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Fort Hood suspect's contact with cleric spelled trouble, experts say

Yemeni American Anwar al Awlaki's radical take on Islam has been connected to homegrown terrorist plots. Experts say their e-mails should have prompted a full investigation.

November 12, 2009|Sebastian Rotella and Josh Meyer

"It seems that the American investigators had difficulties detecting signs of worrisome conduct," Jean-Louis Bruguiere, a veteran French anti-terrorism judge, said in a telephone interview. "It may also be that, because of the respect for religion, and the excesses by the U.S. services in recent years, that today there's a tendency to be too prudent -- perhaps less vigilant."

Experts compare Awlaki's stature in the global extremist subculture to the notoriety of two London-based clerics: Abu Qatada and Abu Hamza al Masri.

Qatada, a Jordanian, and Masri, an Egyptian, rose to prominence in the late 1990s, radicalizing scores of militants and helping build Al Qaeda networks across Europe and the Muslim world. Qatada has been jailed pending deportation to Jordan; Hamza was convicted on terrorism charges in 2006.

Unlike the ideologues who instruct young followers to fight only in armed conflicts in Muslim lands, Awlaki appeals to fanatical militants because he preaches all-out global holy war, Kohlmann said.

"Hasan was looking at some of the exact same materials that many homegrown terrorists were looking at," he said. "Awlaki is preaching to a very narrow-minded group of people. A minority of a minority of a minority. . . . He says jihad is where you make it. Even if you are one man, living in a Western nation, it's your obligation to wage jihad."

Investigators said that Hasan and Awlaki did not appear to be close, although Hasan worshiped at the mosque in Falls Church, Va., where Awlaki was an imam in 2001. Awlaki went to London in 2002 and moved to Yemen in 2004.

Hasan appeared to be familiar with Awlaki's political views and religious teachings, which the imam updates frequently on his website, investigators said.

In recent years, Hasan expressed opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and spoke out against what he saw as inherent conflicts for U.S. Muslim troops fighting in Muslim nations.

An Awlaki posting from July appears to track closely with Hasan's views. Titled "Fighting Against Government Armies in the Muslim World," it was translated and released Wednesday by Kohlmann.

Awlaki wrote that the armies of the U.S. and its Western allies were "the defenders of apostasy in the Muslim world. They fight against Sharia [Islamic law] and kill the Muslims who attempt to bring it back."

Fighting those armies is therefore justified, Awlaki wrote, according to the translation.

Awlaki, who was born in New Mexico in 1971, has been on the U.S. radar screen for a decade or more.

FBI agents and other counter-terrorism officials have tried to interrogate him since he moved to Yemen. Awlaki was arrested by Yemeni authorities in 2006 and released in late 2007, according to news reports there.

In February, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III traveled to Yemen to argue for cooperation and access to some suspected Al Qaeda militants and influential supporters such as Awlaki, federal law enforcement officials said.

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sebastian.rotella@latimes.com

josh.meyer@latimes.com

Greg Miller in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.

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