Early this year, when Nidal Malik Hasan was still assigned to Walter Reed Army Hospital outside Washington U.S. intelligence officials say he sent an e-mail to a Muslim cleric living in Yemen -- Anwar al Awlaki -- an outspoken advocate of violent jihad.
Al Awlaki has been closely followed by American intelligence. He's a U.S. citizen, American-born, who received his master's degree at San Diego State University.
The Muslim leader used to lead prayers at a La Mesa mosque, teaching the basics of Islam to San Diegans. In early 2000, two of the 9/11 hijackers turned up at the mosque where Al Awlaki was then an imam.
He left the US in 2002 for Yemen, and since then in videos and on-line lectures, he has offered justifications for attacks on the west:
"He is literally taking al Qaeda propaganda, written by some of al Qaeda's key leaders, and translating it into English and interpreting it for a western audience," terrorism expert Evan Kohlman told NBC News.
Early this year, Hasan sent an email to Al Awlaki. Law enforcement officials said Hasan's e-mail asked a question of the radical imam and got an answer. But they say the question was general, about the role of muslim soldiers, and was considered consistent with Hasan's job to counsel service members. It was not, they say, anything specific or threatening.
Al Awlaki's website now calls Hasan a hero, asking, "How can there be any dispute about the virtue of what he has done?
Edgar Hopida with the Council on American-Islamic Relations knew Awlaki well. “He didn't exhibit any extremist views while in San Diego,” said Hopida. “That's why I am surprised and shocked that he would make such comments about a tragedy like this.”
“I knew him. Took classes with him. The fact that he praised [Hasan] as a hero, the alleged shooter, it's very disturbing to the Muslim community and it doesn't represent the mainstream San Diego Muslim view,” said Hopida.