After the worst military base massacre in U.S. history, officials acknowledged that they failed to "connect the dots" – the shooter had been corresponding with an imam tied to al-Qaeda and had condemned the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as a war against Islam.
But Fort Hood gunman Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan wasn't the only one working on a Texas Army base the day of the shooting who had links to radical Islamists.
At Fort Bliss, an experienced military trainer was teaching soldiers about his Muslim faith. He, too, had denounced government counterterrorism efforts, and public records show he and some of his closest associates had ties to terrorism suspects.
But when The Dallas Morning News first inquired about the instructor, Louay Safi, military officials praised him. Only later did they say that Safi had been suspended from working on military bases pending a continuing criminal inquiry.
The Safi affair reveals the deep divisions within the U.S. government over how to combat terrorism and over what constitutes moderate Islam.
Some believe insight into Islamist thinking can be gained only by engaging a wide range of people in North America's close-knit Muslim community, where leaders may well have ties to extremists – ties that do not necessarily signal alliances or support. Others argue that engagement should be limited or shunned to avoid legitimizing radicals or embarrassing the government.
Safi is a senior official of the Islamic Society of North America, the country's largest Muslim organization. ISNA has been consulted for years by Washington and is described as a partner in the fight against terrorism. In addition to serving as ISNA's communications director, Safi runs its program certifying Muslim chaplains for work in the U.S. military and prison system. He publicly denounces terrorism and advocates peace.
Safi was also named by government prosecutors as an unindicted co-conspirator in one terrorism case in 2005. His last two employers were implicated in other government terrorism investigations while he worked for them. He was never charged, nor included among the targets of those investigations.
But Safi has called the widespread raids on Muslim organizations after 9/11 "a campaign against Islam" – a term that 9/11 Commission director Philip Zelikow says is part of "the jihadi narrative."
Safi has also complained that Muslims are treated differently from Christians and Jews when they do wrong. They are unfairly identified by and questioned about their religion, he says, treatment that can lead to isolation and aggression.
"The extremist ideology responsible for violent outbursts is often rooted in the systematic demonization of marginalized groups," Safi said in an Internet posting after the Fort Hood shooting.
Some view Safi's rhetoric as incendiary.
Zuhdi Jasser is a Navy veteran who founded the American Islamic Forum for Democracy and has spoken publicly about the dangers of politicizing Islam. He said Safi's "separatist mindset of the world against Muslims" is the "mindset that created Hasan."
Safi would not answer most questions from The News. But in a brief interview, he said the legal assaults on him and his associates even as Washington sought their advice represented the government's divided approach to Islam.
"There are those who are prejudiced and would like to deny Muslims their rightful place in this country," Safi said, "and there are people who are more open-minded. It's as simple as that."
Safi's case, however, is anything but simple. It illustrates not only the divisions in dealing with Islam but also the difficulty in knowing which dots to connect.
"You have a schizophrenic government and a schizophrenic institution," Zelikow said, referring to ISNA. "The schizophrenia cuts right into how the government views the whole Fort Hood affair. We don't know whether to treat him [Hasan] as part of an international conspiracy or as a lone wolf who happened to have gotten solace from a radical imam."
Safi, a 54-year-old native of Syria, is a military subcontractor who has lectured on Islam for the Army since 2005. His relationship with the Pentagon began a year earlier, when he became ISNA's leadership development director, providing Muslim chaplains the religious endorsement they need to work in the military and prison system.
He is one of seven lecturers in the Army's Islamic education program, overseen by the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. Much of the work is contracted out to Huntsville, Ala.-based Camber Corp., the privately held firm that hired Safi.
The training on Islam is part of a broader military educational program for which Camber is paid about $17.7 million annually, Navy Commander Brenda Malone said. Camber spokeswoman Rivka Tadjer declined to comment, citing instruction from the military.
One lecturer not affiliated with Camber who has worked alongside Safi is Michael Rubin, resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., and a staunch ally of Israel.
Safi's presentations stick to religious theory and do little to prepare deploying soldiers for how extremists exploit Islam, said Rubin, an Iran expert who also lectures at the naval school. "There's an element of excusing rather than explaining," Rubin told The News.
Military officials would not identify the five other trainers. They said federal privacy law forbids naming the subcontractors without their consent, which they did not give.
