SANA, Yemen — A radical American imam who communicated with the Fort Hood shooting suspect and called him a hero was once arrested in Yemen on suspicion of giving religious approval to militants to conduct kidnappings.
Yemeni authorities are hunting for Anwar al-Awlaki to determine whether he has al-Qaida ties.
Awlaki, 38, who has used his personal Web site to encourage Muslims around the world to kill U.S. troops in Iraq, disappeared in Yemen eight months ago, according to his father. Yemeni security officials say they believe he is hiding in a region of the mountainous nation that has become a refuge for Islamic militants.
After his arrest in 2006, investigators were unable to prove any links to al-Qaida, and he was released in late 2007, according to two Yemeni counterterrorism officials and an Interior Ministry official. They spoke to the Associated Press on Tuesday on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
Maj. Nidal Hasan, 39, who is accused of killing 13 people in a rampage at the Fort Hood Army post in Texas on Thursday, communicated with Awlaki in e-mail exchanges 10 to 20 times over several months last year, according to a U.S. investigative official in Washington and Rep. Pete Hoekstra of Michigan, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee.
The communications, which were intercepted by the FBI, consisted primarily of Hasan posing questions to the imam as a spiritual leader or adviser, and their content was consistent with the Army psychiatrist's research, a law enforcement official said. The FBI investigated at the time and concluded that Hasan was not a threat. And investigators now say there is no evidence Hasan received help or orders to carry out the Fort Hood attack.
But the man to whom Hasan turned for advice has for years preached in sermons circulated on the Web that the United States was engaged in a war against Islam and urged Muslims to fight it.
Awlaki, a U.S. citizen born in New Mexico to Yemeni parents, preached at a Virginia mosque that Hasan's family attended. The imam also has had several encounters with al-Qaida figures. In 2000, he met two of the Sept. 11 hijackers, Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, at a San Diego mosque where Awlaki was a preacher. His telephone number was found when police raided the Hamburg, Germany, apartment of Ramzi Binalshibh, a Yemeni al-Qaida figure believed to have been a key facilitator of the Sept. 11 attacks, according to the U.S. government's 9/11 Commission report.
After arriving in Yemen in 2002, Awlaki taught at Sana's Iman University, which is headed by Abdulmajid al-Zindani, a prominent Yemeni cleric often described as a religious mentor to Osama bin Laden.
Awlaki's father, Nasser al-Awlaki, said he has not had any contact with his son in eight months and did not know his location. He said Anwar's wife and five children are staying him, not his son.
The father, who was studying agriculture in the United States when Anwar was born and later served as Yemen's agriculture minister, insisted his son has no links with al-Qaida.