A few weeks after a military jury sentenced Nidal Hasan to death in the 2009 shooting massacre at Fort Hood, Lt. Col. Kris Poppe headed west on his motorcycle. The highest-profile court-martial in a generation had thrust Poppe into the national spotlight and, as Hasan’s military-appointed defense counsel, Poppe had prepared for years to defend the Army psychiatrist inside a small, heavily guarded Fort Hood courtroom.
He made more than 125 visits to Hasan’s cell at the Bell County Jail, trying to understand his client and chart a defense. Then, shortly before the court-martial was scheduled to begin in the summer of 2013, Hasan fired Poppe and his team of military lawyers. Years of research and strategy evaporated as Hasan chose to defend himself, calling no witnesses and refusing to put on a defense. Poppe told the military judge Hasan was attempting to ensure the court-martial resulted in his death.
Hasan’s ploy worked. He remains on death row at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., today.
“Heading west across Texas, I was just really angry,” Poppe said recently in his first in-depth interview about the trial. “Ordinarily, the motorcycle is very peaceful for me.”
Somewhere across New Mexico it hit him.
“We had been preparing to tell Maj. Hasan’s story for three years. Not being able to do that bothered me enormously,” said Poppe, who retired from the military in 2016. “Maj. Hasan made his choices and he chose not to allow us to do that. Absolutely, it was a frustration.”
Today, Poppe works in private practice in Fayetteville, N.C., though he still assists with Hasan’s appeals team. He says he is bound by his relationship with Hasan, whom he describes as unfailingly polite, not to divulge the details of his defense. “It is his story,” Poppe said. “Where I sit as a defense attorney, he is in control of that.”
The three-year legal saga left no doubt that 10 years ago this week, Hasan walked into a soldier processing center, shouted “Allahu Akbar” and opened fire on soldiers deploying to and returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. The trial, however, gave precious few insights into why Hasan took up arms against his fellow soldiers.
But while Poppe and his team were prevented from pulling back the curtain, a recent report by Poppe’s daughter, a researcher for non-partisan think-tank the Council on Foreign Relations, reveals unprecedented details of Hasan’s motivation and his thinking in the years leading up to the shooting.
In a George Washington University Program on Extremism report released last year, “Nidal Hasan: A Case Study in Lone-Actor Terrorism,” Katharine Poppe, who gained access to Hasan’s interviews and correspondence, argues that Hasan was ultimately motivated by the fear that his mother would be sent to hell for selling alcohol as a Virginia shopkeeper before she died in 2001. He believed by taking action against U.S. service members, he could improve her standing in the afterlife, Poppe argues. The report also reveals that Hasan drafted what amounts to an apology to his victims before deciding to remain silent during his trial.
For Kris Poppe, representing Hasan was unlike any other experience in his legal career.
“I certainly do think there are lessons," he said. “If we had had the opportunity to tell the whole story as we planned to do at the trial, some of that may have been helpful to people. It certainly would have been helpful to Maj. Hasan. Obviously, I hope there is a story that gets told eventually."
‘I didn’t want to be a lawyer anymore’
Kris Poppe was in the middle of a capital murder trial at Fort Bragg when Hasan launched the deadliest shooting attack on a U.S. military installation in the modern era, killing 13, including a pregnant soldier, and wounding more than 30.
The Nov. 5, 2009, shooting spree dominated the national conversation for months as leaders and the public grappled with issues of the military’s relationship with Islam, military mental health and the nature of domestic terrorism.
Poppe, an Ohio native with three decades of military service, was a seasoned military defense attorney, having defended several high-profile clients, including the officer court-martialed following the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. He arrived in still-convulsing Killeen several months after the shooting to interview as many witnesses and victims as he could. In his first week in Central Texas, he and his team spoke with 17 survivors.
“For me, it was just emotionally extremely difficult,” Poppe said. “I remember by the end of that first week, I didn’t want to be on the case. I didn’t want to be a lawyer anymore.”
He spoke with mentors, including his father, a longtime attorney in rural Ohio, and recommitted to the case. “But it was difficult,” he said, “and it continued to be.”
Poppe said he was struck by the fact that soldiers who survived the attack treated him with respect despite his position on Hasan’s team.
“One of the most impressive things about being a military defense attorney is that people understand what you’re doing,” he said. “I’ve taken an oath and am wearing a uniform just like them. To a person, I think they understood that. ... My daughter graduated from Belton High School, and we were concerned about that because of how close the communities are to Fort Hood and the military. But we never experienced one bad instance at all.”
Poppe and his team also set about trying to understand their client and his motivations. “I didn’t have a background in understanding Islam or Muslim cultural perspectives or communities, so I needed a lot of education in that,” Poppe said. “And understanding the perspective that my client held was a challenge. But I thought it was something we needed to do as a team.”
According to his daughter’s report, the defense team also brought in a Muslim U.S. Army chaplain, religious experts and an imam to meet with Hasan in hopes of convincing him that his interpretation of Islam was incorrect.
