Webster Commission concludes FBI ‘made mistakes’ in months leading up to Fort Hood shooting
(Editor’s note: Anwar Al-Aulaqi’s name is also spelled Anwar Al-Awlaki in U.S. government and news publications.)
The Federal Bureau of Investigation “made mistakes” and missed opportunities to disrupt the violent radicalization of Army Maj. Nidal Hasan in the months prior to the deadly mass shooting in Fort Hood, Texas.
An independent commission led by former FBI and CIA Director William Webster found that the bureau’s counterterrorism analysts missed or failed to act on several red flags that, in retrospect, revealed Hasan’s growing acceptance of violent Islamic extremism.
“[I]ndividuals who handled the Hasan information made mistakes,” concluded the Webster Commission. “We do not find, and do not suggest, that these mistakes resulted from intentional misconduct or the disregard of duties…We do not believe it would be fair to hold these dedicated personnel, who work in a context of constant threats and limited resources, responsible for the tragedy at Fort Hood.”
The commission recommended the FBI improve training, technologies, and policies to help counterterrorism analysts “navigate the ever-expanding flow of electronic information” and “strike an appropriate balance between individual privacy rights and civil liberties and detecting and deterring threats.”
The FBI began monitoring Hasan after the Army-trained psychologist reached out to Anwar Al-Aulaqi, a U.S.-born radical cleric, between December 2008 and June 2009.
“Aulaqi is a prime example of a radicalization leader. He established and sustained an international reputation as a prolix, charismatic imam,” noted the Commission. “His rhetoric increasingly included public statements – and exhortations of violence against the U.S…. Aulaqi or his rhetoric may have inspired or played a role in encouraging at least four known ‘homegrown’ U.S. radicals who took or attempted violent acts or training.”
On Nov. 5, 2009 – shortly before his scheduled deployment to Afghanistan – Hasan entered the Fort Hood deployment center and opened fire, shouting “Allahu Akbar!” or “God is great!” in Arabic. The shooting spree killed 13 people and wounded 43.
Although the FBI never found evidence that Aulaqi advised Hasan to kill American soldiers, the radical cleric did publicly praise Hasan’s actions, stating “Who would object to that?”
Aulaqi was killed by U.S. drones in Yemen two years later; he was never charged or tried for terrorism related crimes. Hasan is facing murder charges before a military court and could receive the death penalty if convicted. Hasan’s next pre-trial hearing is set for July 25, and the defense is seeking to postpone the trial until December.
Challenges in domestic counterterrorism efforts
Hasan’s violent radicalization highlights two significant challenges facing U.S. law enforcement in combatting homegrown terrorism:
1) Detecting violent radicalization when modern technology allows people to access the teachings of radical leaders via the Internet anytime, anywhere in the world.
The Internet has replaced the “real-world meeting places traditionally used to radicalize – and traditionally used by the FBI to detect violent radicalization.” Furthermore, the Internet has accelerated the speed of violent radicalization. “Pre-radicalization and identification may take years. Indoctrination and action may take months, weeks, even days. Detection in the early stages may be impossible. Detection in the later stages may not allow time to respond before violence occurs,” the Commission acknowledged.
2) Knowing when to intervene or investigate suspected cases of violent radicalization while protecting Americans’ civil liberties and religious freedom.
According to the FBI, there are four stages to violent radicalization: (1) pre-radicalization, which measures a person’s motivation to convert to a religion or a cause; (2) identification or a person’s acceptance of a cause; (3) indoctrination, a stage where a person is convinced or led to believe that violence is required to support a cause; and (4) action or a “commitment to engage in violence” in the name of a cause.
“Action can be violent or nonviolent (for example, financing or facilitating others who pursue violence); but its purpose is to-further the cause and to harm the perceived enemy,” according to the Webster Commission.
The report pointed out that not every “radicalized” individual will reach the final “action” stage and commit violent acts. “The process of radicalization can be interrupted. The process can be reversed. Many persons reach only the first or second or third stage, without ever entering the stage of action,” the Commission noted.