One trainer who has previously identified himself publicly is Yahya Hendi, a chaplain at the National Naval Medical Center near Washington. He serves with Safi on ISNA's chaplaincy board and sits on the ISNA-affiliated Fiqh Council of North America, which issues Islamic legal decrees. He did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.
Investigators came across Safi at least 15 years ago during a government investigation into terrorism financing. Later, after he began working at ISNA, the group was named an unindicted co-conspirator in the prosecution of Richardson-based Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development. It was the government's largest terrorism financing case and ended in 2008 with convictions against senior Holy Land leaders.
Yet U.S. military leaders seemed unconcerned when first questioned about Safi.
"He has not been the subject of any indictment," Fort Hood spokesman Tyler Broadway told The News in a Dec. 9 e-mail. "His presentations have always [met] the high standards expected."
In January, military officials told the newspaper that Safi was under investigation and that his lectures had been suspended. The investigation, begun by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, was recently referred to the Army, said Ed Buice, an NCIS spokesman. He would not elaborate, but other military officials said the inquiry began after a Dec. 3 complaint about ISNA. The complaint came in as Safi concluded three days of lectures at Fort Hood, which is still traumatized by the Nov. 5 massacre.
Thirteen members of Congress, all conservative Republicans, wrote to Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Dec. 17 asking him to halt military base lectures by anyone affiliated with ISNA. Gates did not respond, said Rep. Sue Myrick of North Carolina.
Myrick, who founded the congressional Anti-Terrorism Caucus, co-signed a similar letter during the Bush administration, asking the Justice Department not to co-sponsor an ISNA event. There was no response then, either.
"We never get an explanation for the strategy," she said. "They just ignore us."
Even counterterrorism experts differ on what the government's strategy should be and how much nuance is necessary for success.
Paul Pillar, a retired CIA expert on terrorism and the Middle East, said The News' findings illustrate "how hard it is to come up with some person or organization that is Muslim in North America that does not have some kind of associations or links that when we looked into them we'd say, 'Oops, that gives us pause.' "
Not everyone with such associations is "unsavory," Pillar stressed. He said he was unfamiliar with Safi and ISNA.
Christopher Hamilton, a former FBI counterterrorism expert who oversaw intelligence-gathering on Palestinian and state-sponsored terrorism matters, advocates limited engagement.
"You can't not have contact with them," he said of ISNA, but "keep them at arm's length." Do not involve them in military and law-enforcement training, he added.
The Pentagon has acknowledged that not enough attention was paid to the warning signs evidenced by Hasan's rhetoric and connections before the shooting. Hasan, an Army psychiatrist, is accused of murdering 13 people and is awaiting a military trial.
"It is clear that as a department we have not done enough to adapt to the evolving internal security threat," the defense secretary said Jan. 15 in presenting an investigative report on the Fort Hood violence.
The report did not examine policies concerning contractors, but its authors said, "We strongly recommend that they be addressed in a future review." They also warned that military standards for those who certify chaplains may be too lax and allow "improper influence by individuals with a propensity toward violence."
Defense officials would not say whether the recommendation and warning related to Safi and ISNA. They were not named in the "Lessons from Fort Hood" report.
Safi came to law enforcement's attention in 1995 when he telephoned Sami al-Arian, a terrorism suspect who was teaching computer science at the University of South Florida. At the time, Safi was a political science professor at an Islamic university in Malaysia, according to his resume.
Federal agents listened in as the two men mocked a broad terrorist-financing ban that President Bill Clinton had just announced. A partially redacted transcript of their wiretapped phone conversation, included in court records, also shows them agreeing that Jews controlled the U.S. government.
"My brother, it is a war, a war waged by the Zionists," al-Arian said, according to the transcript. "They are controlling the White House and the State Department."
Clinton "just wants to please them," Safi responded. "Nobody understands these things in America."
In 2003, the Justice Department formally accused al-Arian, a Kuwait-born Palestinian, of financially supporting a Palestinian terrorist group. Two years later, jurors acquitted him on eight charges but couldn't reach a verdict on nine others. In a subsequent deal with prosecutors, al-Arian pleaded guilty to one charge of conspiring to support a terrorist group and was sentenced to nearly five years in prison.
Safi was named an unindicted co-conspirator during al-Arian's trial. Nothing in the public record beyond the intercepted call links him to the al-Arian case.
Prosecutors use the unindicted co-conspirator designation for several reasons, including cases in which there is insufficient evidence to convict. The label also allows prosecutors to introduce evidence that would otherwise be blocked by rules against hearsay. Those rules don't apply to statements made by co-conspirators.
