WASHINGTON (AP) - The Army psychiatrist accused of the Fort Hood massacre reached out to communicate with a radical imam overseas who in the past came under scrutiny for possible links to terror groups, a U.S. official said Monday.
An imam is a Islamic leadership position, often the leader of a mosque and the community. However, this particular iman was removed from his post some time ago by the mosque, according to CNN reports.
Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan sent electronic communications to the imam, Anwar al Awlaki, according to this official, who was not authorized to discuss the investigation and spoke on condition of anonymity. Awlaki, who was released from a jail in Yemen last year, writes a blog which, among other things, denounces U.S. policies as anti-Muslim.
Hasan's messages were picked up by U.S. counterterrorism officials, but an inquiry into the matter was shelved because the contacts were not deemed to suggest a threat, this official said. Investigators are now trying to determine whether Hasan has any links to terror groups.
In Killeen, Texas, near Fort Hood, Hasan's lawyer expressed doubt that his client could get a fair trial. Hasan remains under guard at a military hospital but began talking to doctors there on Monday.
Retired Col. John P. Galligan, a defense attorney retained by Hasan's family on Monday, said he did not know whether Hasan had been medically cleared to be interviewed, but he asked investigators not to speak to his client.
"There's a lot of facts that still need to be developed, and the time for that will come in due course," Galligan said.
Hasan, 39, is accused of opening fire at the Army post on Thursday, killing 13 people and wounding 29 before civilian police shot him in the torso.
Hasan was awake and talking on Monday, said Dewey Mitchell, a spokesman for Brooke Army Medical Center.
Investigators are trying to establish a motive in the shootings. But details that have emerged indicate Hasan was an observant Muslim who was strongly opposed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and appeared to be struggling to reconcile his faith and his duty as a military officer. His family said he was going to be sent to Afghanistan in November and was trying to get out of the assignment.
Authorities have not said when charges would be filed, or whether Hasan would be prosecuted in a military court or a civilian one.
Galligan questioned whether Hasan could get a fair trial, particularly given President Barack Obama's planned visit to the base on Tuesday for a memorial service.
"You've got his commander in chief showing up tomorrow," Galligan said. "That same kind of publicity naturally creates an issue as to whether you find a fair and impartial forum, whether that's in the military or even if it were in a federal forum."
Meanwhile, Awlaki, a radical American imam who had contact with two of the Sept. 11 hijackers and was a spiritual leader at a Virginia mosque where Hasan was said to have worshiped occasionally, praised the U.S. soldier on his personal Web site Monday.
"Nidal Hassan is a hero," wrote Awlaki, who lives in Yemen. "He is a man of conscience who could not bear living the contradiction of being a Muslim and serving in an army that is fighting against his own people."
In December, Awlaki, on his Web site, encouraged Muslims across the world to kill U.S. troops in Iraq.
Awlaki left the United States in 2002, eventually traveling to Yemen. His whereabouts have been unknown since he was released from a Yemeni jail last year. He is on Yemen's most-wanted militant list, according to three Yemeni security officials.
The officials said Awlaki was arrested in 2006 with a small group of suspected al-Qaida militants. They said he was released more than a year later after signing a pledge not to break the law or leave the country. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Hasan's family attended the Dar al Hijrah Islamic Center in Falls Church, Va., where Awlaki was preaching in 2001. Hasan's mother's funeral was held at the mosque on May 31, 2001, according to her obituary. That was around the same time two 9/11 hijackers worshiped at the mosque.
Imam Johari Abdul-Malik, outreach director for the Dar al-Hijrah Islamic Center, said Monday that staff members of the mosque saw Hasan at prayer services occasionally. But he said he didn't know if Hasan ever heard Awlaki speak, and added that Hasan was not an active member.
"As we understand it, there was no relationship between Imam Awlaki and Major Hasan, not to our knowledge," he said.
The Falls Church mosque is one of the largest on the East Coast, and thousands of worshipers attend prayers and services there every week. According to CNN, Awlaki was relieved of his position there after the 2001 attack.
- Baker reported from Killeen, Texas. Associated Press writers Angela K. Brown, Allen Breed and Jeff Carlton at Fort Hood; Michelle Roberts in San Antonio; Pamela Hess and Eileen Sullivan in Washington; Nafeesa Sayed in Falls Church, Va.; Ben Nuckols in Baltimore; Matthew Barakat in McLean, Va., and Ahmed al-Haj in San-a, Yamen, contributed to this report.