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Hasan Akbar's Peculiar Military Career

His Behavior Was Bizarre. His Peers Insulted His Muslim Faith. He Was Shipped Off to Fight in Iraq. Then He Allegedly Murdered Two Army Officers. By Richard A. Serrano

August 03, 2003|Richard A. Serrano | Richard A. Serrano last wrote for the magazine about convicted spy Christopher Boyce.

Once a month Quran Bilal drives north out of Baton Rouge, La., in her black Nissan, a car so old she cannot remember its year, only that she paid $700 for it used and that the odometer has now turned 148,000 clicks. A side window is broken and the air-conditioning blows hot.

Bilal endures it because this is the only way she can visit her son, Sgt. Hasan Akbar, her eldest, who is confined to a military brig at Ft. Knox, Ky. Akbar grew up in Los Angeles, an honor student at Locke High School and a devout Muslim who faithfully prayed at a South-Central mosque. He was the first in his family to go to college, to UC Davis, and later enlisted in the Army to save money and pay off college loans, to advance his engineering skills and to perhaps one day open a small business with a brother.

Today, at age 32, Akbar stands accused of drawing first blood in the Iraq War on March 23 by lobbing hand grenades into the tents of sleeping officers and firing at them with his M-4 rifle. He is accused of two counts of premeditated murder and three charges of attempted murder. If convicted in a court-martial he could be sentenced to death.

As disturbing as the attack was, Akbar's defense is equally troubling. His mother and his military lawyers say he snapped in the face of relentless ridicule, of him and of Muslims in general. He had complained before his arrest that soldiers and officers harassed him and scared him and trampled on his religion. Moments after his arrest, according to fellow soldiers, he blurted out that he feared ''American soldiers were going to kill and rape Muslims'' once Iraq was taken.

If we expect that the U.S. military is a microcosm of society, then such harassment isn't terribly surprising, especially after Sept. 11. But if we expect the military, with its rigorous oversight and strong need for cohesive fighting units, to have less tolerance for religious harassment and other divisive forces, then Akbar's case may provide a painful lesson of the kind the nation has wrestled with since the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado and elsewhere where the killers felt they had been hazed or shunned by their peers.

In Akbar's case, it should be noted, harassment might have been just part of the problem. Soldiers testified at his preliminary military court proceedings this summer that he was known for strange behavior, a flaw he does not deny. At his Ft. Campbell, Ky., Army base and in the Kuwaiti desert awaiting combat in Iraq, he often seemed aloof and confused. Soldiers recalled him pacing aimlessly, talking to himself, laughing and smiling at nothing. Army superiors said he was passed over for promotions, given second and third chances to shape up and then reassigned to more mundane duties.

As the Iraq War approached, officers debated whether Akbar, because of his Islamic faith, should be deployed. At one point, an officer said, they even shouted insults at him to test his loyalty to Uncle Sam over Allah. In the end he remained with his unit and shipped out for war.

It was a long way from where he had come as a quiet youth, an introverted but accomplished student and disciple of the Prophet Muhammad. Akbar's name at birth was Mark Fidel Kools. Bilal, then 20, worked as a barber and a beautician, and later an independent truck driver. His father, John Kools, had followed a twin brother from Detroit to Los Angeles, and eventually owned and managed apartments in South-Central. But by the time his son was 3, Kools was in jail on gang-related charges. He turned to Islam while behind bars and emerged with a new name, John Akbar. His whole family converted.

''It is a motivating religion,'' John Akbar said recently from his home in Seattle. ''Black people at the time were very aggressive and mostly against ourselves, so we embraced Islam because it lifts the morale of the black people. It taught us that nobody can say we are less than a man.''

Bilal changed the name of the couple's firstborn to Hasan Akbar. Hasan means handsome, a name she took from the imam at a local mosque. Akbar means greatest.

''He practiced his religion all the time,'' she recalls. ''He didn't hang around nobody or nothing like that. No bad company. He was in school all the time.'' After school, he routinely went to a mosque.

Bilal had five children with John Akbar, and then she was single again when John left for Dallas and a job as a tree surgeon. She also raised two of her sister's children. Bilal, now a grandmother, married several more times, and for a while took her children to Baton Rouge. But she returned to Los Angeles, not wanting them to adopt the slangy Southern accent she had acquired.

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