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Cleric in Yemen says he was confidant to Hasan

SANA, Yemen — In his first interview with a journalist since the Fort Hood rampage, Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki said that he neither ordered nor pressured Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan to harm Americans but that he considered himself a confidant of the army psychiatrist who was given a glimpse via e-mail into Hasan's growing discomfort with the U.S. military.

The cleric said he thought he played a role in transforming Hasan into a devout Muslim eight years ago, when Hasan listened to his lectures at the Dar al-Hijrah mosque in northern Virginia. Awlaki said that Hasan "trusted him" and that the two developed an e-mail correspondence over the past year.

The portrait of the alleged Fort Hood shooter offered by Awlaki provides some hints as to Hasan's mind-set and motivations in the months leading up to the Nov. 5 rampage, in which 13 were killed. Awlaki's comments also add to questions over whether U.S. authorities, who were aware of at least some of Hasan's e-mails to Awlaki, should have sensed a potential threat. U.S. intelligence agencies intercepted e-mails from Hasan, 39, but the FBI concluded that they posed no serious danger and that an investigation was unnecessary, said federal law enforcement officials.

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Awlaki declined to be interviewed by an American journalist with the Washington Post. But he provided an account of his relationship with Hasan — which consisted of a correspondence of a dozen or so e-mails — to Abdulelah Hider Shaea, a Yemeni journalist and terrorism expert with close ties to Awlaki whom the Post contacted to conduct the interview. The Post reimbursed Shaea's travel expenses but did not pay him.

On Sunday, Shaea offered details of his interview with Awlaki, an influential preacher whose sermons and writings supporting jihad have attracted a wide following among radical Islamists. Shaea allowed a Post reporter to view a video recording of a man who closely resembles pictures of Awlaki sitting in front of his laptop reading the e-mails, and to hear an audiotape in which a man, who like Awlaki speaks English with an American accent, discusses his e-mail correspondence with Hasan.

The quotes in this article are based on Shaea's handwritten notes. Shaea said he was allowed to review the e-mails between Hasan and Awlaki, but they were not provided to the Post.

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Born in New Mexico, the thick-bearded, white-robed Awlaki served as an imam at two mosques attended by three of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers — Virginia's Dar al-Hijrah and another in California. Awlaki, who is in his late 30s, speaks English with an American accent and is fluent in Arabic. U.S. officials have accused him of working with al-Qaida networks in the Persian Gulf after leaving northern Virginia. In mid 2006, he was detained in Yemen, his ancestral homeland, at the request of U.S. authorities. He was released in December 2007.

Explaining why he wrote on his Web site that Hasan was a "hero," according to Shaea, Awlaki said: "I blessed the act because it was against a military target. And the soldiers who were killed were not normal soldiers, but those who were trained and prepared to go to Afghanistan and Iraq."

Awlaki's views are controversial, earning him not only designation by U.S. counterterrorism officials as a leading English-language promoter and supporter of al-Qaida, but also criticism from other fundamentalist Islamic clerics. Shaykh Salman al-Awdah, a Saudi religious leader, gave an interview last week calling the massacre at Fort Hood "unjustified," "irrational" and "inadvisable" because it will cause a backlash against Muslims in America and Europe.

But Awlaki's statements reflect the increasingly radical path he has taken since settling in Yemen in 2004. Print, video and audio files of his words have been found on the private hard drives of terrorism suspects in Canada in 2006 and in the United States in 2007 and 2008. He also wrote congratulations to al Shabaab, an Islamic extremist group leading an insurgency in Somalia, after it apparently used the first U.S.-citizen suicide bomber last fall.

"Fighting against the U.S. army is an Islamic duty today," Awlaki wrote on his Web site last week after Hasan's ties to him were reported. "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."

On Dec. 23, 2008, days after he said Hasan first e-mailed him, Awlaki also posted online words encouraging attacks on U.S. soldiers, writing: "The bullets of the fighters of Afghanistan and Iraq are a reflection of the feelings of the Muslims towards America," according to the NEFA Foundation, a private South Carolina group that monitors extremist Web sites.

Awlaki is an "example of al-Qaida reach into" the United States, U.S. officials said publicly in October 2008, years after his ties to the Sept. 11 hijackers were probed by the 9/11 Commission. The panel also revealed earlier FBI investigations into his connections to al-Qaida associates.

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Awlaki described Hasan as a man who took his Muslim faith seriously and who was eager to understand how to interpret Islamic sharia law. In the e-mails, Hasan appeared to question U.S. involvement in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and often used "evidence from sharia that what America was doing should be confronted," the cleric told Shaea.

"So Nidal was providing evidence to Anwar, not vice versa," Shaea said. "Anwar felt, after seeing Nidal's e-mails, that (Hasan) had wide knowledge of sharia law." Shaea said he interviewed Awlaki in his house on Saturday in Shabwa, a province in southern Yemen that has become an extremist stronghold and where al-Qaida is seeking to create a haven.

Awlaki told Shaea that Hasan first reached out to him in an e-mail dated Dec. 17, 2008. He described Hasan introducing himself and writing: "Do you remember me? I used to pray with you at the Virginia mosque."

Initially, Awlaki said he did not recall Hasan and did not reply to the e-mail. But after Hasan sent two or three more e-mails, the cleric said he "started to remember who he was," according to Shaea.

Awlaki said Hasan viewed him as a confidant. "It was clear from his e-mails that Nidal trusted me. Nidal told me: 'I speak with you about issues that I never speak with anyone else,' " he told Shaea.

The cleric said Hasan informed him that he had become a devout Muslim around the time Awlaki was preaching at Dar al-Hijrah, in 2001 and 2002. "Anwar said, 'Maybe Nidal was affected by one of my lectures,' " Shaea said.

Of the dozen or so e-mails, said Shaea, Awlaki replied to Hasan two or three times. Awlaki declined to comment on what he told Hasan. Asked whether Hasan mentioned Fort Hood as a target in his e-mails, Shaea declined to comment.

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Awlaki said Hasan's alleged shooting rampage was allowed under Islam because it was a form of jihad. "There are some people in the United States who said this shooting has nothing to do with Islam, that it was not permissible under Islam," he said, according to Shaea. "But I would say it is permissible. … America was the one who first brought the battle to Muslim countries."

The cleric also denounced what he described as contradictory behavior by Muslims who condemned Hasan's actions and "let him down." According to Shaea, he said: "They say American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan should be killed, so how can they say the American soldier should not be killed at the moment they are going to Iraq and Afghanistan?"

Cleric in Yemen says he was confidant to Hasan 11/15/09 [Last modified: Monday, November 16, 2009 7:17am]
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