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News, documents and analysis on violent extremism

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Was Nidal Hasan A Rational Actor?

As the hours of coverage mount, we're seeing more and more discussion of Maj. Nidal Hasan's connection to extremist imam Anwar Aulaqi, prior to his killing spree at Fort Hood last week. There's a fundamental question that comes out of that analysis, which I have not seen articulated yet.

Was Hasan acting rationally when he killed 13 people?

Culturally, we tend to view mass shootings as a manifestation of mental illness, in which someone's unfathomable disease prompts them to act in an inexplicable way.

But when you look at Anwar Aulaqi's role and his comments on the shootings, we have to question that assumption.

Nidal Hassan is a hero. He is a man of conscience who could not bear living the contradiction of being a Muslim and serving in an army that is fighting against his own people. This is a contradiction that many Muslims brush aside and just pretend that it doesn't exist. Any decent Muslim cannot live, understanding properly his duties towards his Creator and his fellow Muslims, and yet serve as a US soldier. The US is leading the war against terrorism which in reality is a war against Islam. Its army is directly invading two Muslim countries and indirectly occupying the rest through its stooges.

One can certainly disagree with this sentiment, and one can challenge its factual underpinnings. But within the factual underpinnings, the statement is rational, which is to say it's based on recognizable reasoning.

So the key question regarding Nidal Hasan is: Were his actions based on this kind of reasoning, or the result of a collapse of reasoning due to mental illness?

Certainly his lawyers will be considering this question. It's a standard question in murder cases and bears directly on the punishment a convicted murderer receives.

In this instance, there's also a broader problem, because if he was acting rationally, it was likely the result of radicalization. In other words, did Aulaqi or like-minded thinkers bring Hasan around to a worldview in which his actions are considered rational?

If Hasan was a radicalized rational actor, his actions stem from the worldview of Anwar Aulaqi. Without such a motive, we're left only with his desire to avoid deployment, and the truly rational decision based on that motive would have been to desert the Army without killing anyone.

If Hasan was rational, the case raises enormous concerns about the success of ideologues like Aulaqi. Because -- unlike mental illness -- ideology is contagious.

To some extent, of course, the point is moot. The media depiction is increasingly focused on Hasan's ideology. If those who share his ideological inclinations believe he was acting rationally, it will inspire imitators. But understanding if and how ideology influenced the initial act helps us understand how this worldview spreads, who is susceptible to its charms, and what factors cause ideology to transform into violent intent.

A radical-leaning English-language Islamic forum discussing Aulaqi and Hasan was heavily populated by people who found the shootings quite rational:

Despite his motives, Muslims all over the world are celebrating and they would've been happy even if a kafir did this. Thirteen less kuffar [infidels] who would otherwise quite possibly have raped your Muslim sisters and/or killed them and other Muslims. [...]

Imam Anwar Awlaki has spoken the truth again and the hypocrites have been exposed. May Allah preserve him and continue to make him a beacon of truth for this Ummah and a cancer against the Kuffar no matter how much they may dislike it. Ameen. [...]

my point was that, there lies a great disconnect between muslims and their actions and reactions as dictated by the media[.] the same type of attack that happens in afghanistan and iraq daily, and there are no condemnations[.] we dont get small biographies, photos, names, etc, we get a headline and we move on[.] here, an attack was made (whether he was sane or not, or whatever his motivation) and we have people clamoring over the fact that 13 innocent people were killed[.] i fail to see that in this story[.] and i am not talking about the kuffar and their responses, i can understand their responses[.] i am more concerned about the muslims and their responses [...]

When the other party has murdered millions of Muslims...(need I continue with this?) would it not be better, since one is not bound by any oath, treaty or covenant, to do what nidal did [instead of just leaving the Army]? Why waste a golden opportunity like this? [...]

Nidals "treachery" + attack = 13 less soldiers going out to kill more members of our ummah

Whether you like it or not, whether you agree with it or not, the concept of "13 less soldiers" fighting against those perceived as "our ummah (community)" is rational. It may be based on false assumptions or wrong facts or unattractive values, but it's a logical rationale that justifies the act. The fact that this particular audience would be as likely to cheer someone who opened fire in a mall is (somewhat) tangential to the point.

If the worldview and reasoning of Anwar Aulaqi is gaining traction in the United States, that's a real problem for law enforcement and intelligence officials. Aulaqi is an advocate of the radical Islamic version of "leaderless resistance" in which individuals and very small groups take action against perceived enemies independently. That's a very difficult problem in counterterrorism.

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INTELWIRE is a web site edited by J.M. Berger. a researcher, analyst and consultant covering extremism, with a special focus on extremist activities in the U.S. and extremist use of social media. He is a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution, Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, and author of the critically acclaimed Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, the only definitive history of the U.S. jihadist movement, and co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror with Jessica Stern.


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