Jihad in the Workplace: Looking Back on the Fort Hood Shooting
Death on Base: The Fort Hoot Massacre, by Anita Belles Porterfield and John Porterfield (University of North Texas Press, 2015).
The November 2009 shooting at Fort Hood remains the most egregious example of homegrown jihadist terrorism in the United States. This is not only due to the death toll, but also because the perpetrator, Nidal Malik Hasan, was a serving member of the U.S. military and his victims were his fellow soldiers. His attack continues to feed controversy to this day. The reasons why Hasan killed 13 people and wounded another 30 in his shooting spree are complex, and we may never fully understand how various factors combined to create this mass killer, but a new book, Death on Base, certainly helps to fill in some of the blanks.
While in the last few years our attention has shifted to the flow of Western Muslims joining the self-proclaimed Islamic State, in-depth investigations of people who have committed violent acts in their homelands and in the name of Islam remain relevant. They help us to understand processes which continue to have as significant a bearing on foreign fighters as they do on homegrown terrorists. While the Islamic State has grabbed the headlines, the decentralized nature of the terrorist threat to the West remains as it was after Fort Hood: future attacks are likely to be undertaken by people inspired by the global jihad movement, but with no formal connections to overseas jihadist networks.
In exploring the background and path toward radicalization of this U.S. Army psychiatrist-turned-terrorist, the book’s authors find a number of similarities with other cases of mass shootings in the United States, in particular workplace related massacres, a category into which they seem eager to place Hasan’s attack. The U.S. government controversially chose to categorize Hasan’s actions in the same way, ignoring the fact that he was acting in accordance with a political program being pursued in various different ways around the world by a religious movement of which he claimed membership. However, for the authors, jihad and workplace violence are not mutually exclusive explanations. The Ft. Hood attack was, in their words, “a politically motivated act…also fueled by rage.”
Of course, one cannot ignore the reports from Hasan’s colleagues and superiors about his conduct throughout his career. While undertaking his residency at the Walter Reed Army Medical Centre in 2003, he became known for his anti-American rants and calls for his colleagues to turn to Islam. It was also during this time that he applied for early release from the military as a conscientious objector. By this point, he had already begun to see the world in the simplistic terms required by global jihadists, perceiving the United States as waging war on the global Muslim population, or ummah. His request was denied, giving Hasan his first of many work-based grievances. During his short career as a military psychiatrist which began in Fort Hood in the summer of 2009, Hasan’s record was distinctly unimpressive. Colleagues and superiors recollect an awkward and lonely man who showed very little interest in his work and performed only just well enough to keep his head above the water.
Like other mass killers who went “postal,” as well as many homegrown jihadists, Hasan was going through a number of personal struggles over a long period of time. He was failing miserably in his efforts to find a wife, despite regularly asking around his local Islamic center for suggestions. Instead, he found some measure of solace in the embrace of exotic dancers at the strip club down the road from the base. It was, however, the loss of his parents that had the most traumatic effect on Hasan and may have served as a catalyst for his newfound interest in Islam, which had played only a very minor role in his life up until then. His father died in 1998 and four months following his mother’s death in 2001, 19 Muslim men carried out the single biggest terrorist attack in history. The 9/11 attacks, and all that immediately followed, opened up an entirely new world which, combined with his recent trauma, made Hasan begin to question his own identity as an American Muslim soldier, one he had held since he had enlisted in the Army straight out of high school in 1988.
Death on Base includes a number interesting vignettes, including a description of a meeting with Hasan from the clerk at “Guns Galore” in Kileen, Texas, where Hasan bought the FN Five-Seven handgun he would later use in his attack. In an episode which gives us a glimpse of Hasan’s obsessive nature, the clerk tells how the Army major videotaped his demonstration of the gun for later study: “I don’t want to use a term like egghead but when you have somebody who has absolutely no experience with something and decides to get into it, they’re immediately over their head and they do things to try and catch up.”
Indeed, this description also fits Hasan’s engagement with Islam – he did not have a religious upbringing, and only began attending the mosque much later in life. His attack can in some ways be seen as an attempt to “catch up” with his fellow holy warriors with whom he had begun to identify. In this scramble to make up for his perceived failings as a Muslim, he became heavily reliant on the teachings of a preacher he had first come across in 2001 as a medical student, when he first started attending the Dar al-Hijrah mosque in Falls Church, Virginia: Anwar al-Awlaki.
The role of religion, specifically Islam, in terrorism remains a difficult subject to broach. As was pointed out recently by Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz (who have done a good job of helping kick-start a crucial debate about this), many avoid discussing the link between the two simply in order to avoid all the hassle and accusations that often follow. Thankfully, the authors of this book appear immune to this brand of political correctness, often alluding to Hasan’s religious devotion as one of the key factors in his transformation into a killer. They concede that Hasan departed from most other American mass killers in that he acted out of “an ideological pre-occupation with Islam and an irrational obsession with saving Muslims by waging his own jihad against the American military.”
