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Unnoticed Clues Haunt Fort Hood: Nidal Hasan left a trail of suspicious actions

By Eli Saslow, Philip Rucker, William Wan And Mary Pat Flaherty

Dec 31, 2009


Nidal Hasan was causing a ruckus in his one-bedroom apartment during the early hours of Nov. 5, banging against the thin walls long after midnight, packing boxes and shredding papers until he woke up the tenants next door.

Maybe that was a clue.

He picked up the phone at 2:37 a.m. and dialed a neighbor. Nobody answered. Hasan called again three hours later, this time leaving a message. "Nice knowing you, friend," he said. "I'm moving on from here."

Maybe that was a clue, too.

He left Apartment 9 early that morning and stopped next door to see a woman named Patricia Villa, whom he had known for less than a month. He gave her a bag of frozen vegetables, some broccoli, a clothing steamer and an air mattress, explaining that he was about to be deployed to a war zone. Then Hasan visited another neighbor, a devout Christian, who looked at him quizzically when he handed her a copy of the Koran and recommended passages for her to read. "In my religion," Hasan told her, "we'll do anything to be closer to God."

Just before the break of dawn in Killeen, Tex., Hasan drove away from the Casa Del Norte apartment complex and stopped for his customary breakfast at a nearby 7-Eleven. The store's owner, wary of him, had spent the past month pretending to be absent whenever Hasan entered. This time, Hasan approached the counter with coffee and hash browns at 6:22 a.m., wearing an Arab robe and a white kufi cap. Before fiddling in his pockets for change, buying his breakfast and driving away to work at Fort Hood, he smiled at another customer and issued what sounded like a warning.

"There's going to be big action on post around 1:30," he said, according to witnesses. "Be prepared."

Clues -- he left them everywhere. When viewed in retrospect, Hasan's life becomes an apparent trail of evidence that leads to an inevitable end. At 1:34 p.m. on Nov. 5, he bowed his head in prayer during his regular shift at Fort Hood, opened his eyes and started shooting, witnesses said. The 39-year-old Army psychiatrist allegedly aimed for soldiers in uniform, firing more than 100 times with a semiautomatic pistol and a revolver. The terror lasted less than 10 minutes. Thirteen people died. Thirty were injured.

Now, more than seven weeks later, what is left of the Fort Hood tragedy is a community haunted by clues that somehow went unheeded. During a week in which the government has lamented missed signals in the case of an attempted bombing on a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit, there remain unresolved questions about how so many signals could have passed unnoticed before the Fort Hood shootings. While the Pentagon, the Army and the FBI work to complete investigations of Hasan with findings due next month, his former friends and colleagues sift backward through his biography and search for answers of their own.

This story, which attempts to fill in that biography, is based on interviews with 100 people who lived, worked or prayed with Hasan in Texas, the District, Virginia and Maryland -- a group now united by its obsession with the same troubling questions.

How do you differentiate between pious and fanatical?

Between Lonely and Isolated?

Between Eccentric and Crazy?

And the one question the former friends and colleagues return to most: Could they have recognized the clues in time to stop him?

‘An outcast’

Where were the clues back in 2001, when a friend told his Silver Spring youth group to emulate Hasan as the role model for well-rounded success? Here was a devoted student -- a summa cum laude graduate of Virginia Western Community College, an honors graduate of Virginia Tech -- now well on his way to becoming a doctor. Here was a devoted Muslim who regularly drove to a mosque to pray five times each day, as is customary among the devout, and stuck around between prayers to raise money for the homeless and find temporary housing for new arrivals to Washington. Here was a devoted son who took time off from school and made space in his one-bedroom apartment to care for his mother, sick with cancer.

Hasan took a leave from medical school to spend the better part of two years in his suburban Washington apartment with his mother, Nora, until she died on May 30, 2001. She was 49, and other family members considered her Hasan's closest confidante -- a woman who discouraged her son from joining the military only to later introduce herself as the mother of an Army officer. Hasan hosted her funeral at Dar al-Hijrah, Northern Virginia's biggest mosque, where more than 3,000 people sometimes attend evening prayer and stay afterward for brief funerals. Nora's service, held after a crowded Thursday prayer, was Hasan's last gift to his mother: Muslim belief dictates that the more people who pray for the deceased, the greater the rewards in heaven.

Nora's death left Hasan bereft of his anchor, relatives said, and over the next several years he started to drift. He moved three times in three years, renting rooms in one transient apartment building after the next in the Maryland suburbs.

In the meantime, the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks had made him an occasional target as a Muslim in the Army -- his car was twice vandalized with graffiti and dirty diapers at work -- and he confided to fellow Muslims that he opposed the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and felt like "an outcast." Even inside the mosque, Hasan's haven, he was becoming a misfit as an aging bachelor in a religion that considers marriage not just a priority but a cultural duty.

Wife hunt

His solution was to find a new anchor. Hasan began looking for a wife.

