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Fort Hood-area Muslims still stunned by gunman's violent outburst

Imam Syed Ahmed Ali (L-R), Chaplain Jason Palmer, and Chaplain Ira Houck sit together at the Islamic Community Center in Killeen, Texas November 7, 2009. REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi
Imam Syed Ahmed Ali (L-R), Chaplain Jason Palmer, and Chaplain Ira Houck sit together at the Islamic Community Center in Killeen, Texas November 7, 2009. REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi

By Eric M. Johnson

KILLEEN, Texas (Reuters) - Members of Killeen's tight-knit Muslim community remember Nidal Hasan as a quiet loner who stood shoeless on the carpet of their mosque almost four years ago and sang the first words of the morning call to prayer: "Allahu akbar."

They still have trouble understanding how, just a few hours later, the Army psychiatrist could have shouted those same words - "God is greatest" in Arabic - and then fatally shot 13 soldiers and wounded 31 others, witnesses said.

As Hasan's court martial resulting from the November 5, 2009, attack unfolded this month at the vast Fort Hood military base, Muslims in Killeen, a Texas city of roughly 134,000, were struggling to cope with the fact they prayed, mingled and dined with Hasan in the days and minutes before the attack.

It has been difficult to reconcile the prayerful man they knew with the one who declared "I am the shooter" at the beginning of his trial.

"I wish I could forget about this guy, the trauma that this brought to us," said Osman Danquah, 65, who prayed alongside the shooter at a mosque and dined with him twice.

One evening in between prayers at the mosque within the Islamic Community of Greater Killeen, Danquah recalled how Hasan twice sought his advice on how he should treat seemingly anonymous Muslim soldiers who wanted out of the military and opposed U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Danquah, himself a Gulf War veteran, told him all of the people in the military volunteered to serve, although they could raise issues as conscientious objectors.

Hasan would later tell military health evaluators his spree amounted to "jihad" against fellow foreign-bound U.S. soldiers "going against the Islamic Empire," and that dying during the attack would signal God had designated him as a religious martyr.

"In Islam, you cannot take revenge against people if you have no evidence," Danquah said. "What crime did they commit?"

JAIL OR DYING

During prayers, congregants, some in traditional Muslim dress, knelt on the plush green carpeting as ceiling fans whirled against the Texas heat. Bookshelves flanking a rug-draped chair were crammed with multiple copies of the Islamic holy book, the Koran, in several languages. Shoes and sandals lined shelves near the entrance.

Kids on bikes swirled around the red brick building's parking lot, on a wide highway dotted with ranch houses, auto shops, chain restaurants and the gun store where Hasan armed himself.

After Hasan left the mosque before the shooting, he stopped at a convenience store for coffee and hash browns, he told the mental health panel. He later went home, collected two guns and 20 to 30 magazines, and returned for noon prayers.

He knew the prayers would be his last before "either going to jail or dying," Hasan, now 42, told the military health panel.

Military police eventually shot Hasan, who was left paralyzed from the waist down and attends court in a wheelchair. He maintains his prayer schedule during breaks.

Prosecutors opted against bringing terrorism charges against Hasan, who could face the death penalty if all 13 officers on the jury find him guilty of premeditated murder.

Amina Rab, the president of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in the Dallas area, said the broader community was shocked by what she called Hasan's horrific act.

"He can try to justify his actions any way he likes to," Rab said. "It's not Islam that goes out and kills people no matter what they do to you."

The shooting rampage came at a time of heightened tensions over the American-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which strained relations between the United States and countries with predominantly Muslim populations.

Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born cleric linked to al Qaeda's Yemen-based wing to whom U.S. intelligence officials said Hasan sent emails, praised Hasan as a hero and "a man of conscience." Awlaki was killed by a U.S. drone strike in 2011.

But for many who met him at the mosque, Hasan remains a mystery.

"Only God knows the heart of a human," said Mustafa Salaam, a 46-year-old retired sergeant first class and current mosque president. "We can see people in attendance five prayers a day but that doesn't mean you can tell what's in someone's heart."

(Additional reporting by Lisa Maria Garza in Killeen; Editing by Dina Kyriakidou and Bill Trott)

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