Civil libertarians complain that the practice is abusive because the named person isn't allowed a defense.
Safi agreed, in a recent Internet posting that protested ISNA's designation as an unindicted co-conspirator in the Holy Land case.
"The 'unindicted coconspirator' designation has been exploited by Muslim bashers," Safi wrote, "with the hope that this cheap and abusive tactic would frighten the public."
Safi left Malaysia and moved in the late 1990s to the Washington area, where he became research director at the International Institute of Islamic Thought. It, like his previous employer, says it seeks to achieve the "Islamization of knowledge."
In early 2002, federal agents investigating terrorism-financing allegations raided the institute and dozens of related businesses, tax-exempt groups and individuals' homes in the northern Virginia suburbs of Washington. A former ISNA leader targeted in the raids was later convicted on a terrorism-related charge and imprisoned.
Court records show that the institute had funded alleged front groups formed by al-Arian, and that a man who had run one of those groups worked with Safi at the institute. Al-Arian has since been released from prison but still faces criminal contempt charges for refusing to testify about the institute before a grand jury.
About a month after the raids, the head imam of one of the most prominent mosques in the United States quit. Anwar al-Awlaki had been repeatedly questioned by the FBI about his ties to some of the 9/11 hijackers, who had attended his Dar al-Hijrah mosque in northern Virginia. The mosque is owned by an ISNA-related trust, and ISNA leaders have served on its board of directors. But the U.S.-born imam was never charged with a crime and later moved to his parents' native Yemen.
In late 2008, a top U.S. official called al-Awlaki an "example of al-Qaeda reach" into the United States. Two months later, the Fort Hood gunman began corresponding with the imam. The FBI intercepted their e-mails but decided they were harmless.
Al-Awlaki and other al-Qaeda operatives were targeted by Yemeni airstrikes on Dec. 24, and he is suspected of aiding the Dec. 25 airline-bombing attempt near Detroit.
Zelikow, the 9/11 Commission director, told The News that al-Awlaki was one of the "biggest loose threads" of the 9/11 investigation.
Over the years, it has affiliated with several other groups. ISNA's Web site lists the North American Islamic Trust, which claims to hold title to about 300 mosques and schools, as a "constituent organization."
Court records show ISNA sent large sums of money to the Holy Land Foundation, which supported the Palestinian militant group Hamas. The transactions occurred in the late 1980s and were legal – it wasn't until 1995 that the U.S. designated Hamas a terrorist organization for its sponsorship of suicide bombings against Israel.
Holy Land continued to aid Hamas, leading prosecutors to file terrorism-related charges against foundation officials. Prosecutors put ISNA on a long list of unindicted co-conspirators, contending it was among groups that "are and/or were members of the US Muslim Brotherhood."
The Brotherhood aimed to take over the United States, according to a document from the group used as evidence in the Holy Land trial.
Brotherhood members "must understand that their work in America is a kind of grand Jihad in eliminating and destroying the Western civilization from within," and they "must possess a mastery of the art of 'coalitions,' the art of 'absorption' and the principles of 'cooperation,' " the 1991 document said.
Hamilton, the former FBI counterterrorism expert, said that document reflects ISNA's current thinking. "They're trying to portray themselves as moderate in the West when they are not," Hamilton said, referring to ISNA and several other large Muslim groups. "Too often we're finding people connected to them doing bad things."
"You can't prove they're bad guys," he added. "Morally they are culpable."
It's unclear whether the brotherhood is active today in the United States, but it remains a potent force in Muslim-majority countries. Its leaders, based in Egypt, describe themselves as nonviolent, pro-democracy moderates.
ISNA has fought in court, unsuccessfully, to have its name removed from the unindicted co-conspirators list, arguing that the designation violates its constitutional rights.
Kathy Colvin, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney's office in Dallas, would not say whether the government believed ISNA was still active in the brotherhood. Nor would she answer any other questions about the co-conspirators list.
Safi has described the 1991 document as a "fantasy" that his organization does not share.
"ISNA is not now nor has it ever been subject to the control of any other domestic or international organizations including the Muslim Brotherhood," says a 2007 statement posted on the organization's Web site. "ISNA was founded by Muslims in North America for the purpose of establishing an open, pluralistic platform for presenting Islam, supporting Muslim communities, developing educational, social and outreach programs and fostering good relations with other religious communities, civic and service organizations and all levels of government."