It seemed less a search than a full-time obsession. Hasan's status as a doctor and a military officer made him a considerable catch, but his standards were exacting. He wanted a virgin of Arabic descent -- a woman in her 20s who wore the hijab, understood the Koran and prayed five times a day. He enlisted matchmaking help from three imams, a neighbor in his Silver Spring high-rise apartment complex and the proprietor of a Maryland deli where Hasan liked to eat halal meat for dinner. He quizzed fellow Muslim men about their wives and asked family members to keep an eye out for prospects.

As the years wore on with little to show for the search, Hasan's plight became a running joke among some at the Muslim Community Center in Silver Spring: Because of his age, fellow worshipers joked, Brother Nidal always got the first chance at any new woman who joined the mosque.

One day in 2006, as Hasan edged toward his late 30s, he attended a matchmaking event at the Islamic Society of the Washington Area. The annual gathering is a last-chance staple for hundreds of Muslims, some of whom travel from as far as India or Hawaii, to mingle over a breakfast buffet. But attending such an event was an uncharacteristic step for Hasan, who steadfastly avoided group parties with co-workers and who, his aunt Noel Hasan said, "did not make many friends easily and did not make friends fast."

Hasan arrived at the Islamic Society's beige house in Silver Spring, paid the $15 sign-up fee and completed his application. He wrote down his phone numbers, then changed his mind and crossed them out. He skipped several categories, filling out only the essential ones.

Height: 5'6.5".

Weight: 190.

Nationality: Palestinian.

Personality and character: "Quiet, reserved until more familiar with person. Funny, caring, and personable."

Priorities desired in a spouse: "Prays 5x/day at prescribed times. Wears hijab appropriately. Lives life according to Quran/Sunnah."

After breakfast, Hasan and the other 150 singles in attendance formed a gigantic circle and took turns introducing themselves. Some were divorced, others were widowed, and a few had children. When his turn came, Hasan talked about his work as a doctor and his devotion to Islam. Several women showed interest, but Hasan didn't reciprocate. Instead, as the singles filed out, Hasan visited privately with the matchmaker, Faizul Khan, and expressed disappointment. Not a single woman had interested him, he said.

Khan apologized and offered to let Hasan return in a few days to look through stacks of matchmaking applications from previous years. Maybe, Khan suggested, Hasan would find the pious woman of his dreams in the collection of 300 applications and accompanying head shots.

Maybe, Hasan agreed. But he never went back.

In the ensuing months, colleagues said, Hasan spent most of his time alone. He studied for long hours inside a wooden cubicle in the library of the Muslim Community Center, where the administrative assistant wondered whether he was lonely. He ate dinners by himself at his favorite deli, with an open laptop on the table and his head buried behind the monitor. Family members worried that he was becoming increasingly isolated -- with no wife, no parents, no close friends -- but Hasan reassured them. He had no time for company, he said. All of his energy was devoted to work.

Meanwhile, Hasan's colleagues were beginning to worry, too. He proselytized to them in the hallways of Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where he was a psychiatry resident, turning conversations about war and the Redskins into lectures about the Koran. He spoke openly about his opposition to the war in Iraq, repeatedly saying that he could not imagine deploying to fight against fellow Muslims. As the war dragged into 2007, Hasan told family members that he had unsuccessfully tried to get out of the Army by consulting with a lawyer and even offering to repay the cost of his education.

While working at an overloaded military hospital desperate for psychiatrists, Hasan sometimes saw only one or two patients per week -- far fewer than most of his peers, many of whom privately regarded him as either a dud or a slacker. The patients Hasan did treat seemed to deeply unsettle him. He spoke to his aunt Noel Hasan about a patient who had mental problems and facial burns so severe that his skin had nearly melted. The sessions, the aunt quoted him as saying, were sometimes "traumatic." At least once, Hasan counseled a patient about the healing virtues of Islam, prompting a reprimand from his supervisors.

But nothing raised alarm among Hasan's colleagues at Walter Reed quite like his classroom presentations, which seemed to chart the evolution of his beliefs. In June 2007, he gave the culminating presentation of his medical residency to 25 colleagues and supervisors. He was allowed to talk about any subject, and Hasan stood at the front of the room and gave a 50-slide introduction to Islam.

Slide 11: "It's getting harder and harder for Muslims in the service to morally justify being in a military that seems constantly engaged against fellow Muslims."

Slide 12: "(4.93) And whoever kills a believer intentionally, his punishment is hell."

Slide 49: "God expects full loyalty."

Slide 50: "Department of Defence should allow Muslim Soldiers the option of being released as 'Conscientious objectors' to increase troop morale and decrease adverse events."

Why no-one said anything

Hasan gave another presentation on the topic six months later, classmates said. This time, during his research, he e-mailed back and forth with Anwar al-Aulaqi, an al-Qaeda sympathizer living in Yemen (who also has been linked to the Nigerian man charged in the attempted Detroit plane bombing). Hasan also tested his material in front of fellow Muslims at the Silver Spring mosque. Other students in his public health class presented on topics such as water safety and mold. Hasan focused his work on the thesis that the war on terrorism was actually a war on Islam, several classmates said.

