x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

What made Major Hasan a killer?

Investigators try to discover why Nidal Malik Hasan went on a shooting spree that killed 13 people on a US army base in Texas.

A candlelight vigil is held for those killed and wounded by Major Nidal Malik Hasan.
A candlelight vigil is held for those killed and wounded by Major Nidal Malik Hasan.

President Barack Obama used his weekly radio address yesterday to try to calm the nation, amid unanswered questions about a deadly shooting attack by an American Muslim army psychiatrist that left 13 people dead and 30 wounded at an army base on Friday. Investigators were trying to discover whether Major Nidal Malik Hasan acted alone or was connected to a terrorist group when he opened fire at Fort Hood, a sprawling US army base in Texas.

From media interviews with family and friends, a picture emerged of Major Hasan, 39, as a lonely and unhappy individual but none of them could understand why he carried out his killing spree. He remained unconscious but in a stable condition on a ventilator in hospital after he was shot four times by police to stop his attack. Investigators said ballistics tests showed there was only one gunman and none of the victims was hit by bullets fired by police.

"We cannot fully know what leads a man to do such a thing," said Mr Obama, who used his address to stress the diversity of American soldiers. "They are Americans of every race, faith and station. They are Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus and non-believers," he said. "They are descendants of immigrants and immigrants themselves. They reflect the diversity that makes this America. "But what they share is a patriotism like no other."

Major Hassan, a devout Muslim who was deeply troubled by the US-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, shouted "Allah Akbar" or "God is Great" just before the shooting, Chuck Medley, Fort Hood's director of emergency services, told the news agency service Reuters. Friends and family said Major Hassan was upset about his imminent deployment to Afghanistan to help soldiers combat stress. "We've known over the last five years that was probably his worst nightmare," said Nader Hassan, a cousin.

Major Hassan also complained of harassment in the army because of his faith. Before being transferred to Fort Hood earlier this year, he counselled severely wounded soldiers at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC. There are only 1,977 soldiers in the active-duty army who identify themselves as Muslims, out of a total of 553,000 active-duty troops, according to the service. Val Finnell, a former classmate, said Major Hasan called the Bush administration's war on terrorism "a war against Islam".

"He was very vocal about the war, very upfront about being a Muslim first and an American second," Mr Finnell, 41, a doctor in Los Angeles, told the Bloomberg news agency. "He was always concerned that Muslims in the military were being persecuted." American Muslim groups rushed to condemn the attack but there were widespread fears of a backlash. Gen George Casey, the army chief of staff, sent a directive to commanders urging them to keep their soldiers informed and to avoid judgment.

Major Hasan was born in Arlington County, Virginia. His parents, both now dead, ran a bar and grill and did not want him to join the army. He graduated as a biochemistry major from Virginia Tech with honours in 1995 before attending the Bethesda campus of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences. He graduated as a medical doctor in 2003 and served his internship and psychiatry residence at Walter Reed.

He returned to the Bethesda university in 2007, where he completed a disaster and military psychiatry fellowship in June, before being transferred to Fort Hood. Relatives in Al Bireh, near Ramallah in the West Bank, said Major Hasan told the army of his unhappiness. "He told [them] that as a Muslim committed to his prayers, he was discriminated against and not treated as is fitting for an officer and American," said Mohammed Malik Hasan, 24, a cousin. "He hired a lawyer to get him a discharge."

Mr Hasan said he was shocked by the attack. "I was surprised, honestly, because the guy and his brothers are so calm and he, as I know, loves his work." He said Major Hasan and his two brothers became more religious after their father died in 1998 and mother's death in 2001. But fellow worshippers at mosques in Texas, Maryland and Virginia attended by Major Hasan said they never heard him express extremist views. He was said to be generous in fulfilling his duties of zakat, or charitable giving, and was keen to find a pious wife.

But his actions in recent days appeared to show a certain premeditation although it was unclear whether this was to do with the attack or his deployment. He gave away belongings including a Quran, vegetables, a mattress and clothing and told Patricia Villa, his neighbour: "I'm not going to need them." The attack renewed concern about the military's overburdened healthcare system. Top health policy positions in the Pentagon are unfilled and the system remains stretched as the country fights two wars.

Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Texas senator, said army officials were checking procedures supposed to deal with people suffering from mental-health problems. "Was enough done?" she said. "I don't think that anyone would have ever expected a psychiatrist trained to help others' mental health would be the one who would go off himself, unless there's more to it and that's what they're looking for." sdevi@thenational.ae