The challenge is determining the appropriate time to step in and interrupt the process of radicalization before the person decides to take violent action. But such determination is problematic given that many of the “acts” that manifest during the first three stages of radicalization – pre-radicalization, identification, and indoctrination – are protected by the U.S. Constitution. Thus, FBI counterterrorism officials must walk a fine line between responding to credible “actionable indicators” of violent radicalization and respecting the constitutional rights of Americans to exercise freedom of speech, religion, and association.
For example, would it be appropriate for the FBI to investigate someone who has downloaded “an audio file of a radical speech or sermon” on white supremacy, anti-homosexuality, anti-Semitism, or pro-Palestinian independence? The act of visiting a website and downloading an audio file expressing unpopular view(s) would fall under the FBI’s definition of pre-radicalization in which a person seeks out a cause. However, such action is protected under the First Amendment’s freedom of association as long as the person or group does not engage or promote illegal activities.
Would it be appropriate for the FBI to investigate someone who has “accepted” a cause (stage 2) and joined a peaceful demonstration against, for example, Israeli settlements in Palestine? Or if the person participated in a neo-Nazi rally? Or if the person took part in an anti-capitalism protest, such as Occupy Wall Street? The First Amendment protects an individual’s right to participate in non-violent demonstrations.
Finally, would it be appropriate for the FBI to investigate someone who has been indoctrinated (stage 3) with the belief that violence is necessary to further a cause or to protect a group of people subjected to unfair treatment? Would it be appropriate for the FBI to investigate someone who wrote a newspaper opinion piece in support of Hamas, a U.S.-designated terrorist group (democratically) elected to the majority of seats in the Palestinian Parliament? Or would the act of writing and publishing of the op-ed be protected under the First Amendment?
“Even if the FBI obtains intelligence evidencing an individual in the radicalization process, that intelligence may not provide a legitimate basis for investigation,” the report stated. “The challenge lies in finding actionable indicators in time to respond in a lawful manner to the potential for violence. Reliable indicators of radicalization are more difficult to detect and act on in nascent stages. The early phases of radicalization may take place outside the knowledge of anyone but the radicalizing individual. They may also take place in ways that implicate the civil liberties and privacy interests of U.S. persons, cautioning or demanding investigative restraint.”
FBI missed opportunities to disrupt Hasan’s violent radicalization
Following a thorough investigation, the Webster Commission found that the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force missed several opportunities to disrupt Hasan’s violent radicalization.
The first missed opportunity occurred in late 2008, shortly after Hasan sent his first email to Aulaqi through the imam’s website. (Aulaqi, who moved to Yemen in 2004, was under the U.S. government’s surveillance after the 9/11 attack.)
In his email, Hasan, who identified himself as a member of the U.S. military, sought Aulaqi’s comments on the role of Muslims in the U.S. armed forces and referenced the case of former Army Sgt. Hasan Akbar, an American Muslim who killed 2 fellow soldiers and wounded 14 in Kuwait during the 2003 Operation Iraqi Freedom. Aulaqi did not reply to Hasan’s queries. Even so, Hasan’s outreach to Aulaqi raised a red flag with U.S. counterterrorism analysts. However, the FBI’s initial searches on the Defense Employee Interactive Data System could not verify that “Nidal Hasan” was a member of the U.S. military.
Weeks later, in January 2009, Hasan sent another email to Aulaqi seeking the imam’s opinion on Iran and Israel. Aulaqi did not respond. The second email prompted FBI analysts to search additional databases, which located a U.S. Army Officer named “Nidal Malik Hasan” assigned to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. An internal FBI email raised concerns about Hasan’s contacts with Aulaqi even though the “content of these messages was not overtly nefarious.” However, since the analysts did not “decisively define a terrorism-related threat”, no further investigative action was taken at the time.
