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Spotting a red flag

Mark Mardell | 03:51 UK time, Tuesday, 10 November 2009

The FBI is defending itself against accusations that it should have spotted that the man accused of the Fort Hood shootings had contacts with an advocate of terrorism. One TV network and several newspapers have reported that Nidal Malik Hasan had a series of e-mail contacts with an imam who preaches violent jihad and has links to al-Qaeda. Anwar al-Awlaki is an American citizen who now lives in Yemen. After the shootings he wrote on his website, now not accessible, that Hasan was "a hero" and asked of the shootings "How can anyone doubt the virtue of what has been done?"

Now the FBI won't confirm the two men had been in touch but they do say that Major Hasan came to the attention of a joint terrorism task force because of e-mail contacts with an unnamed individual. They say that there were between 10 and 20 e-mails, and they were consistent with the major's research (he is a psychiatrist) or of a social nature or were seeking religious guidence. A senior official said they raised no "red flag" and their "general tenor was benign".

They say there is no indication that the major was part of any broader terrorist plot. The senate committee on homeland security will hold an investigation into whether this was a terrorist attack. This is bound to depend on philosophical, political and legal definitions of "terrorism" and well as medical ones of sanity. Some will feel that is hardly the point.

If a soldier, a Muslim unhappy about waging war on other Muslims, gets in touch with a man well-known for advocating terrorism, shouldn't that "raise a red flag"? What do you think?


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