I’ve been meaning to return to the Webster report on Nidal Hasan’s conversations with Anwar al-Awlaki. This conversation between Gunpowder & Lead and Intelwire about how alarming those emails were will be a start provides a good place to start.
Hasan’s emails should have raised more concern–but probably didn’t because of the sheer volume of Awlaki intercepts
G&L notes that certain details from the emails–such as his invocation of Hasan Akbar, a Muslim-American soldier who killed two officers in Kuwait–as an example that should have raised more concern than it did.
But more significant, his question to Awlaki didn’t actually deal with the valid question that he raised, the feeling of inner conflict between one’s faith and serving in the U.S. military. Instead, he leaped right to a question that should rightly trigger alarm: if Hasan Akbar died while attacking fellow soldiers, would he be a martyr? Hasan skipped over questions about whether serving in the U.S. military is religiously acceptable; whether going to war against fellow Muslims is a violation of religious principles. Instead, in addressing “some” soldiers who felt conflicted about fighting fellow Muslims, Hasan right away asked whether it was permissible to kill other U.S. soldiers in the way Hasan Akbar.
After a close analysis of a number of the emails, G&L refutes the representation of these emails as “fairly benign.”
I agree with that assessment (and would add that the suggestion, in a February 22, 2009 email, that Hasan was donating to entities that his mosque would not is another troubling detail). But I also agree with Intelwire. These emails, from an Army officer, surely merited more attention. But these emails, as they likely appeared among the stream of Anwar al-Awlaki communications, probably did not stick out.
Based on who Hasan was (a military officer), who he was talking to (a suspected 9/11 accomplice), and the fact he repeatedly tried to get Awlaki’s attention using a variety of stratagems, the case should have been escalated and Hasan’s superiors should have been informed.
But when you place the content of Hasan’s messages alongside all the other raw intelligence that counterterrorism investigations generate, it’s extremely hard to argue from a subjective, non-psychoanalytical reading that they represented a red flag.
Which is why this report has seemed poorly scoped to me. Because not only did Nidal Hasan’s emails fail to trigger further attention, but Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s contacts with Awlaki before Fort Hood did too.
In spite of the fact that the FBI had two people spending a significant chunk of each day (they claimed it took 40% or 3 hours of their work day; 88) reviewing communications tied to Awlaki, in spite of the fact that two men about to attack the US were in contact with Awlaki, “the FBI’s full understanding of Aulaqi’s operational ambitions developed only after the attempted bombing of Northwest Airlines Flight 253 on Christmas Day 2009.” (72)
The government also failed to respond to Abdulmutallab intercepts leading up to the Fort Hood attack
Consider: according to the report itself, Robert Mueller formally asked William Webster to conduct this inquiry on December 17, 2009 (though Webster’s appointment was reported over a week before then). Just 8 days later, another terrorist who had been in contact with Awlaki struck the US. Just 5 days after that, sources started leaking details of NSA intercepts from 4 months earlier (so around August) that might have warned about the attack.
Intelligence intercepts from Yemen beginning in early August, when Abdulmutallab arrived in that country, contained “bits and pieces about where he was, what his plans were, what he was telling people his plans were,” as well as information about planning by the al-Qaeda branch in Yemen, a senior administration official said. “At first blush, not all these things appear to be related” to the 23-year-old Nigerian and the bombing attempt, he said, “but we believe they were.”
It’s unclear how many of these intercepts were directly between Abdulmutallab and Awlaki, and therefore presumably reviewed by the FBI team in San Diego. But at least according to the sentencing materials submitted in the Abdulmutallab case (there are reasons to treat this with a bit of skepticism), there were substantive communications between Awlaki and Abdulmutallab.
Defendant provided this individual [who offered to connect him with Awlaki] with the number for his Yemeni cellular telephone. Thereafter, defendant received a text message from Awlaki telling defendant to call him, which defendant did. Continue reading