Between Psychopathy and Radicalism

Why a psychiatrist went from healer to murderer 

On November 5, 2009, US Army psychiatrist, Major Nidal Malik Hasan, 37, walked into to Soldier Readiness Center on the Fort Hood military base in Killeen, Texas in his military uniform, shouted "Allahu Akbar" (God is Greatest) and pulled the triggers on two semi-automatic handguns, firing more than 100 times and killing 13 (ranging in age from 19 to 62, one of whom was 3 months pregnant) and wounding 30 other comrades. His killing rampage, dubbed the "Massacre at Fort Hood," was stopped when he was shot four times by civilian police officers Sergeant Kimberly D. Munley and Sergeant Mark Todd, since his fellow soldiers do not typically carry their weapons on the base. Investigators were left shocked and puzzled by the incident as they tried to comprehend what motives may have triggered Nidal to become a murderer in the US largest active army base, with more than 50,000 soldiers.

Some have attributed his actions to what they described as a religiously-inspired hostility to non-Muslim soldiers on the base, and using his recitation of "Allahu Akbar" before the shooting as evidence. However, it is important to note that this phrase is used by Muslims in many situations, sometimes as a figure of speech, sometimes as an expression of frustration or simply a call for God's assistance. Hence, his uttering of those words does not mean he had morphed into a jihadist.



This image played on CNN from a convenience store surveillance camera showing Major Nidal in Killeen, Texas on the morning of his shooting rampage


Mr. Malik Hasan, Nidal's father, was a poor Palestinian, who migrated with his wife to the US forty years ago from the West Bank in pursuit of the American dream. Nidal was born and raised in Virginia, on the family's income from a grocery store and two restaurants they owned in Roanoke. Nidal went on to graduate from Virginia Tech with honors in biochemistry, and then was admitted to medical school at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Maryland where he decided to specialize in psychiatry. The queasy Nidal chose his psychiatry over other specializations after fainted at the sight of a childbirth! Most reports from this period in his life point to a mild-mannered, polite, hardworking, and committed young man who was especially bright and dependable. There is no evidence of any so-called red flags as the young man proceeded from one professional success to the next without incident or any indication of behavioral or emotional problems.

Nidal's luck seemed to run out with his parents' death ten years ago. Those who knew him said he became more conspicuously devout to Islam, even going as far as trying to convert patients with drug and alcohol problems to his faith. He seemed convinced that Islam could help his patients overcome their adversities and problems. Nevertheless, his impressive record as a medical doctor led to his promotion from Captain to Major in May 2009 and he was dispatched to Fort Hood two months later.

During his time at Fort Hood, he worked tirelessly for his patients and seemed to win their respect. Major Nidal's boss, Col. Kimberley Kesling, at Darnall Army Medical Centre described him as, "a quiet man who would not seek the limelight and provided excellent care for his patients." His congeniality and commitment to the treatment of his patients made him a likeable person who won the respect of his colleagues and patients alike.

With little evidence of a history of violence or any markers of a disturbed mind or diabolical psyche, the case of Nidal is a puzzling one as his actions appeared entirely shocking and unexpected. The same military psychiatrist who had treated those suffering from the traumatic horrors of war ended up going on a homicidal rampage. Hence, the question remains: how could such a calm professional medical doctor become a wild beast? Why would the healer of Fort Hood became a murderous butcher?


Major Nidal had spent years telling anyone who would listen that the US war effort in Iraq and Afghanistan was immoral. He then launched a war of his own, from which he clearly did not expect to return alive. So far all evidence points to the fact that he is the classic model of the lone, strange and crazy killer with very few close human attachments. Interestingly, there is sparse to no information about Nidal's personal life. He was unmarried and without any evident romantic relationships, signifying a rather secluded lifestyle that was largely inaccessible to those around him.

Investigators interviewed more than 170 witnesses in an attempt to figure out how this solitary shooter was able to inflict such carnage tried to rally evidence to support the jihadist hypothesis. In fact, one of his former classmates in a Masters' program last year is quoted in the media saying that "he was a Muslim first and American second, and that he was opposed to both wars in Iraq and Afghanistan." While it should come as no surprise to anyone that faith precedes national identity, in the case of Nidal and the current dire state of interfaith relations, such comments are being viewed with suspicion.