The facts of Nidal Hasan’s case help to inform this debate. The Islam which Hasan embraced is not the Islam of the vast majority of the world’s Muslims, but it certainly is a version of Islam which, due to a number of factors, he decided to embrace. There is no reason to doubt that Hasan’s desire to practice the “correct Islam” was sincere, and among his biggest ideological influences was Awlaki, a preacher he came to see as the legitimate voice of his faith. Thus, this was not a belief system which Hasan cooked up all on his own, as is often the case with other disgruntled mass shooters. Rather, it is an interpretation of Islam which has a strong intellectual and scholarly backing and which has been made more accessible and relevant to Western Muslims over the last decade and a half.
We are told how, when Hasan was in the midst of his identity crisis, he began email correspondence with Awlaki in late 2008. His consumption of Awlaki’s work from this period onwards helped to answer his questions about how he should come to terms with his situation. During this time, Awlaki had been working hard to convince Western Muslims that there was a U.S.-led “war on Islam,” bringing the threat right to their doorsteps while also tailoring key elements of jihadist doctrine so that it resonated with his audience. Combined with this doctrinal focus was the creation and promotion of a collective identity which took advantage of many Western Muslims’ desire to both follow the correct religious creed, and act in defense of the ummah. This identity, according to global jihadists, is rooted in the early history of Islam, and claims to mirror that of Mohammed and his followers. In his talks, Awlaki would regularly point out that Mohammed had lived in a time during which Islam was under great threat, and in some cases he reacted with violence, killing his enemies. Islam, Awlaki reasoned, is under threat today in much the same way it was then, and in making this point he also posed a simple (and simplistic) question: How could Western Muslims live peacefully in a society that was destroying Islam and ignore the way in which the founder of their religion reacted in the same circumstances?
Hasan’s first email to Awlaki was a question relating to the case of Hasan Akbar, a Muslim-American soldier who during the initial phases of the 2003 invasion of Iraq killed two fellow soldiers in an attack on his camp in Kuwait. Akbar’s understanding of his Islamic identity and religion led him to perceive an unbearable hypocrisy between being Muslim and serving in the U.S. military. This could only be redressed, as he saw it, through the use of violence. Indeed, his case may have been an important inspiration for Nidal Hasan’s own decisions. The authors of Death on Base tell us of Hasan’s obsession with Akbar and his motivations. Hasan asked Awlaki about the Islamic legitimacy of Akbar’s actions, perhaps already considering a similar action himself were it to be sanctioned by a legitimate authority.
The content of Hasan’s various emails to Awlaki demonstrate how his religious devotion continued to grow, with the increased inclusion of lengthy tracts about the afterlife and the benefits Muslims would receive if they helped the cause of the ummah. His messages also reveal a man whose main priority had now become to better understand his duties as a Muslim, and to behave in such a way as to please God and guarantee himself a place in heaven:
In regards to pleasing Allah I, with his mercy, am already involved in giving to the poor…Whether its time or money I truly believe Allah gives it all back and more. My goal is Jannat firdous [heaven] and I praise and thank Allah for giving me the ability to strive.
Thus, when analyzing Hasan’s gradual transformation, we see a confluence of personal trauma, professional struggles and a convincing political-religious ideology presented by a charismatic leadership figure. The final straw for Hasan, according to the authors, was in mid-October 2009 when his commanding officer at Fort Hood informed him that he would be shipping out to Afghanistan in two months . The confrontation which ensued between them reduced Hasan to tears as he began to realize, as the authors put it, that his “worst nightmare had become a reality”: he was being forced to take part in the global aggression against Muslims. It was perhaps at this moment that his unhappiness at work and his increasingly jihadist worldview became fused in a way which he could no longer ignore, and within weeks he would react in the most extreme possible way.
In a statement Hasan gave on the first day of his trial, he admitted to being the shooter, and explained his actions in the following terms:
The evidence will show I was on the wrong side. The evidence will also show that I then switched sides. The evidence will show we Mujahideen are imperfect soldiers trying to establish a perfect religion in the land of the supreme God.
Looking at this and other statements made by Hasan as part of his defence, it is notable that he saw no need to declare himself as a member of any specific organisation. Rather, he had become precisely what Awlaki aimed to create through his work: a self-identified member of the global jihad movement who took it upon himself to contribute to the struggle in the most effective way at his disposal. He had accepted the rigid and simplistic worldwide dichotomy between Muslims and their enemies espoused by the ideology and had fully adopted the required militant transnational collective identity. In doing so, Hasan became among the first of a growing list of people inspired to act by Awlaki’s work, including Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab who a month later would unsuccessfully attempt to detonate a bomb sewn into his underwear on a Northwest Airlines flight bound for Detroit.
If we are to continue developing our understanding of how and why Western Muslims are embracing global jihadism, we will need more books like this. The authors – married writing duo Anita Belles and John Porterfield – are not experts in the field, and those looking for in-depth academic insights into the radicalization process will be left disappointed. However, this is not to disparage the book’s utility.
All cases of radicalization, while sharing a number of crucial traits, are unique and therefore require their own in-depth and multifaceted investigations. The Hasan case also shows us the impact of the effective strategic dissemination of jihadist ideology pioneered, in part, by Awlaki. This continues today, albeit via online Islamic State recruiters, and remains something to which both our governments and civil societies have not yet convincingly responded.
Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens, PhD, is a Lecturer at Kings College London and Head of Research at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR). Follow him on Twitter: @amhitchens.