A few months later came a third presentation. This time, Hasan advanced his thesis by one degree: He spoke about the heroism of suicide bombers, classmates said.

Were these the clues of a developing extremist? Or just more cluelessness from a floundering student? Hasan's classmates were divided. At least one student mentioned his concerns to a medical staff supervisor; another classmate, a devout Christian, privately explained to Hasan that the conflict in Iraq was not about "warring with religion," prompting Hasan to shake his head and walk away.

One classmate thought Hasan was misunderstood: "I didn't see him as a threat, I saw him as fervent."

Another believed Hasan could pose a risk but kept quiet. "If you complain and someone higher up says you're biased, that can be a career ender. That dogs you."

By early 2009, what emerged were two conflicting narratives of Hasan's life, which now had only his name in common. One, told by his classmates and colleagues, depicted an isolated man struggling in his career and tending toward radicalism. The other, documented in Hasan's official record, continued to track an Army psychiatrist on the rise: Hasan completed his prestigious medical fellowship, earned a promotion to the rank of major despite his supervisors' misgivings and was named co-chairman of a panel assembled by the American Psychiatric Association. Then, in July 2009, he was assigned to Fort Hood, where he would evaluate and prepare soldiers for war, and prepare to go to war himself.

Guns Galore

Hasan told friends in Maryland that he wished he could avoid moving to Texas, and he never acted like he planned to stay long. Fort Hood staffers typically help officers locate nice places to live, but Hasan found his new home in the classified ads of the Killeen Daily Herald. He paid $325 per month for a one-bedroom unit in a shabby apartment complex on the seedy side of downtown. The welcome sign at the 27-unit Casa Del Norte apartment building was patched together with duct tape, and low-hanging electrical wires lined the nearby streets. Police were dispatched to the building about once a week.

Hasan usually left his apartment for prayer before dawn and returned late in the evening, wearing a white robe and clutching a copy of the Koran. His route home took him past a group of neighbors who liked to drink beer at the picnic table in the courtyard, and they sometimes laughed at his outfits. One neighbour, John Van de Walker, scraped a key across the passenger side of Hasan's car and ripped off a bumper sticker that read "Allah is Love." Van de Walker was charged with criminal mischief and fined, but Hasan told neighbours that he would forgive Van de Walker as a gesture during the holy month of Ramadan.

Shortly after moving to Killeen, Hasan made two purchases that would soon be seen as clues. He went to Guns Galore, a windowless white cinder-block shop on a country highway, and bought a high-powered semiautomatic pistol. He also ordered business cards that listed his professional specialties -- "Behavioral Health -- Mental Health -- Life Skills" -- without mentioning his involvement in the Army. The cards included an abbreviation after Hasan's name: "SoA," standing for "Slave of Allah" or "Soldier of Allah." It was an unusually forceful assertion, one considered odd even by the most pious Muslims.

During business hours at Fort Hood, Hasan worked at the Resilience and Restoration Center, writing psychological profiles of soldiers entering and exiting war. Nobody could study Hasan as closely. Regulars at a Killeen mosque knew him only as devoted and quiet; neighbours in his apartment building referred to him not by name but by his apartment number, calling him "Number 9." He ate dinner night after night at Golden Corral with an 18-year-old named Duane Reasoned, a recent Muslim convert who had left a trail of anti-American postings on jihadist Web sites, but they sat in a corner booth and kept their conversations at a low volume, witnesses said.

Lap dances and conflicting behaviour

Nearly everyone in Killeen who interacted with Hasan considered him a mystery, and his actions became more confounding as October turned to November.

Why was an Army psychiatrist, instead of helping soldiers, obsessing over charging them with war crimes?

Why was a conservative Muslim going to the Starz strip club on the nights of Oct. 28 and 29, spending seven hours each night sitting alone at a round table near the stage, handing out Bud Lights and generous tips to each dancer and then buying a series of fully nude private lap dances that cost $50 each?

Why was an Army officer eschewing the shooting range at Fort Hood to drive 35 miles into the central Texas flatlands on Nov. 3 and take his target practice at Stan's Outdoor Shooting Range, where bullets sometimes ricocheted off square targets and hit cars?

Why, on the morning of Nov. 5, were witnesses seeing Hasan hand out copies of the Koran, give away his groceries, issue a warning at 7-Eleven, report to work, stand on a table, shout "Allahu Akbar" and wave two guns inside the Soldier Readiness Processing Centre?

Then Hasan allegedly opened fire, and suddenly the questions became clues, and the clues began to make horrifying sense.

Staff writers Anne Hull, Kafia Hosh and Dana Priest, research director Lucy Shackelford and staff researchers Meg Smith and Julie Tate contributed to this report.

First Published: Dec 31, 2009 3:46 AM EST

Source: © 2010 NBC Universal, Inc. All rights reserved.

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