Saturday, November 7, 2009

Army, FBI investigators search for motive behind deadly shooting rampage

Suspect, an Army psychiatrist, remains in hospital
By Greg Jaffe, William Branigin and Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, November 6, 2009; 6:32 PM

FORT HOOD, Tex. -- Investigators from the Army and the FBI searched for a motive behind Thursday's shooting rampage at this vast Army post and tried to determine whether anyone helped the suspected gunman, who remained on a ventilator Friday at a hospital where he was being treated for gunshot wounds.

As they awaited an opportunity to interview Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, who is accused of killing 13 people and wounding 30 others before being shot by a civilian police officer, authorities also faced questions about the strains that have beset the U.S. military amid protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The soldiers who were shot at a Fort Hood processing center were preparing for deployments to the two combat zones, as was Hasan, officials said.

"This was a kick in the gut, not only for the Fort Hood community but also for our entire Army," Gen. George Casey, the Army chief of staff, said after the post and all other U.S. military installations around the world observed a minute of silence for the victims of the shooting.

Army Secretary John M. McHugh, who visited Fort Hood with Casey on Friday, said investigators would also look into the effects of stress, including burgeoning rates of domestic violence and suicide in the military, and would try to piece together a picture of "what drives people to do desperate things."

Referring to Hasan, McHugh said, "We have to understand what caused that suspect to act in the way in which he did" so that such attacks can be prevented in the future.

But asked whether the Army, stretched thin by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is "too small" to handle its responsibilities, Casey said, "I don't think so. I think it's way too early to make a judgment that's that pronounced."

Adding to the stress on the military have been the multiple combat tours that many service members have been assigned since the United States intervened in Afghanistan in late 2001 and invaded Iraq in March 2003.

Hasan, 39, was awaiting a deployment to Afghanistan, Army officials said, even though he was deeply troubled by the U.S. military effort there, according to people who knew him. That turmoil was not apparent to others who worked with him, however. The Arlington-born officer, who was raised in Virginia and trained at military hospitals in Bethesda and the District, recently underwent a peer review in which his fellow doctors found no fault with the care he was providing.

"He was a dedicated, hard-working provider who did really care for his patients" said Col. Kimberly Kesling, the deputy commander for clinical services at Fort Hood. "Sometimes people have demons we don't know about and make bad choices. . . . People who take care of people with problems can develop problems of their own."

Col. John Rossi, a deputy commander at Fort Hood, declined at a news conference to speculate on possible motives for the attack inside the post's crowded Soldier Readiness Processing Center, believed to be the largest mass shooting ever to occur on a U.S. military installation.

Military officials said they believe Hasan, a mental health professional who was trained to treat soldiers suffering from trauma, opened fire with a pair of pistols -- one of them semiautomatic -- in the processing facility just after lunchtime.

Rossi said an investigation will determine how the shooter brought guns onto the post, where, like at all U.S. military installations, firearms are kept secured unless they are needed for training or security work. Soldiers and civilians are allowed to maintain privately owned weapons in accordance with local gun laws, Rossi said. But they must register those weapons on post.

Officials say they believe Hasan -- who reportedly lived off-post -- used his own personal handguns in the shooting. The military is trying to determine whether those guns were registered. Although "random checks" are performed on vehicles arriving at and departing from Fort Hood, Rossi said, soldiers aren't searched as they leave or enter the post.

Rossi said officials do not believe there were any additional people involved in planning or carrying out the rampage.

Asked if there were any other persons of interest in the shooting, Casey told reporters, "There is only one remaining suspect at this point." He did not elaborate.

Officials said they have not been able to interrogate Hasan -- a devout Muslim born to Palestinian immigrants and raised in Virginia -- because of his medical condition. They have not spoken to his relatives, either, Rossi said.

According to a federal sources, investigators seized Hasan's computer from his apartment in Killeen near Fort Hood and were performing routine tests on it. They were also looking into whether Hasan was the author of Internet postings about suicide bombings and other threats, including one that likened Islamic suicide bombers to U.S. soldiers who sacrifice their lives to save fellow soldiers and to Japanese kamikaze pilots during World War II.

Hasan was not the target of an existing law enforcement investigation but had come to the attention of authorities in part because of the Web postings, a federal source said.

The FBI dispatched an evidence response team to Texas, as well as its shooting reconstruction team and agents from San Antonio, Austin and Waco. The bureau's Washington field office has been interviewing Hasan's colleagues, neighbors and other contacts in the Washington area, and other agents were sent to Virginia Tech, Hasan's alma mater.

Authorities said they were far from establishing a motive and suggested that it could take some time, because they must track down all the witnesses to the shooting and confront possible challenges related to doctor-patient confidentiality and privacy rights. It will be a "methodical" investigation, a federal source said.

Colleagues and relatives have said Hasan opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and was upset about his looming deployment.

