Expert Discusses Ties Between Hasan, Radical Imam

Jarret Brachman, author of Jihadism: Theory and Practice, talks to host Michele Norris about suspected Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hasan's contacts with Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical imam who now lives in Yemen. He says communications between them should have raised huge red flags. He talks about who al-Awlaki is, and his influence on young, hard-line, English-speaking jihadis around the world.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News, I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Fort Hood mourned its fallen today. Family and friends, as well as President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama, gathered for memorial service honoring the 13 people killed in last week's attacks. Investigators have said the suspected shooter, Nidal Hasan, appears to have acted alone. But the FBI, as well as the Department of Defense, are also reportedly looking more closely at how they handled troubling information about the Army psychiatrist before the Fort Hood rampage.

U.S. intelligence officials had intercepted emails between Hasan and a militant Muslim cleric called Anwar al-Awlaki. The cleric has come under scrutiny for being a spiritual advisor to at least two of the 9/11 hijackers and he's the author of a Web site that promotes jihadist activity. On that site yesterday, Awlaki wrote: Nidal Hasan is a hero. Though he now lives in Yemen, Awlaki is a U.S. citizen and once served as an imam at a mosque in Falls Church, Virginia, where Hasan occasionally worshiped. Jarret Brachman is the author of "Global Jihadism: Theory and Practice," and he joins me now.

And Mr. Brachman, let's begin with Mr. Awlaki. Give us a quick sketch of this man.

Mr. JARRET BRACHMAN (Author, "Global Jihadism: Theory and Practice,"): Anwar al-Awlaki really represents kind of the new generation of fire-breathing, radical, jihadi clerics. He's an American citizen of Yemeni descent and he's really played a role in radicalizing a whole lot of people indirectly through podcasts, through YouTube videos and through a number of writings that he's put out on the Internet.

NORRIS: I want to ask you about the communication between Hasan and Imam Awlaki. What do we know about these emails between these two men? How many emails were there? How were they intercepted? And what do we know about what was said in these emails?

Mr. BRACHMAN: You know, very little of that has been released into the open source. Right now, we know there's about 10 to 20 emails. I'm not even clear if it was both ways or if it was - if it was just a one way traffic. The thing about Awlaki is that he's very, very popular. And so, this guy is probably getting hundreds of emails a day from people who are interested in, you know, how to tie their shoes according to sharia, or Islamic law, you know, the right way. So, you know, it's not that crazy, I guess, that somebody would be emailing him for religious advice. The question is, what's the content of those questions?

NORRIS: If this is someone who has called for violent action against America, to your mind, how should the military have - or the FBI proceeded once it was known that these two men were communicating, that this cleric was communicating with someone who was an active member of the U.S. military?

Mr. BRACHMAN: Yeah, I mean, the fact is there's no reason an active-duty officer should be in any sort of conversation with Anwar al-Awlaki. You know, one email maybe for academic research purposes is understandable, but prolonged contact and interaction is just totally, you know, beyond the pale. And this should have sent flags throughout the chain. If you understand that the kind of message that Anwar al-Awlaki is promoting, this is a massive oversight.

NORRIS: Now we should stress that at this point the FBI is saying that there was nothing of concern in those emails.

Mr. BRACHMAN: Well, the question is, you know, what is concerning? And a lot of times these guys will speak not necessarily in code, but they will use very esoteric religious concepts that to somebody who doesn't understand the ideology that these guys promote, may seem harmless. But in fact the consequences of the concepts that they're discussing can be very, very, you know, dangerous. And so, you need a subject matter expert, I think, to review those, not necessarily just looking for: Are they plotting an attack? I mean, that won't be contained in that kind of communication.

NORRIS: Before I let you go, beyond his communications with Imam Awlaki, I just want to ask you about another issue under examination, a speech that he gave Walter Reed in June of 2007 as a requirement of his residency. He had to present a paper. But instead on focusing on medical research, he focused instead on Muslim teaching and a specific warning about Muslims fighting overseas and potentially fighting and killing other Muslims. Should that have raised a red flag?

Mr. BRACHMAN: The fact is it's indicative of somebody who has bought into this - the hard line understanding of Islam known as Salafism. And so again, that's not inherently problematic, it means that you are a very ultra-conservative Muslim. But, you know, when you start talking about - Muslims are under attack - that kind of walks you down this certain path where - well then, what are you going to do about it? It should have at least raised some eyebrows and it sounds like it did, but they just didn't go up the chain. There is a lot of gaps here that should have been, you know, filled, but weren't.

NORRIS: Mr. Brachman, thank you very much for speaking with us.

Mr. BRACHMAN: Thanks a lot.

NORRIS: Jarret Brachman is the author of "Global Jihadism: Theory and Practice." He's also the former director of research at West Point's Combating Terrorism Center.

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