki, he even asked Awlaki to help him to find a wife. In fact, his expressions of love for Awlaki would continue to grow during the course of the correspondence.

Fourteenth email to Awlaki, May 25, 2009. Hasan sent an email to Awlaki with encouraging words for him, and noting a Qur’anic verse that made him think of Awlaki. This is precisely how Hasan rendered the Qur’anic verse, including the internal bracketed material:

O you who believe! Whoever from among you turns back from his religion (Islaam), Allah will bring a people ([like Anwar Al Awalaki] whom He will love and they will love Him; humble towards the believers, stern towards the disbelievers, fighting in the Way of [Allaah], and never fear of the blame of the blamers. That is the Grace of [Allaah] which He bestows on whom He wills. And [Allaah]  is AllSufficient for His creatures’ needs, All-Knower.

Note the bracketed material in this Qur’anic verse: Hasan has gone so far as to insert Awlaki’s name into a Qur’anic verse. Muslims believe that the Qur’an is the literal word of God. Adding words to it in brackets is not blasphemous: for example, the controversial al Hilali and Khan translation of the Qur’an has engendered criticism because of bracketed material that purports to aid the reader’s interpretation of various verses, but in fact guides the reader in a militant direction. But, though not blasphemous, it is an extraordinary step for Hasan to actually place Awlaki’s name inside a Qur’anic verse.

Fifteenth email to Awlaki, May 31, 2009. This is the most striking email of all. In it, Hasan first justifies suicide attacks at some length, and then queries Awlaki about the permissibility of collateral damage while in the process of killing enemy soldiers. He began by describing “a speaker” who defended the suicide portion of suicide bombings as religiously permissible:

[The speaker] contends that suicide is permissible in certain cases. He defines suicide as one who purposely takes his own life but insists that the important issue is your intention. For example, he reported a recent incident were an American Soldier jumped on a grenade that was thrown at a group of soldiers. In doing so he saved 7 soldiers but killed himself. He consciously made a decision to kill himself but his intention was to save his comrades and indeed he was successful. So, he says this proves that suicide is permissible in this example because he is a hero. Then he compares this to a soldier who sneaks into an enemy camp during dinner and detonates his suicide vest to prevent an attack that is know to be planned the following day. The suicide bombers intention is to kill numerous soldliers to prevent the attack to save his fellow people the following day. He is successfull. His intention was to save his people/fellow soldiers and the stategy was to sacrifice his life.

Hasan wrote that this logic made sense to him. But what he wanted to know from Awlaki is whether killing innocents in the process of killing enemy soldiers is permissible: “If the Qur’an it states to fight your enemies as they fight you but don’t transgress. So, I would assume that suicide bomber whose aim is to kill enemy soldiers or their helpers but also kill innocents in the process is acceptable. Furthermore, if enemy soldiers are using other tactics that are unethical/unconscionable than those same tactics may be used.”

In retrospect, this appears to be a query related to the attack that Hasan would carry out at Fort Hood later in the year. But even if the specifics of the coming attack were not foreseeable, this email raises a number of questions, particularly in light of Hasan’s stated view that the West was at war with Islam–and thus the West is likely cast in the role of the “enemy soldiers.” First, why is a U.S. army officer emailing Awlaki to express his belief in the permissibility of suicide bombings? Second, why is he asking a man like Awlaki if collateral damage is acceptable in the process of carrying out a suicide attack? Third, he began this correspondence with reference to Hasan Akbar, and whether Akbar might have been considered a shahid had he died in the course of his attack. Does this latest inquiry take on new meaning when related to Hasan’s first email?

Conclusion

The initial defense of Hasan’s emails as “fairly benign” is simply not defensible. The only explanation for why officials might reach that conclusion is that they simply did not know what they were looking at.

