FORT HOOD, Texas — The suspect in the Fort Hood shootings once regularly attended a Falls Church, Va., mosque that the FBI has linked to two of the 9/11 hijackers, but the congregation's current spiritual leader Sunday insisted the government's claims of connections are wrong.
In 2001, Dar al-Hijrah Islamic Center was led by Anwar Al-Awlaki, a New Mexico-born scholar now living in Yemen. Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, according to new disclosures by a Fort Hood acquaintance, was an admirer of Al-Awlaki who has been described as a radical Islamist.
The 9/11 Commission report accepted FBI findings that two of the hijackers, Nawaf al-Hamzi and Hani Hanjour, briefly worshiped at the mosque after one had met Al-Awlaki during the imam’s previous religious posting in San Diego. But the FBI found no evidence that Al-Awlaki had prior knowledge of the attack.
Shaker el Sayed, Dar’s current imam, said the FBI turned over to the commission the fact that two of the hijackers used the mosque as their home address on driver’s license applications, which el Sayed ridiculed as a specious link, noting that even FBI agents he met could not provide credible proof of a connection with the congregation.
Moreover, no congregant remembers seeing either al-Hamzi or Hanjour at Dar, one of the capital area’s oldest and largest mosques, the imam said in an interview.
El Sayid said he spent time with Hasan, but that was after being asked to assist the bachelor psychiatrist find a wife.
"I met him personally because he sought my help to get him married. This was unsuccessful," said the imam, who learned little of the man’s world view.
Like most worshipers, he said Hasan "joined prayers, finished prayers, then left. I didn’t see him hanging out with people, joining discussion groups or classes. But there has been a lot of blogging about our mosque, a rightwing conspiracy, trying to make a mountain out of cardboard."
Contrary to numerous reports that Hasan was a brooding loner in Killeen, a more detailed picture of Hasan has surfaced that said he had at least one close friend, an Army officer who had converted in Islam several years ago. They had worshiped through the night together during the final days of Ramadan, the Muslim fasting holiday.
Kamran Pasha, a Pakistani-American novelist, quoted the Fort Hood officer as saying he befriended the Army psychiatrist, prayed side by side with him hours before Thursday’s mass killings and had once challenged Hasan’s view that Islam condoned suicide bombings.
Hasan also argued that Jews were "cursed by God," according to the officer, who had contacted Pasha long before the shootings to discuss his novel, Mother of the Believers, an account of Islam’s beginnings as seen through the eyes of Prophet Mohammed’s wife Aisha. The officer, a 22-year Army veteran, declined to be identified or speak to reporters because of his past work in special operations in Iraq, Pasha said. No independent corroboration could be made Sunday.
The following is what the officer purportedly told of his relationship with Hasan, according to Pasha:
At their very first meeting in July, Hasan insisted that the war on terror was actually a war on Islam and that Muslims should have no part in the U.S. military.
Despite his disagreement, the career officer and Hasan were to forge a friendship. Hasan also got to know the officer’s family and the 10-year-old son, who wanted to study medicine, began to consider the Army psychiatrist as a role model.
The officer respected Hasan’s evident piety and they often met at Killeen’s mosque, which the psychiatrist attended daily. But Hasan’s black-and-white interpretation of Islam that afforded no room for nuance or debate, sometimes leading to flareups between the two men. At the mention of Al-Awlaki, he recalled that Hasan’s eyes "lit up."
Another hint of radicalism surfaced when Hasan angrily told the officer he should not have asked a group of Muslims if the Taliban followed Prophet Mohammed’s true path or were misguided. While others present defended the the right to ask, the officer was taken aback by Hasan’s vehemence, which transformed what had been an amiable gathering.
At predawn prayers Thursday, the officer was asked by the imam to recite the call to worship, or azan.
But before he could begin, Hasan rose from his seat and performed the ritual, smiling and winking at his friend.
The officer, who began studying Islam after 9/11 "to know one’s enemy" and later decided to convert, believes Hasan —if he is indeed the shooter — might have been influenced by radical religious views and from months of hearing his patients recount horrific stories from Iraq and Afghanistan, which only hardened the psychiatrist’s extreme positions. Then an imminent deployment possibly pushed him over the edge.
That puzzles the officer, who told Pasha that Hasan would likely have never gone near combat but most probably would have been ensconced in a heavily protected compound.
After the shootings, the officer told his son that Hasan might have been responsible for a very bad deed and could no longer be his role model, Pasha added.