As Nidal Hasan approached his August 6 day in court for the 2009 Fort Hood shooting, survivors remained furious that even as he grew more radicalized, he was left untroubled by the military.By Jon Swaine / Telegraph.co.uk
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 mounting a defence of 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, would violently conclude his demonstration.
Wielding a high-powered pistol and crying “Allahu akbar!” (“Allah is greater”), he shot dead 13 people and wounded 32 others at the Fort Hood military base in Killeen, Texas, on 5 November 2009.
Hasan, who proudly admits to carrying out the attack, is due to stand trial from Tuesday for 13 counts of murder and 32 of attempted murder. He faces a potential death sentence.
Survivors, however, remain furious that even as he grew more openly radicalised, Hasan was left untroubled by military authorities who have still not been held to account for failing to prevent his massacre.
Despite warning classmates that Muslim-American troops might be obliged to kill comrades, and even being spotted by the FBI 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 now suing the US government for $750 million and demanding that the military “meet its responsibilities to those harmed by its negligence”.
Reed Rubinstein, their lawyer, told The Sunday Telegraph that an adherence to “political correctness” among military chiefs under George W. Bush and Barack Obama allowed the massacre to happen.
“Over a number of years, the government afforded Hasan preferential treatment because of his ethnicity and his religion,” said Mr Rubinstein. “The rules on the conduct of military officers were ignored. He was a terrible physician and had no business treating soldiers.
“Yet because of where he came from, and how he prayed to his god, they promoted him and set him loose and ignored his very open, very obvious jihadism.”
Born in Virginia in 1970 to Palestinian immigrants, Hasan stood out as a rare Arab-American schoolboy in the predominantly white city of Roanoke, where he worked in his parents’ restaurant.
Reserved and uninterested in sport, he left little impression at William Fleming High School, from where he graduated in 1988, with a moustache and wearing a black-tie in his yearbook photograph.
Enticed by the offer of subsidised education, Hasan promptly signed up for the Army, which put him through a college in California and Virginia Tech (Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University) – later the site of another notorious American gun massacre – from where he eventually graduated with honours in biochemistry in 1995.
He went on to earn a doctorate in psychiatry from the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USUSH) in Bethesda, Maryland, known as the West Point for the military medical corps.
But it was not until 2003, when he left to take up an internship at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in nearby Washington, DC – and the full extent of the US military’s aggressive response to the September 11 terrorist attacks was becoming clear in Iraq – that Hasan began to show any causes for concern.
He encountered “difficulties” that required counselling and extra supervision, Dr Thomas Grieger, his training director, later recalled, declining to elaborate further due to confidentiality laws.
Around that time, he began attending services at his mosque in Silver Spring, Maryland more frequently, often arriving straight from work and still wearing his Army uniform, members said.
“He never talked about the foreign policy of the US, or about politics,” Faizul Khan, the imam there, told The Sunday Telegraph. “But he would talk religion. He was a lonely man, looking for someone to get married to. He didn’t have very many friends. He was reserved and not very friendly or popular.”
One classmate later told investigators that Hasan “openly questioned whether he could engage in combat against other Muslims”. A supervisor told him: “I don’t think you and the military will fit”, and offered him “way out”, even exploring whether he might qualify as a conscientious objector.
Even before his “war on Islam” presentation, he had given a PowerPoint slide show about the Koran instead of an assigned talk on psychiatry. He again warned of “fratricidal murder” of comrades by Muslim-American troops. His programme director regarded him a “religious fanatic”. Yet still nothing was done.
By 2007, as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continued to rage, Hasan’s opposition to the US hardened. He returned to USUSH for a postgraduate fellowship, confiding to 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 to superiors, and later told investigators that they, too, attributed the lack of any consequences to “political correctness” among their bosses.
In fact, they later conceded to investigators, Hasan’s supervisors were privately very unhappy with his performance and commitment to work, ranking him in the bottom 25 per cent of the class. “You’re getting our worst,” an officer who assigned Hasan to Fort Hood in 2008 told an officer there.
