- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 12, 2009

Fort Hood shooting suspect Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan had been in contact with numerous Muslim extremists — some of whom are under federal investigation — before last week’s rampage, two U.S. officials told The Washington Times on Wednesday.

Maj. Hasan made some of the contacts while visiting known jihadist chat rooms on the Internet, according to one of The Times’ sources, a senior FBI official. He said that several people with whom Maj. Hasan was in contact had been the focus of investigations by the FBI-led Joint Terrorism Task Force.

The other source, a military intelligence official, said those in contact with Maj. Hasan are located both in the U.S. and overseas. The official said they are “broadly known and characterized as Islamic extremists if not necessarily al Qaeda.”

Both officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the case, said some of the names of those with whom Maj. Hasan was in contact will likely be released soon.

The FBI official said that could happen during pending congressional hearings into the massacre.

These ties are in addition to Maj. Hasan’s already-reported links to radical Imam Anwar al-Awlaki, who called Maj. Hasan a “hero” on a blog post about last week’s Fort Hood shooting, which left 13 dead and 29 wounded.

The military intelligence official said, “Those connections, except for Awlaki, could be explained innocently. But all of them together form a very concerning picture.”

“I may run into contact with shady people through coincidence, through social events, etc.,” he said. “But at some point you start saying like, ‘Huh? Why are you coming in contact with all these charming people?’ ”

Questions still lingered Wednesday over whether more should have been done in response to Maj. Hasan’s contacts with Mr. al-Awlaki, who served as the imam at mosques in San Diego and in Falls Church — both of which were attended by Maj. Hasan.

Mr. al-Awlaki, who now lives in Yemen, was in contact with Maj. Hasan as many as 20 times beginning in December 2008, according to the FBI.

A Joint Terrorism Task Force knew about the contacts because it had Mr. al-Awlaki’s communications under surveillance.

Several senior investigative officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity earlier this week, said the task force conducted a “preliminary assessment” into Maj. Hasan but didn’t open a full-fledged investigation because the contacts were innocuous.

They said the contacts related to research that Maj. Hasan was doing in his job as a psychiatrist at Walter Reed Army Medical Center last year.

The task force never formally told the Pentagon about Maj. Hasan’s contact with Mr. al-Awlaki because the content of the e-mails did not relate to terrorism or other crimes.

Several news organizations, including the Associated Press and the Wall Street Journal, cited anonymous Pentagon officials on Wednesday as saying they never learned of the al-Awlaki contacts from the task force.

The task force includes an active military member, though another senior official involved in the investigation said that neither the military member nor any other person on the task force requested permission to tell the Pentagon’s top leadership about the contacts.

FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III has ordered a full review of the case. An FBI statement issued Tuesday said the review will “determine all of the facts and circumstances related to this tragedy and whether, with the benefit of hindsight, any policies or practices should change based on what we learn.”

A retired FBI agent said the case highlights an underlying problem vexing terrorism investigations.

“The further we get away from 9/11, the less on guard as a nation we become,” said Ken Piernick, who worked as an acting chief in one of the FBI’s counterterrorism sections.

Mr. Piernick said he suspects that investigators have become fatigued after years of chasing down countless tidbits of information and now may look at tips with less scrutiny.

“The problem with that is the concept of ‘hiding in plain sight’ and a bunch of things come into play,” he said.

ABC News first reported Wednesday that Maj. Hasan had “more unexplained connections” to people being tracked by the FBI in addition to Mr. al-Awlaki.

Although the FBI has dismissed the e-mails between Maj. Hasan and Mr. al-Awlaki as “explainable,” the imam has been under investigation by U.S. authorities for several years. He was identified shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon as the “spiritual adviser” of two of the terrorist hijackers, Nawaf Alhamzi and Hani Hanjour.

Alhamzi, a Saudi national admitted to the United States on a tourist visa in January 2001, and Hanjour, also a Saudi national admitted to the country in December 2000 on a student visa, had listened to Mr. al-Awlaki preach at the Masjid Al Ribat Al Islami mosque in San Diego and the Dar al-Hijrah Islamic Center in Falls Church.

Maj. Hasan also had attended the San Diego mosque in 2001 to hear Mr. al-Awlaki preach, and later turned up at the Falls Church mosque, although it is unclear whether he met with Alhamzi or Hanjour.

Maj. Hasan who is recovering from gunshot wounds — a civilian police officer shot him to end the rampage — has not been officially charged. The FBI has said he will be charged in a military court.

Investigators say there is no indication Maj. Hasan acted in concert with others or as part of a larger terrorist plot.

But the military intelligence official who spoke to The Times remained skeptical.

“It’s way too early” to be saying Maj. Hasan acted alone, the military intelligence official said, though he acknowledged that Maj. Hasan may just have been inspired by al Qaeda or other Muslim jihad groups without being under their operational control.

“There is definitely a need for a fresh look” at the intelligence breakdown, said the official, who described the case as “an intel debacle.”

The official used an analogy with the Mafia to explain the singular importance of as many as 20 e-mails with Mr. al-Awlaki, a man of huge stature within jihadist circles.

“It’s one thing to know people in the Mafia. It’s something else again to be in regular correspondence with John Gotti,” he said.