Last week, US military psychiatrist Nidal Malik Hasan took the disastrous step of opening fire with a handgun on Army colleagues at Fort Hood, Texas, killing 13 and injuring 30 more. Quite rightly, the world has been wondering how exactly this came to pass. Was he, for example, a radicalised Islamist, or did he just ‘flip’ as a result of factors unrelated to the US ‘war on terror’? One issue that has inevitably arisen is whether the internet might have played a role in his decision-making prior to the shootings.
The day after the events at Fort Hood, Associated Press reported that Hasan was on law enforcement’s radar six months ago as a result of internet postings that ‘discussed suicide bombings and other threats’. The Los Angeles Times reportedthat this comment―left on online document sharing site Scribd under the name ‘NidalHasan’ on 20 May 2009―could have been Maj. Hasan.
As one of the other Scribd users comments, a quick Google reveals multiple Nidal Hasans on the internet, and there is no evidence they are one and the same. What none of the news agencies reported is that ‘NidalHasan‘ left this single comment in response to an Islamist tract on suicide bombing but that it elicited no other comments or discussion until after his death when, presumably, there were a lot of people Googling multiple variations of his name. This user also did not upload documents to the site and cannot be considered―under that moniker at least―to have been very active at all.
The FBI (presumably) did not open a case on this or other ‘Nidal Hasan’ internet activity, so if he was ‘under suspicion’ it was probably a pretty thin file at that time. After the events of 5 November, a preliminary forensic search of Hasan’s computer showed that he ‘visited Web sites promoting radical Islamic views, but investigators have not found any e-mail communications with outside facilitators or known terrorists.’ Officials therefore tentatively concluded that he was working alone. Subsequent reports that he attended the same mosque as two of the 9/11 hijackers mean that the default theory will probably be that he was at least influenced, if not radicalised, as a result of exposure to individuals like this and the mosque’s ‘radical imam’.
Investigations are ongoing and it is far too early to tell what the role of the internet may have been in causing an ostensibly peaceable medical man to become a violent killer. It seems likely that whatever his online activities in life, the internet will remember him in other ways.
Researchers report that the jihadisphere has been alive with praise for the man, including an approving epitaph from radical Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and support from al-Awlaki’s followers. More details will doubtless emerge of the pyjamahideen’s predictable transformation of Hasan from American army officer to jihadi hero and, if found guilty, shahid. In the meantime, it seems that Hasan’s internet footprint will be substantially greater as a result of other people’s online actions than his own.