To review, Hasan repeatedly expressed what can only be described as a school-girl crush on Awlaki, who was known as a radicalizer in actual cases where Americans were driven to violence. Hasan even expressed a desire to send Awlaki money, tried to set up a $5,000 essay contest on the topic of “Why is Anwar Al Awlaki a great activist and leader,” and inserted Awlaki’s name in a laudatory manner into a Qur’anic verse. Hasan clearly expressed the view that Western forces were at war with Islam. And he sought Awlaki’s counsel on such questions as whether suicide bombings were acceptable, whether collateral damage was permissible in the course of a suicide attack, and–in his very first email–whether Hasan Akbar, who murdered fellow U.S. soldiers, might have been considered a martyr.

We are not claiming that understanding this correspondence better would have stopped the Fort Hood attack; counterfactuals are always a difficult game, and they risk overestimating what could have been done to prevent a tragedy. But at the very least, these emails should have triggered additional interest rather than being seen as “benign.” They were not benign; and Hasan was not asking the kind of questions that might naturally come up in the course of his professional duties. It is by understanding past mistakes that we can do better in the future, and writing off the Hasan/Awlaki correspondence as innocuous should be seen as a clear and unequivocal error now that the actual emails have been made public.

UPDATE, AUG. 5, 2012: In light of the above, it is worth noting what officials had said about Nidal Hasan back in 2009, shortly after the Fort Hood shootings. From the New York Daily News (with emphases added):

Agents pulled Hasan’s military records, but the FBI in a statement said his contact with Awlaki was “consistent with research” he was doing “as a psychiatrist at the Walter Reed Medical Center.”

“There was no indication that Maj. Hasan was planning an attack anywhere at all,” a senior investigator said last night.

The FBI shared the info with Army brass, who not only refused to boot Hasan from the service but promoted him – even after colleagues were stunned by his views on the wars abroad.

Needless to say, there are multiple problems with all the statements we have highlighted above.

UPDATE, AUG. 6, 2012: J.M. Berger weighs in with a couple of important points about the context of the Hasan/Awlaki email correspondence. We agree with both of his major points: our purpose was to undertake a content analysis of the correspondence rather than to claim that better understanding the red flags would have saved lives at Fort Hood. Often the ease with which terrorist events could have been averted is massively overestimated in the public sphere.

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7 Responses to Nidal Hasan’s “Fairly Benign” Correspondence with Anwar al Awlaki

  1. I’d like to drop in a quick word of thanks to Daveed for the time and care he and Lauren have put into responding to my question. I’m still in the first week of a new job and playing catch-up on a number of areas I’ve not been monitoring, but I do have some thoughts on first reading this post, and hope to comment at greater length after further readings, research and reflection. Thanks again.

  2. Keya Dash says:

    That those emails were collectively characterized as “fairly benign” demonstrates the standards of the Obama administration and how out-of-touch Obama and Big Sis are on the notion of homegrown terrorism.

    • Stoopid American says:

      The mistakes started with Hasan’s direct superior officer and went all the way up the chain of command. You can blame the Obama administration, if you want, but the majority of the blame belongs with the Army itself.

  3. Stoopid American says:

    Clearly, in hindsight, Hasan was a disturbed individual, and his communications with Awlaki are significant red flags. The military dropped the ball on this.

    But, in fairness, what could they have done? Without any kind of real world action by Hasan, all they could do is suspect him. Is that sufficient justification to kick someone out of the service? A sincere question.

    • Daveed Gartenstein-Ross says:

      The short answer in Hasan’s case is likely yes, when these emails are combined with other patterns of insubordination and radicalization (see, for example, pp. 28-31 of the HSGAC report that I link to in this entry). The U.S. Army demands discipline and respect for the chain of command, and Hasan displayed neither.

  4. Pingback: It’s Not Just Whether Nidal Hasan’s Emails Stuck Out, It’s Whether Abdulmutallab’s Did | emptywheel

  5. Pingback: Was Ft. Hood (or Aurora) Preventable? « BernardFinel.com

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