Jihadist soldier 'left free' to kill

By Jon Swaine

Trial of military psychiatrist who went on shooting rampage at Fort Hood in Texas to begin this week.

Thirteen US Army personnel were killed and 32 wounded in the 2009 mass shooting. Photo / AP
Thirteen US Army personnel were killed and 32 wounded in the 2009 mass shooting. Photo / AP

Sweating nervously from his bald head as he began addressing a room full of uniformed classmates, the American soldier gathered enough composure to deliver an extraordinary presentation.

The US was waging a "war on Islam", Nidal Hasan explained to fellow graduate students at a military medical college in Maryland, before defending Osama bin Laden and endorsing suicide bombers.

As his disgusted audience "erupted", he was halted by their lecturer after just two minutes. Yet two years later Hasan, still a member of the army he had denounced, violently concluded his demonstration. Wielding a high-powered pistol and crying "Allahu akbar!" he shot dead 13 people and wounded 32 others at the Fort Hood military base in Texas on November 5, 2009.

Hasan, who proudly admits to the attack, is due to stand trial from Wednesday for 13 counts of murder and 32 of attempted murder. He faces a potential death sentence.

Nidal Hasan.
Nidal Hasan.

Survivors, however, remain furious that even as he grew more radicalised, Hasan was left untroubled by military authorities.

Despite warning classmates that Muslim-American troops might be obliged to kill comrades, and being spotted having email exchanges with Anwar al-Awlaki, the late Yemen-based al-Qaeda cleric, Hasan was promoted to Major and left free to carry out the worst-ever killing spree on a US military base.

A group of 148 victims and their relatives are suing the US Government for US$750 million ($958 million) and demanding that the military "meet its responsibilities to those harmed by its negligence".

Reed Rubinstein, their lawyer, said an adherence to "political correctness" among military chiefs allowed the massacre to happen.

"The Government afforded Hasan preferential treatment because of his ethnicity and his religion," said Rubinstein.

Born in Virginia in 1970 to Palestinian immigrants, Hasan stood out as a rare Arab-American schoolboy in the city of Roanoke, where he worked in his parents' restaurant. Enticed by subsidised education, Hasan signed up for the army, which put him through a college in California and Virginia Tech university from where he graduated with honours in biochemistry in 1995.

He earned a doctorate in psychiatry from the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland. It was not until 2003, when he left to take up an internship at Walter Reed Army Medical Centre in Washington, DC that Hasan began to show any causes for concern.

He encountered "difficulties" that required counselling and extra supervision, Dr Thomas Grieger, his training director, recalled, declining to elaborate due to confidentiality laws. He began attending his mosque in Silver Spring, Maryland, often in his army uniform, members said.

"He never talked about the foreign policy of the US, or about politics," Faizul Khan, the imam, said. "But he would talk religion. He was a lonely man, looking for someone to get married to. He didn't have very many friends."

One classmate said Hasan "openly questioned whether he could engage in combat against other Muslims".

Even before his "war on Islam" presentation, he had given a PowerPoint slide show about the Koran instead of an assigned talk on psychiatry. His programme director regarded him a "religious fanatic". Yet still nothing was done. While completing a postgraduate fellowship he told a fellow student that he had applied primarily to avoid combat against Muslims.

Classmates concerned at Hasan's declarations that his religion took precedence over the US Constitution reported their fears, and told investigators that they, too, attributed the lack of consequences to "political correctness".

In fact, Hasan's supervisors were privately unhappy with his performance and commitment to work, ranking him in the bottom 25 per cent of the class. Somehow, though, his evaluation reports remained positive.

Hasan allegedly exchanged 18 emails with one of the US counterterrorism establishment's prime targets: al-Awlaki, the American-born cleric, a leading light in the Yemen-based group al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The emails were intercepted by an FBI unit in San Diego and "sparked concern".

After a Muslim man shot dead two US military recruiters in Arkansas in 2009, Hasan began declaring "Muslims should stand up and fight against the aggressor", Colonel Terry Lee, then a colleague, said. Then Hasan was told he would be deployed to Afghanistan on November 28. "He was mortified by the idea of having to deploy," his cousin, Nader Hasan, said.

Inquiries into his contact with al-Awlaki turned up personnel files that praised his interest in radical Islam. His emails were explained as legitimate research, and amid bureaucratic wrangling, the inquiry was dropped.

Having failed to escape the military, Hasan snapped. He walked into the base's medical centre on November 5, and opened fire.

"You know who that is?", an FBI official in San Diego asked a colleague as media reports named Hasan as the shooter. "That's our boy".

The killings led to the standard round of internal inquiries. The FBI received relatively mild criticisms. A Pentagon report found that the Defence Department was unprepared for internal threats, and proposed better education to spot troublesome "indicators". It declined to examine Hasan's radicalisation. A more complete internal inquiry found that as the Army had only attracted one other Muslim psychiatrist since 2001, "it is possible some were afraid" of losing diversity "and thus were willing to overlook Hasan's deficiencies".

The victims taking legal action say the Obama Administration classified the attack as an act of "workplace violence" worthy of a court martial, rather than terrorism, "to avoid responsibility for the Government's role in enabling Hasan's attack and to protect the officials who closed their eyes to the threat". This rating meant victims were not entitled to certain medical benefits and financial compensation.

Then, victims of the attack - many of whom can no longer work - were denied the Purple Heart, awarded to servicemen injured in action, along with financial benefits it bestows, while Hasan received US$278,000 in salary. The US military said that such a handout of the medals could prejudice Hasan's trial.

Having elected to sack his lawyers and defend himself, Hasan is preparing to use his moment in court at Fort Hood next week to mount a strident defence of his actions. In a statement last week, he asked for forgiveness from "the believers and the innocents" for "participating in the illegal and immoral aggression against Muslims, their religion and their lands".

The victims' group says: "From the start, the Government has aimed to cover up the Army's failures, protect high-ranking officials from criticism, and preserve the very policies of preference and political correctness that made the terror attack possible. That cover-up continues today."

- Daily Telegraph UK

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