In my discussion with Jason Zengerle about Nidal Hasan’s killing of his fellow soldiers at Fort Hood, I insisted that “we need to know a little more than we do” before branding him a terrorist. Well, we still don’t know enough, and will certainly know more if and when Hasan goes to trial, but I think the latest reports on his contacts with Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-Aulaqi point toward a conclusion, which is that he was not a terrorist.
According to Washington Post reporter Spencer Hsu, Hasan, who had attended Aulaqi’s mosque eight years ago, reintroduced himself to the radical cleric a year ago, and had been engaged in an email correspondence with him. The precise details of their correspondence have not been publicly revealed, but the cleric’s message to his followers is known: in a message to his followers this July, the cleric blessed those who “attack government armies in the Muslim world.” He added, “Blessed are those who fight against them and blessed are those shuhada [martyrs] who are killed by them.”
Again, it’s not known whether Hasan saw himself following the cleric’s teachings, but it is very possible that he did see himself in that light, which is why he chose to kill his fellow soldiers rather than, say, randomly murdering shoppers at a mall. And in that case, he wouldn’t have been engaged in terrorism, which seeks primarily to sow fear among an adversary’s supporters rather than to inflict military casualties, but in what he saw as a direct act of war. He was on the battlefield, but he had decided to change sides. What’s the operative distinction between an act of war of this kind and an act of terror? It requires less planning; it may be even harder to detect or anticipate; and the means will probably not justify the ends.
Hasan could still have been motivated partly by personal resentment toward the military because of the way he saw himself as having been treated. And he could still be seen as deranged. After all, killing thirteen GIs at Fort Hood isn’t going to win the war for the Taliban. But if Hasan was acting in accordance with Aulaqi’s teachings, he was purposefully joining the war against the U.S. military.