“There was a point when they believed they were going to be successful in their attempts to de-radicalize him,” Katharine Poppe wrote. “This aspiration was unsuccessful and it soon became clear that Hasan would remain firm in his convictions about the validity of his beliefs and his reasons for committing violence.”
Kris Poppe said he remains convinced the shooting was out of character for Hasan. “He is someone who led, except for that period and moment, a completely nonviolent life,” Poppe said. “He never contemplated violence.”
The seed of extremism
Throughout more than three years of military legal proceedings, which included a lengthy Article 32 hearing (similar to a civilian grand jury proceeding), the motivations that drove Hasan to begin training on semi-automatic handguns and open fire on his fellow soldiers were never fully explored.
Experts and those who have known Hasan have speculated that his rampage was spurred by everything from his treatment at the hands of other soldiers, communications with an al-Qaida-inspired cleric to anger at his patients’ tales of mistreatment of Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan. But according to Katharine Poppe, who gained access to Hasan’s letters, the seed of shooting can be found in the death of Hasan’s mother in 2001.
Hasan had been raised culturally Muslim, but was not particularly religious until his mother’s death. That’s when he began to worry about “the state of her soul in the afterlife,” especially since she had sold alcohol at the convenience store his parents ran, which Hasan believed to be forbidden by Islam.
“The sin of selling alcohol would, in Hasan’s mind, damn his mother to an eternity of burning in hell,” Poppe wrote. “This religious interpretation was one he believed to be entirely literal — his mother would spend an eternity burning in a pit of fire. Hasan felt that there was a way for him to help his mother and prevent her from suffering this terrible fate. Her sins, as he saw them, could be outweighed by good actions he did on her behalf.”
The desire to save his mother’s soul sparked Hasan’s growing religious fervor, fueled also by sermons by Anwar al-Awlaki, who would later become a notorious al-Qaida recruiter of U.S.-raised Muslims. But in 2001, Awlaki was considered a moderate imam at a Falls Church, Va., mosque, where he presided over Hasan’s mother’s funeral.
Hasan and Awlaki met briefly, foreshadowing their correspondence on the eve of the Fort Hood attack, which became the subject of an FBI investigation into missed signs of Hasan’s radicalization.
Over the coming years, Hasan grew increasingly religious and intolerant. During a 2007 Thanksgiving family dinner, Hasan “harshly scolded” his cousin for bringing a female date, according to Poppe’s report. “He believed that it was religiously impermissible for women to leave the house without a male guardian,” she wrote. “After that event, (Hasan’s cousin Nader) says the relationship between them cooled and interactions between the two cousins declined significantly.”
Around this time, as Hasan was finishing his psychiatric residency at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, he decided he was going to take action against the United States, though he hadn’t yet formulated a plan, he would later tell interviewers during a mental evaluation conducted by a military panel following the shooting.
In 2008, Hasan attempted to strike up a correspondence with Awlaki, by that time an al-Qaida operative in Yemen. Emails between the two had been intercepted by FBI officials tracking the cleric. The FBI received intense criticism after those officials eventually dismissed the emails as harmless and decided not to interview Hasan, who some agents believed was conducting Army-sponsored research. Yet while officials failed to understand the threat that Hasan posed, Poppe argues the correspondence has received more credit than it deserves for being a “driving factor in Hasan’s push towards mobilization.”
“Although it is interesting that Hasan attempted to establish contact with Awlaki, he was largely unsuccessful, receiving only two inconsequential replies,” she wrote. “At this critical moment in Hasan’s radicalization, Awlaki did not provide (him), based on the new evidence, with any overt guidance or motivation.”
The FBI wasn’t the only agency to miss clues to Hasan’s radicalization. At Fort Hood, a supervisor would give Hasan a glowing recommendation just days before the attack.
Missed signs before the attack
Warning signs abounded. In the weeks and days preceding the shooting, Hasan sent emails to Fort Hood supervisors complaining about possible war crimes committed by patients under his care returning from war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Two weeks earlier, he made an ominous statement regarding his upcoming deployment to Afghanistan, telling a co-worker “they will pay” for deploying him against his will.
Katharine Poppe concluded the imminent deployment was the direct spark for the shooting,
The series of statements dating back to his time at Walter Reed, in retrospect, indicate the psychiatrist’s troubled mind. Several of his colleagues were troubled by his year-ending psychiatry presentation, based almost entirely on Quranic verse and in which he discussed the possibility that Muslim service members might take up arms against fellow soldiers.
His supervisor at Walter Reed had previously flagged Hasan as a poor soldier, who was counseled for discussing religious topics with patients, but not as a threat.
“He is able to self-correct with supervision,” psychiatry director Scott Moran concluded.
At Fort Hood, then suffering a severe shortage of mental health providers like Hasan, supervisors were effusive in their praise of him. Lt. Col. Ben Phillips wrote in an evaluation four days before the shooting that Hasan had performed his duties “in a superb manner,” showed a “willingness to be a team player” and had “unlimited potential for advancement and leadership.”