09 November 2009

The Radicalization of Nidal Hasan

Thanks to everyone for the comments in reply to my post about Nidal Hasan. Also, many thanks to Dan for his insightful analysis and proposed solution(s) for identifying potential violent jihadist extremists.

I wanted to briefly clarify the meaning behind the title of my last post. When I asked whether Nidal Hasan was "the new face of AQ," I meant it as a question/hypothesis - not a statement of fact. As more information is made available to the public, we are able to get a more rich understanding of the mindset of Nidal Hasan leading up to his horrific attack. Ultimately, there were a multitude of factors that contributed to his radicalization. However, I think that as we continue to learn more, we will see that Nidal Hasan is another example of what seems to be an increasing threat: the "homegrown, lone-wolf" terrorist. While its likely that Hasan acted alone, I argue that he was ultimately inspired by AQ's propaganda message.

Here's what I mean by this: Al Qaeda continues to morph and adapt to our targeting methodologies. As we have pressured the traditional core individual leaders of AQ (what some refer to as "AQ central"), they have adopted two additional lines of operation to allow them to continue (and even expand) their operations: 1) Partnerships with several traditionally "regional" extremist groups who have begun to co-opt the AQ global message (i.e. Shabaab in Somalia, the former GPSC in Algeria - now AQIM); 2) An increasingly sophisticated and capable media/IO wing that allows for the radicalization of individuals spread across the globe.

The videos and discussions on jihadist forums combined with radical sermons preached at certain mosques (including some in the US) tend to appeal to those who are feeling isolated, insecure, upset/angry, and powerless - just as Hasan was. A must-read article in Sunday's Telegraph sheds some more light on this, explaining that Hasan attended a particular mosque in Virginia in 2001 at the same time as three of the 9/11 bombers and had contact with a known AQ-sympathetic imam there (Anwar al Awlaki). The article also highlights the difficulty that Hasan had after the deaths of his parents in 1998 and 2001 and his failed attempts to find a wife after several years of searching (the shame involved with not finding a wife for a Muslim male is very significant and likely contributed to his frustrations). All of these details begin to line up and seem to be critical pieces in the puzzle that will explain how Hasan was transformed from a well-intentioned medical student to a crazed gunmen shouting "Allahu Akbar" while mowing down his fellow soldiers.

While some may feel that I'm going too far with this assertion, I still argue that the actions of Nidal Hassan are in fact representative of the newly-decentralized "Al Qaeda brand" - able to inspire violence through an extremely appealing marketing campaign aimed at disillusioned Muslims across the globe. This poses a serious threat that we must be able to defend against - while still carefully balancing the civil liberties of our own citizens. Not an easy task...

**Update: Evan Kohlmann at the Counterterrorism Blog has some great coverage of Anwar al Awlaki and his response to the shootings at Ft. Hood here and here. On his blog, al Awlaki praises Nidal Hassan as a "hero." Read the full, translated text of the blog here (courtesy of the NEFA Foundation).


  1. Great post. Sort of fits in with what I read over at the ICSR blog. I read he tried to link up with AQ, so that supports your analysis. And also tips more in Sageman's Learless Jihad direction...


  2. If he was inspired by militant religious rhetoric then I am not so certain how dangerous this is. Obviously a soldier influenced this way is a bad thing, but clearly it is very unlikely to occur or it would have happened on a far greater scale already. Also, the damage from this was very low compared to what he was capable of doing. I wonder exactly how much planning went into it considering that I with my poor knowledge of medicine can think up four different ways of committing terrorist attacks.

  3. Pat et al,

    First off, congratulations on a great blog. Second, excellent thought post on the tragedy at Fort Hood.

    In my own investigations in my little AOR in Iraq and subsequent academic studies into martyrdom, I keep coming back to a central point- you can never really understand what is going on in someone else's head.

    As we gather evidence, we'll probably find factors of emotional instability and religious radicalization, but we'll probably never know the trigger that sent him off the reservation. Sociologists and psychologists bang their heads against the wall debating these things.


  4. Please see the update I added to the above post and check out the Counterterrorism Blog's great coverage of potential links between Hasan-Awlaki-AQ.

    Also, the Washington Post has a good article summarizing the story here: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/11/08/AR2009110818405.html


  5. Great reference to Sageman's work "Leaderless Jihad," which definitely is applicable in this conversation. You can read more about his book at: http://www.upenn.edu/pennpress/book/14390.html

  6. ABC News' Brian Ross has a story reporting that, "U.S. intelligence agencies were aware months ago that Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan was attempting to make contact with people associated with al Qaeda, two American officials briefed on classified material in the case told ABC News."

    Still not sure if there was any contact back or not (and if so, at what level), but interesting nonetheless. To me, it's clear that Nidal Hasan was reaching out to other extremists (both physically and in cyberspace) as long as several months ago.

    Check out Jarret Brachman's blog (http://jarretbrachman.net), where he examines the latest reactions from jihadists across the Internet. Brachman is a well-respected scholar affiliated with West Point's CTC and he offers some great insight.