The cleric, Anwar al-Awlaki, led a Northern Virginia mosque in 2001 which Hasan attended – along with three of the 9/11 hijackers.
Questioned but not arrested after the 9/11 attacks, al-Awlaki is now based in Yemen, from where his online lectures have been inspiring jihadists in the years since the bombings on U.S. soil.
London’s Sunday Telegraph first reported at the weekend that Hasan had attended the Dar al Hijrah Islamic Center in Falls Church during Awlaki’s tenure in 2001. Officials subsequently told U.S. media outlets investigators were looking into possible links between Awlaki and Hasan.
In a posting on his Web site Monday, Awlaki praised Hasan, calling him “a man of conscience who could not bear living the contradiction of being a Muslim and serving in an army that is fighting against his own people.”
He criticized U.S. Muslim organizations for condemning the shooting attack, calling them hypocrites and – quoting from the Koran – saying “painful punishment” awaited them.
“Nidal opened fire on soldiers who were on their way to be deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan,” Awlaki said. “How can there be any dispute about the virtue of what he has done?”
“In fact the only way a Muslim could Islamically justify serving as a soldier in the U.S. army is if his intention is to follow the footsteps of men like Nidal.”
Awlaki’s comments and reports of possible link between him and Hasan come amid ongoing speculation and debate about the motive for last Thursday’s deadly shooting. Hasan, an Army psychiatrist, was shot by police during the rampage and is in hospital.
Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), who chairs the Senate Homeland Security committee, told Fox News Sunday that “there are very, very strong warning signs here that Dr. Hasan had become an Islamist extremist and, therefore, that this was a terrorist act.”
He called for an investigation into whether the military had missed warning signs in Hasan’s conduct prior to the attack.
Army Chief of Staff George Casey, on ABC’s This Week, said he could not rule out terrorism, but advised that “speculation could potentially heighten backlash against some of our Muslim soldiers.”
Islamic organizations in the U.S., which from the outset condemned the attack, have also warned against linking it to Hasan’s religion, while voicing concern about stepped-up “Islamophobia” and the potential for retaliation against Muslims.
The Muslim American Society’s Mahdi Bray cautioned against “drawing conclusions based on the ethnicity of the perpetrator of this tragic incident.”
American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee president Mary Rose Oakar said the attack was “morally reprehensible and has nothing to do with any religion, race, ethnicity, or national origin.”
Around the time Hasan was attending the Awlaki-run Dar al Hijrah Islamic Center, so two were three of the 9/11 hijackers: Hasan is known to have been going to the mosque in May 2001, as his mother’s funeral took place there that month; according to the 9/11 Commission report, 9/11 terrorists Nawaf al-Hazmi and Hani Hanjour started going to the mosque in early April 2001.
They and a third Saudi who also attended the mosque, Khalid al-Mihdhar, were among the five hijackers onboard American Airlines Flight 77 which took off from Dulles and was flown into the Pentagon on September 11.
Awlaki was questioned by the FBI after the attacks but information against him was not considered strong enough to support a criminal prosecution, the 9/11 Commission report said.
By the time the commission’s investigators tried to interview him in 2003, he had moved to Yemen. The commission’s attempts to arrange interviews with the help of the U.S. and Yemeni governments were unsuccessful.
The commission expressed strong suspicions about Awlaki (his name is rendered “Aulaqi” in the report), noting the “remarkable coincidence” that he had also had dealings with one of the three hijackers during his pre-Virginia posting, at a mosque in San Diego.
Awlaki was cited last year by a top Department of Homeland Security (DHS) official as an example of al-Qaeda’s “reach into the homeland.”
Addressing a conference in Nashville, then undersecretary for intelligence and analysis Charles Allen described Awlaki as a “U.S. citizen, al-Qaeda supporter, and former spiritual leader to three of the September 11 hijackers.”
Allen said he “targets U.S. Muslims with radical online lectures encouraging terrorist attacks from his new home in Yemen.”
During the 2008 trial of foreign-born Islamists who plotted to attack the Fort Dix military base in New Jersey an informant testified that some of the co-conspirators had been inspired to strike American soldiers by one of Awlaki’s online lectures.
Also last year, Indian security officials said Islamists there were citing Awlaki lectures in their emailed claims of responsibility, routinely sent after terrorist attacks in Indian cities.
And over the summer, the New York Times reported that a group of American Muslims of Somali descent who had gone to Somalia to fight alongside the Islamist group al-Shabaab, had also listened to Awlaki’s Internet lectures.
In an article on his Web site, dated Saturday, Awlaki – who calls himself “Sheikh Anwar” – declares that jihad is on the rise.
“America cannot and will not win,” he writes. “The tables have turned and there is no rolling back of the worldwide Jihad movement. The ideas of Jihad are proliferating around the world, the mujahideen movements are gaining strength and the battlefields are expanding with the mujahideen introducing new fronts.”
The 9/11 Commission report said Awlaki was born in New Mexico, grew up in Yemen and studied in the U.S. on a Yemeni government scholarship.
It said he came to the FBI’s attention in 1999, after it learned “that he may have been contacted by a possible procurement agent for [Osama] Bin Laden.”
“During this investigation, the FBI learned that Aulaqi knew individuals from the Holy Land Foundation and others involved in raising money for the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas,” it said.
The commission report said that 9/11 hijackers Hazmi and Mihdhar came into contact with Awlaki in 2000 when he served as imam at the Rabat mosque in San Diego, and that they reportedly respected him as a religious figure “and developed a close relationship with him.”
He then moved to Falls Church in early 2001 and “Hazmi eventually showed up at Aulaqi’s mosque in Virginia, an appearance that may not have been coincidental.”
A Jordanian also attending the mosque had helped to arrange an apartment for Hazmi and Hanjour in Alexandria, Va., the report said.
It said the Jordanian, Eyad al Rababah, said later he had just “happened to meet” the two at the mosque, but that some FBI agents suspected that Awlaki may in fact have commissioned Rababah to help the two Saudis – a suspicion shared by the commission.
Awlaki later moved to Yemen, where he was detained from August 2006 until December 2007. After his release he said he believed the U.S. government was behind his incarceration.
Awlaki denies links to the 9/11 hijackers. After Allen of the DHS described him last year as “a former spiritual leader to three of the September 11 hijackers,” he posted a denial on his Web site, saying “This is a baseless claim that I have refuted again and again.”
Last August, Awlaki made headlines in Britain when a Muslim advocacy group named Cage Prisoners invited him to speak via video link to an event at the Kensington town hall in London, to raise funds for terrorist suspects held at Guantanamo Bay.
After concerns were raised about his radical views, the local council prohibited him from taking part.
Cage Prisoners calls Awlaki “a prominent Muslim scholar highly regarded in English speaking Islamic circles.”
It says that while he was in the U.S. he had worked “hard to establish a reasoned, nuanced and just form of intellectual dissent in Western Muslims.”