While working to confirm whether the Nidal Hasan assigned to Walter Reed was the same person who emailed Aulaqi, one of the analysts abbreviated the Hasan’s “commissioned officer” status as “comm. officer”, which led other FBI analysts to misinterpret the abbreviation as “communications officer”. This seemingly innocuous clerical error led the FBI to believe that Hasan, as a communications officer, would have access to inter-agency intelligence databases. Operating under this assumption, the FBI erred on the side of caution and restricted the sharing of information about Hasan with the Department of Defense and the U.S. intelligence community.
After several more messages that failed to elicit a response from Aulaqi, Hasan emailed Aulaqi in February 2009 about setting up a $5,000 scholarship prize awarded to the best essay on “Why is Anwar Al Awlaki a great activist and leader.” Aulaqi replied for the first time and politely declined to award the scholarship, saying that he would be too “embarrassed” to do so.
Buoyed by Aulaqi’s reply, Hasan offered to “help” Aulaqi’s cause and mentioned that he was looking for a wife. Aulaqi’s second – and final – response was to encourage Hasan to “help in accordance to the law” the “poor people, orphans, widows”. Aulaqi also wrote that he would “keep an eye for a sister.” The responses did not indicate that Aulaqi was actively radicalizing Hasan. (Think about it this way: should the FBI investigate a parishioner for offering to help his church’s cause?) Indeed, the Webster Commission admitted that it found no evidence that Aulaqi encouraged Hasan to carry out the Fort Hood shooting or commit other acts of violence against Americans.
Another factor that contributed to the FBI’s flawed assessment of Hasan was the bureau’s partial access to the military’s personnel files. The FBI analysts were not given personnel files maintained by Hasan’s local command, which showed that Hasan was ranked in the bottom 25% of his residency class at Walter Reed and was placed on probation and remediation for poor performance, including failure “to meet basic job expectations such as attendance at work.”
Instead, the FBI analysts had access only to files that “contained almost uniformly positive evaluations of Hasan” by his superior officers, including one file that commended Hasan’s research on “Islamic beliefs regarding military service during the Global War on Terror”.
Given the information available, FBI analysts “believed that Hasan’s communications with Aulaqi were relevant to his research on Islam and the military”, which did not warrant further investigation.
The most critical missed opportunity was the FBI’s decision to not interview Hasan or his supervisors at Walter Reed to confirm or disprove Hasan’s violent radicalization.
The FBI analysts “believed that interviewing Hasan would jeopardize the [Aulaqi investigation.] They could think of no way to interview Hasan without disclosing the FBI’s access to the [email] messages,” the report stated.
There was a sense within the FBI that interviewing Hasan would be “politically sensitive” and that the bureau shouldn’t “go out and interview every Muslim who visits extremist websites” without justifiable cause, which would violate the civil liberty and religious freedom of Muslim-Americans.
In addition, the FBI, still under the impression that Hasan was communicating with Aulaqi for legitimate research purposes, also feared that “any overt investigation steps” would irreparably harm Hasan’s military career if the bureau’s suspicion was proven false.
The Webster Commission criticized the FBI’s decision as flawed. The Commission noted that interviewing people under pretense is the FBI’s speciality and that agents could have approached Hasan by pretending to invite him to give a guest lecture on Islamic radicalization or ask for his insights on tolerance of Muslim soldiers by the U.S. military. The FBI’s failure to follow up resulted in another missed opportunity to disrupt Hasan’s violent radicalization.
- Final report of the William H. Webster Commission on the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Counterterrorism Intelligence, and the Events at Fort Hood, Texas on Nov. 5, 2009 (PDF)
- Department of Defense: DoD News Briefing with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen on Nov. 19, 2009
- Department of Defense: Final Department of Defense recommendations of the Fort Hood follow-on review – Aug. 18, 2010 (PDF)
- Reuters.com: Accused Fort Hood massacre shooter to seek another delay
- Fort Hood Press Center: Military judge schedules next pre-trial hearing for Major Hasan case
- Cornell University’s Legal Information Institute: First Amendment