According to a classmate at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, where Hasan studied last year, he viewed the war on terrorism as "a war against Islam," the Associated Press reported. The agency quoted the classmate, Val Finnell, as saying Hasan told classmates he was "a Muslim first and an American second."

At the apartment complex where Hasan lived in Killeen, manager John Thompson said another soldier vandalized Hasan's car and tore off a bumper sticker that read "Allah is Love," prompting Hasan to file a complaint to police. The soldier had been in Iraq and was upset to learn that Hasan was Muslim, Thompson told the AP.

On Wednesday and Thursday, Hasan gave furniture, food, clothes and other belongings to his next-door neighbor, Patricia Villa, telling her that he was deploying to Afghanistan on Friday. He also gave Villa and other neighbors copies of the Koran.

Hours after Hasan handed Villa an air mattress and other items and offered her money to clean his apartment after he left, he allegedly opened fire on unarmed soldiers at the Fort Worth processing center.

The dead included 12 soldiers and one civilian, Army officials said. As of 7:30 a.m. Friday, 28 people remained hospitalized, apparently including Hasan. All 28 were in stable condition, and about half had undergone surgery, said Col. Steven Braverman.

President Obama on Friday ordered that all flags at federal buildings be flown at half-staff through Nov. 11, Veteran's Day, as a "modest tribute" to those who were injured or killed. "The entire nation is grieving right now for the men and women who came under attack yesterday," said Obama, who made a previously scheduled visit to Walter Reed Army medical Center in Washington Friday afternoon. "We honor their service; we stand in awe of their sacrifice, and we pray for the safety of those who fight and for the families of those who have fallen."

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Obama would attend a memorial service at Fort Hood once it is scheduled.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations moved quickly to call the attack "cowardly." The organization, an advocacy group for American Muslims, said it condemned the shooting "in the strongest terms possible."

"No political or religious ideology could ever excuse such wanton and indiscriminate violence," CAIR said in a statement. "The attack was particularly heinous in that it targeted the all-volunteer army that protects our nation."

Hasan graduated from Virginia Tech in 1995 and received a medical degree from the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda. He spent at least six years at Walter Reed, training as a psychiatrist, before moving to Fort Hood.

He had been a "very devout" worshiper at the Muslim Community Center in Silver Spring, attending prayers at least once a day, often in his Army fatigues, said Faizul Khan, a former imam there.

"To know something like this happened, I don't know what got into his mind," Khan said. "There was nothing extremist in his questions. He never showed any frustration. . . . He never showed any remorse or wish for vengeance on anybody."

A co-worker identified as Col. Terry Lee told Fox News that Hasan opposed the U.S. role in Iraq and Afghanistan and told others that "we should not be in the war in the first place." He said Hasan acknowledged that soldiers have a duty to follow the commander in chief's orders but was hoping that President Obama would order a pullout from the conflicts.

"When things weren't going that way," Lee said, "he became more agitated, more frustrated with the conflicts over there."

Obama promised to "get answers to every single question about this horrible incident." He offered his prayers to the wounded and the families of those killed, calling them "men and women who have made the selfless and courageous decision to risk -- and at times give -- their lives to protect the rest of us."

"It's difficult enough when we lose these brave Americans in battles overseas," Obama said. "It is horrifying that they should come under fire at an Army post on American soil."

In a statement issued by Nader Hasan, a cousin of Nidal Hasan, the Hasan family expressed "our most heartfelt sympathies" for those who had been killed and wounded.

"We are filled with grief for the families of today's victims," the statement said. "Our family loves America. We are proud of our country, and saddened by today's tragedy."

Thousands of soldiers have passed through the gates of Fort Hood on their way to Iraq and Afghanistan, and more than 500 have not come home. Post-combat stress has been an acknowledged problem on the post, and this year alone, 10 Fort Hood soldiers have committed suicide.

Lt. Gen. Rick Lynch, the former post commander, won praise for trying to reduce stress. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Army Times that "there's something going on at Hood that I think is extraordinary that we need to emulate until we find something better."

The post was locked down Thursday until about 9 p.m., and remains on heightened security alert, officials said. A day of mourning is being observed Friday, with large numbers of grief counselors and personnel available to those on the post.

"We will remember, in our thoughts and prayers, the victims," Rossi said.

The Fort Hood shooting follows a June incident outside a Little Rock military recruiting center in which one soldier was killed and another wounded. Authorities said Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad, who converted to Islam and changed his name as an adult, acted alone in the incident. He has pleaded not guilty.

Before the shooting, Muhammad traveled to Yemen, where he emerged on the radar of a Joint Terrorism Task Force. Local police said he was motivated in part by political and religious fervor.

The shootings at Fort Hood came 18 years after a massacre in a restaurant in nearby Killeen, where George Hennard used a pair of 9mm pistols to kill 22 people and wound 17 before using his last bullet on himself.

At the time, it was the deadliest mass shooting in the country, eclipsed in 2007 when 33 people were fatally shot at Virginia Tech.