WASHINGTON — The FBI and the Army last year investigated contacts between a Yemen-based militant Islamist prayer leader and the Army psychiatrist accused of last week's deadly shooting rampage at Fort Hood, Texas, but dropped the case after concluding that he didn't pose a terrorist threat, a senior federal law enforcement official said Monday.
The disclosure that Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan communicated with an imam who had ties to Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers raised the question of whether U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies had information that, if properly shared and investigated, might have helped to prevent the attack.
Even before that disclosure, lawmakers were calling for inquiries into whether the Army, the FBI and the U.S. intelligence community missed warning signs about Hasan's increasing radicalization in the months before Thursday's killing spree that killed 13 people and injured 29.
"I think the very fact that you've got a major in the U.S. Army contacting this guy (a radical imam), or attempting to contact him, would raise some red flags," said Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich., the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee. Hoekstra said his office has been contacted by U.S. officials involved in the case who believe that "the system just broke down."
The federal law enforcement official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the case is ongoing, said that all the facts are not yet known because the FBI and Army are poring over numerous e-mails sent by Hasan to Awlaki and other Islamist figures.
But he said that the information known to authorities at the time did not in any way suggest that Hasan was growing violent or that he was involved in "any terrorist planning or plotting."
"I don't know if it will greatly affect our assessment of the case, what motivated him. It remains to be seen whether this means anything or not," the federal official said.
He added that authorities still believe Hasan acted alone.
The official said that Hasan did not appear to have known Awlaki in person, except perhaps in passing, even though the militant prayer leader was the imam at a Virginia mosque that Hasan attended in 2001.
The mosque drew the attention of the FBI at the time, and later the Sept. 11 commission, because of Awlaki's connection to at least two of the Sept. 11 hijackers, who may have followed him from a mosque in San Diego to the Dar al-Hijrah Islamic Center in Falls Church, Va., in early 2001.
Awlaki, a U.S. citizen, left the United States in 2002 and is believed to be in Yemen and supporting the Islamist jihad, or holy war against the West, through his Web site.
Several U.S. officials said U.S. intelligence agencies first intercepted communications between Hasan and Awlaki starting in late 2008 as a result of another investigation. The information was given to one U.S.-based multi-agency Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTFF) and then to another one based at the Washington Field Office because of Hasan's assignment at the Walter Reed medical center.
The Washington task force, which included FBI agents and Army criminal investigative personnel, launched a probe and determined that Hasan was contacting the radical cleric — who has ties to other al-Qaida-affiliated individuals —"within the context of the doctor's position and what he was doing at the time, conducting research... on the issues of Muslims in the military and the effects of war in Muslim countries."
The federal official said Hasan had "reached out to Awlaki several times before he got a response," and that there was little in the correspondence to raise serious red flags.
But Hoekstra expressed frustration with the handling of the intelligence on Hasan, saying that authorities underestimated the significance of the material they had obtained.
Awlaki's responses to Hasan were regarded by U.S. authorities as "relatively innocuous," Hoekstra said. Even so, the lawmaker said, the communications should have triggered a serious response "regardless of the content."
The federal official defended the bureau's handling of the matter.
"The process worked," the official said. "It was evaluated by one JTTF and sent to another JTTF based on what information they had at the time. More investigation was done, and ultimately a judgment was made that" it did not merit further investigation.