Somehow, though, his evaluation reports had remained positive. “His unique interests have captured the interest and attention of peers and mentors alike,” one stated, even claiming that his interest in radical Islam might aid US counterterrorism efforts.
Yet at the same time, Hasan was allegedly exchanging some 18 emails with one of the US counterterrorism establishment’s prime targets: al-Awlaki, the American-born cleric, who had become a leading light in the Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Because a special unit in an FBI bureau in San Diego, California was already monitoring al-Awlaki’s communications, the emails were intercepted and “sparked concern” that someone affiliated with the US military was seeking the counsel of al-Awlaki, who was killed in 2011 by a US drone strike.
Around this time, three things had a profound effect on Hasan, associates said. After a Muslim man shot dead two US military recruiters in Little Rock, Arkansas in June 2009, Hasan began declaring that “Muslims should stand up and fight against the aggressor”, Col Terry Lee, then a colleague, said.
Then came the news he had been dreading for years. Hasan was told he would be deployed to Afghanistan on November 28 – a decision made, according to a subsequent Senate committee inquiry, by an officer who had personally witnessed his radical Islamist outbursts at USUSH.
“He was mortified by the idea of having to deploy,” his cousin, Nader Hasan, later recalled. “He had people telling him on a daily basis the horrors they saw over there.”
On July 31 he bought an FN Five-seveN semi-automatic pistol from Guns Galore in Killeen, having asked an assistant for the highest-capacity and most technologically advanced handgun they stocked.
Then in August 2009, the side of his car was scratched with a key, causing $1,000 of damage. A fellow soldier, whom a neighbour claimed had acted because of Hasan’s religion, was charged by police. Hasan’s aunt, Noel, said he consulted lawyers about potentially buying his way out of the Army.
Further inquiries into his contact with al-Awlaki only turned up the same personnel files that so praised his interest in radical Islam. His emails were explained away as legitimate research, and amid bureaucratic wrangling between California and Washington, the inquiry was effectively dropped.
Having failed to escape the military, Hasan finally snapped. After giving away his possessions to a neighbour, and leaving farewell voicemails to friends, he walked into the medical centre on the base on the afternoon of November 5 and opened fire.
“You know who that is?”, an FBI official in the San Diego office asked a colleague as early media reports named Hasan as the shooter. “That’s our boy”.
The killings prompted the standard round of internal inquiries. The FBI received relatively mild criticisms, but investigators noted: “We find that each special agent, intelligence analyst, and task force officer who handled the information acted with good intent.”
An 86-page Pentagon report found that the Defense Department was unprepared for internal threats, and proposed better education to help senior officers spot troublesome “indicators”. It declined, however, to examine Hasan’s religious radicalisation and did not mention Islam.
However, a secret and more complete internal inquiry concluded 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 as an officer”.
Having failed to protect them from the attack, the victims taking legal action allege, the US government has since then declined to deliver them “justice, decency or respect”.
First, 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,” the victims’ group states.
This rating meant victims were not entitled to certain medical benefits and financial compensation. The massacre was later described as “the worst terrorist attack on US soil since September 11, 2001” by the Senate committee on homeland security.
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 other considerable financial benefits it bestows, while Hasan continued to receive $278,000 in total salary. The US military said that such a handout of the medals, traditionally awarded for service overseas, could prejudice Hasan’s trial.
Having elected to sack his lawyers and defend himself, Hasan is preparing to use his moment in court back at Fort Hood to mount a strident defence of his actions. In a statement released to the media 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”.
His grandstanding will “not be helpful at all”, according to Mr Khan, his former imam. “The scars of what he did are still here, he said. “It was an injustice to the community. We and government agencies have to be vigilant to make sure these things don’t happen again.”
Yet the victims’ group claim that this necessary vigilance has given way to self-preservation. “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,” they said in a statement. “That cover-up continues today.”