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Connections Between Radical Cleric, Hasan Closely Examined

November 12, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Since the shootings at Fort Hood, authorities have focused not only on the accused gunman, Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, but also on Anwar Al-Awlaki, a Muslim cleric Hasan knew. Margaret Warner reports.
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MARGARET WARNER: Since the killings at Fort Hood one week ago, authorities are focusing not only on the alleged shooter, Nidal Hasan, but also on a radical cleric Hasan knew.

He is Anwar al-Awlaki, who has run an English-language Web site from Yemen featuring postings that included “44 Ways to Support Jihad.”

Former CIA officer and Homeland Security Undersecretary Charles Allen knows Awlaki’s work well.

CHARLES ALLEN, Chertoff Group: He understands idiomatic American English, and he appeals to young people. And he tries to bend the minds of young American Muslims. And, to some degree, he, I believe, has succeeded here in the United States and Canada.

MARGARET WARNER: Investigators say Awlaki and Hasan exchanged 10 to 20 electronic messages over the past year. And, by December of last year, the FBI knew it.

But, in a statement issued Monday, the FBI said it had determined, “The content of those communications was consistent with research being conducted by Hasan in his position as a psychiatrist at the Walter Reed Medical Center,” and took no action.

That same day, Awlaki’s Web site praised the shooting as a great heroic act and encouraged others to do the same. “Nidal Hasan is a hero,” the posting said. “He is 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.”

Authorities first looked at Awlaki a decade ago for possible connections to al-Qaida. After 9/11, the commission investigating the attacks homed in on the fact that he had counseled three of the hijackers while serving as imam at mosques in San Diego and Falls Church, Virginia.

Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick said she and her fellow commissioners found the coincidence troubling.

JAMIE GORELICK, former 9/11 commissioner: He denied to the FBI any significant involvement, other than knowing some of the hijackers. We said that we were suspicious of this account. But, by the time the 9/11 Commission came into being, he had gone to Yemen. And we tried very hard to find him.

MARGARET WARNER: Born in New Mexico of Yemeni parents, the U.S.- college educated Awlaki first met Hasan at this same Falls Church, Virginia, mosque in 2001 and 2002.

Awlaki presided at Hasan’s mother’s funeral, but it isn’t known how close the two men were.

Imam Johari Abdul-Malik, now imam at that mosque, said Awlaki had tremendous appeal, especially to second-generation Muslim-Americans.

Al-Awlaki's time in the U.S.

Imam Johari Abdul-Malik
I said..."Why are you leaving?" He said: "Because the climate here, you can't really do your work, because it's always anti-terrorism, investigating this. The FBI wants to talk to you.

IMAM JOHARI ABDUL-MALIK, director of outreach, Dar al Hijrah Islamic Center: Our community needed an imam who could speak English, not like many masjid, who have an imam who is from the old guard, he speaks broken English, if he speaks English at all, but someone who could convey that message with the full force of faith. He was that person. And he delivered that message dutifully.

MARGARET WARNER: After 9/11, Awlaki was sought out by media organizations reporting on the U.S. Muslim community.

The "NewsHour"'s Ray Suarez spoke to him in October 2001, after President Bush launched the war in Afghanistan.

RAY SUAREZ: So, armed struggle would be a legitimate response to the attacks on New York and Washington?

IMAM ANWAR AL-AWLAKI: Absolutely. And, I mean, we have stated our position that the U.S. -- there must be a way for the people who did this, they have to pay the price for what they have done. And every nation on the face of the earth has a right to defend itself.

MARGARET WARNER: Awlaki's sermon that day was critical of U.S. foreign policy, but it rejected violence as a response.

IMAM ANWAR AL-AWLAKI: The fact that the U.S. has administered the death and homicide of over one million civilians in Iraq, the fact that the U.S. is supporting the deaths and killing of thousands of Palestinians does not justify the killing of one U.S. civilian in New York City or Washington, D.C. And the deaths of 6,000 civilians in New York and Washington, D.C., does not justify the death of one civilian in Afghanistan.

And that is the difference between right and wrong, evil and good, that everybody's claiming to talk about.

MARGARET WARNER: But, in mid-2002, Awlaki decided to leave the U.S. When he returned to get his things, Imam Johari tried to persuade him to stay.

IMAM JOHARI ABDUL-MALIK: And I said, you know, "Why are you leaving?"

He said: "Because the climate here, you can't really do your work, because it's always anti-terrorism, investigating this. The FBI wants to talk to you. So, that -- you know, that's not what I signed up for. I would rather go somewhere where I can preach, I can teach, I can have a discourse that's not about 9/11 every day."

'Dangerous' blog posts

Jamie Gorelick
Former 9/11 Commissioner
It is haunting to see that one of the people whose role in the 9/11 plot we were not able to fully ascertain may have been an actor in another event in our country.

MARGARET WARNER: Awlaki went to Yemen and developed his Web site and blog, using it to preach, counsel and influence English-speaking Muslims around the world.

Imam Johari struggles to identify his former friend with Monday's blog post praising the Fort Hood killings.

IMAM JOHARI ABDUL-MALIK: I can't put together that person and the person who wrote this drivel on his -- on a blog.

MARGARET WARNER: Terrorism expert Allen says, extremist Internet clerics like Awlaki, who appeal to American Muslims, have to be watched.

CHARLES ALLEN: We are going to have people cross the line. And that is the reason these radical young clerics, who can think like and can appeal to the youth is dangerous. It's a dangerous situation.

MARGARET WARNER: Imam Johari agrees.

IMAM JOHARI ABDUL-MALIK: We need to self-censor Anwar al-Awlaki and the other people who have this kind of drivel. And if it means we have to create a Web site that says to parents, if your children are going to any of these sites, this is not a safe place for your child.

MARGARET WARNER: Awlaki's Web site is now blank, and he's reportedly on the run.

Jamie Gorelick thinks he never should have slipped off the radar in the first place.

JAMIE GORELICK: It is haunting to see that one of the people whose role in the 9/11 plot we were not able to fully ascertain may have been an actor in another event in our country. And it does suggest, as the 9/11 commissioners have been saying since the report issued, that we must maintain our vigilance. We must.

MARGARET WARNER: Among the questions haunting investigators now is how much influence, if any, Awlaki had on the deadly course Hasan took.