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Investigators Seek Motive in Fort Hood Rampage

November 9, 2009 at 12:00 AM EST
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Gwen Ifill speaks with Spencer Hsu of the Washington Post about the investigation into last week's shooting rampage at Fort Hood.
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GWEN IFILL: Joining us to discuss the status of the investigation into shooting suspect Nidal Malik Hasan is Spencer Hsu, who covers homeland security for the Washington Post. Welcome, Spencer.

SPENCER HSU: Hi, Gwen. Thank you.

GWEN IFILL: So, as far as we know, what are the investigators focusing on right now?

SPENCER HSU: Well, they’re about to give a briefing in Washington later tonight. We’re — we’re expecting additional details. But they’re work — interested most in piecing together a mosaic of Dr. Hasan’s mind, trying to understand to what extent, if he did commit the shootings, as alleged, they may have been motivated by personal, emotional problems, by unhappiness with the war, unhappiness with the military, all the way to perhaps ideological disagreements with American policy and perhaps influence from foreign terrorist groups. It’s a wide range of leads that are being run down.

GWEN IFILL: Spencer, we heard today that Major Hasan is conscious is and talking. Do we know whether any of the investigators have been able to speak to him so far?

SPENCER HSU: Not so far. He does have a lawyer, a military lawyer, who has asked, first of all, for the investigation to be moved, saying he can’t get a fair trial there, given the publicity. And President Obama is going down to Fort Hood tomorrow.

He’s also indicated that, the lawyer has, that he doesn’t want to make his client available for investigators.

GWEN IFILL: There has been much reporting and much commentary about potential links in — between Major Hasan and people who link themselves to terrorism. What can you tell us about that, based on your reporting?

Possible links to extremists

SPENCER HSU: We are hearing a lot more. And what we can say right now is that there -- among the focuses is Major Hasan's crossing paths with a Northern Virginia imam who has left the country and is an American-born imam, but has emerged as one of the leading promoters of al-Qaida now based overseas.

His lectures, which are described as fiery and incendiary, have been found, downloaded on several terrorism suspects in North America, Canada, the United Kingdom, including, it appears, though, one of the Somali American youths who have left the country to join an al-Qaeda-linked group in Somalia last year.

Apparently, the two may have crossed paths, because, in 2001, Major Hasan's mother's funeral was held at a Northern Virginia mosque where this imam was present. He was subsequently under focus because he may have had contact with two of the 9/11 hijackers.

The imam's supporters point out that he was moderate at the time. He condemned the 9/11 attacks and apparently only left the country in 2002, afterward. But he had been under the FBI's eye for a while, and the FBI never charged him.

GWEN IFILL: But we don't know whether the FBI has established right now any definitive links between Major Hasan and the imam, Anwar al-Awlaki?

SPENCER HSU: The way I have been -- the way it's been described to me is that this individual, the -- the imam, is a leading promoter in outreach to North Americans that Major Hasan has been reaching out and looking at extremist Web sites. It would not be surprising at all that -- if -- if the contacts included specific outreach to Awlaki, whether that may be one-way or two-way. That could be just passively looking at a Web site. It may be something more. And that is something that certainly investigators are looking at.

One should keep in mind that Major Hasan, it's been reported, has even reached out to imams here, both for just, you know, pastoral counseling, maybe help finding a wife, but also, you know, exploring these issues and questions over not just -- not about the appropriateness of fighting, but about responses to, you know, what -- what is it about -- how to balance being a good Muslim with being a good soldier or a good American, if you -- if, in this case, he may have had reservations about -- about fighting other Muslims.

We should remember that there has been a Web site posting of a Nidal Hasan -- we don't -- it has not been confirmed publicly that it's the -- one and the same as the Fort Hood suspect -- who did express sympathies with suicide attackers, equating people who commit a suicide attack to a soldier who jumps on the grenade to save the lives of his colleagues.

Looking for clues

GWEN IFILL: Do we know whether they're looking at missed clues, things that people had been told that didn't strike a bell at the time, or activities that people should have been aware of who weren't?

SPENCER HSU: And that is exactly where we are hearing some reaction from people in Congress in particular. There is some concern that these communications may have been taking place. Certainly, the one public Web posting that we just talked about came from about five months ago, I believe, in May.

If there were others around that time, it's very possible that communications are -- are picked up and monitored. U.S. authorities cover that traffic pretty intensively.

It -- it was known, for instance, that the FBI has acknowledged that earlier it took a look at Hasan, but it says, given the volume of Americans who visit Web sites, absent further information, the Justice Department guidelines are fairly strict on what evidence you need to open up even an investigation, and that given, you know, free speech issues and First Amendment rights, that in the absence of other information, they did not move to a formal investigation. So, that is certainly an area that people are looking at.

GWEN IFILL: Spencer Hsu of the Washington Post, thanks so much.

SPENCER HSU: Thank you.