For years, ISNA has enjoyed a mostly close relationship with the federal government, including the departments of Justice, State, Defense and Homeland Security.
In 2005, ISNA helped the U.S. Embassy in Belgium organize a meeting between Muslims there and in America. Tom Korologos, then U.S. ambassador to Belgium, said some government officials balked at dealing with ISNA but failed to show him concrete reasons why the collaboration should not occur.
"Somebody's got to talk to them," he told The News, citing the organization's size and prominence. "I'd do it again."
Korologos, testifying before a Senate panel in 2006, acknowledged that "some of the organizations whose members participated in the conference have been accused of being extremist." He said they were chosen based on their "stated policies and specific actions" regarding Muslim integration into Western societies.
ISNA's 2006 national convention featured an address by Gordon England, then the Pentagon's No. 2 official, who called terrorism "the fundamental challenge of our time." He urged organization members "to be even more active in reaching out to others and sharing your values, beliefs and experiences," adding, "America wants you to be more involved."
The Justice Department, shortly after making the Holy Land co-conspirators list public in 2007, organized an event that was to feature Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and an ISNA board member. The event was canceled for reasons that remain unclear.
Also in 2007, an expert on Islamist ideology working on contract for the Pentagon repeatedly warned that the U.S. risked undermining its anti-extremist efforts by working with ISNA and similar organizations. "Despite a track record of self-serving denials with regard to extremism, ISNA continues to function as an important component of the Saudi/Muslim Brotherhood global network," analyst Stephen Coughlin wrote.
He named Safi as one example of the "numerous" connections between ISNA and the International Institute of Islamic Thought, the Virginia group raided in 2002, and he alleged that the institute was also a Muslim Brotherhood entity.
Coughlin's warnings created controversy in the Defense Department, and the analyst now works at a Washington think tank. He did not respond to requests for an interview.
High-level contacts with ISNA have continued under President Barack Obama. ISNA president Ingrid Mattson spoke at his inaugural prayer service in January. Valerie Jarrett, a senior Obama adviser, was a featured speaker in July at the group's national convention in Washington, which thousands attended.
"We share common values," Jarrett told the audience, and "we also share common dreams – for security, progress and opportunity."
One convention panelist was Warith-Deen Umar, a former prison chaplain with a history of extremist rhetoric. He advocated "more jihad," blamed Jews for the Holocaust and said Israelis "have control of the world."
Safi responded in a news release that condemned anti-Semitism, said nothing about the "jihad" remark and did not apologize for ISNA's invitation to Umar.
The speaker's proposal "described a completely different content than what reportedly transpired," Safi wrote. "The title of the speaker's presentation was 'Jews for Salaam [Peace],' and the presentation was described as a '... blue print for world peace. Christians, Jews and Muslims have common roots; focuses on the unique position Jewish people are in to move the world toward peace.' "
Umar's title is the same one he used for a 2008 book in which he traced Jews' problems to their failure to convert when Islam emerged in Arabia more than 1,400 years ago.
Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the New York-based Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, also spoke at the convention. He said it should be remembered for its extensive outreach to Jews, not Umar's "repulsive" remarks.
"I've only had the most positive experience with ISNA," Schneier said.
He did not know Safi, Schneier said, nor was he familiar with his and ISNA's past ties to terrorism suspects. "That's not the ISNA I see today," the rabbi said. "Institutions evolve."
Three days after the Fort Hood massacre, Safi announced that ISNA was launching the Fort Hood Family Fund. "Mosques throughout the country are expected to join fellow Americans in contributing to help the families of the victims," his news release said.
A fund Web site said the initial goal was "to raise $100,000 for immediate relief," with further amounts invested in a mutual fund. ISNA promised "to maintain full transparency to ensure that your donated dollar gets to its intended destination."
About $55,000 had been collected by early December, Safi told The News.
When he went to Fort Hood at the beginning of that month to train officers, Safi took a $10,000 check to the Association of the U.S. Army. Ron Taylor, president of the military-support charity's regional chapter, said he was grateful for the donation.
Safi called him about a week later and promised $100,000 more after learning that The News was asking questions about the money, Taylor added. He said recently that the pledge had not materialized.
Taylor admitted to wondering what was going on. And he recalled how Safi described Hasan to him – not as a religiously motivated extremist who planned to kill soldiers but as "someone who just lost it that particular day and did some bad things."