But can one go as far as associate his actions with jihadist ideology and its often violent anti-western sentiments--one which holds nothing in greater esteem than sacrificing one's life for political and religious ends. The term jihadist, in this context is used to describe a very very slim minority among radical Muslims who ascribe to a ruthlessly violent ideology. The common usage of the term is an innocuous one which signified her/she who struggles and sacrifices for spiritual evolution. For our purposes, the term is used to depict actions like the ones committed by some militant groups including recruiting mentally retarded children and people with Down Syndrome and sending them into Shiite and Sunni mosques and churches armed with explosive belts. Their naïveté and innocence are exploited by convincing them that dying in this manner guarantees them a place in paradise. These incidents continue unabated and are propagated by the most extreme faction of jihadists. Recently in Mosul, a church dating back 1200 years was attacked by militants during preparations for Christmas celebrations.

Some senior administration officials claimed that "it appears as though Major Nidal was inspired by some of this extremist rhetoric and propaganda." If this view is accurate then  fuses psychological damage with extremist ideology. So can one draw any comparisons between Nidal's actions and those of Jihadists?

Though there is no clear connection with any group espousing hostility towards Nidal's victims, his rampage has resulted in various radicals and their collectives commending him for his actions. Islamic cleric, Anwar al-Awlaki, who was born in New Mexico in 1971 to Yemeni parents and educated at Colorado State University (now based in Yemen) sent an email to Major Nidal's inbox after the shooting, cheering him on his jihadist duty of killing soldiers about to be deployed to kill Muslims. Furthermore, at least one Islamic website was lauded him as an "Islamic Warrior," who created chaos in Building 42003 at Fort Hood Army Medical Center.

In a recent interview on Al-Jazeera, Yemen-based Al-Qaeda recruiting cleric Awlaki revealed that he had exchanged nearly 20 correspondences with Major Nidal prior to his killing spree where he appeared to seek justification for his massacre of American soldiers. While Awlaki didn't bless Nidal's actions per se, he did not dismiss them as acts of terror. Instead he said they are warranted given that Nidal's attack was on American military personnel on the verge of deployment to a warzone where they "will be killing Muslims." These exchanges between the radical cleric and Nidal are the most compelling evidence that the now-paralyzed army psychiatrist may have found some common ground between his attack and radical jihadist ideology. But nevertheless, as Awlaki stated, Nidal was never recruited but acted out of his own conviction and volition, blaming the Major's rapture on the actions of the American military. Astonishingly enough, how a doctor with a highly esteemed education can be influenced by such silly propaganda. 

Despite these communiqués between Nidal and Al-Qaeda-inspired cleric al-Awlaki, it appears psychiatrist had decided to carryout his murderous plan irrespective of any suggestions from the Yemeni sheikh. Hence, it would be misguided to assume that his attack is inspired by the very ideology that motivates Al-Qaeda. Rather it appears he simply sought affirmation for the a horrific act he had already decided to carry out. It was a clear case of seeking out anyone who shared his goal rather than worldview. Furthermore, he also seemed adamant about finding any moral corroboration for what he intended to do.

For this reason, it would be inaccurate to assume that Nidal's murderous act shows allegiance to or sympathy for any known extremist terrorist groups. While his actions are obviously orchestrated and premeditated, they were not inspired by any known militant entity. Nidal was not a terrorist who was influenced by other doctors-turned-militants such as Dr. Ayman El-Zawahri, whose eccentric thoughts provide inspiration and orchestration for the operations of Al-Qaeda and its leader Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the September 11 attacks.

The ambivalence that characterized Nidal's final days before the shooting seem to indicate that his decision to go through with his plan was not one that ascribed to the typical Islamic militant jihadist plan. While this would require the purification of one's spirit and the ablution from all sins, Nidal spent his last day at a local strip club where he allegedly got several dances and drank beer--both of which are unbecoming actions for someone whose religious orthodoxy is a chief motivator for the murderous attack. These and many other moral incongruences show the extent to which Nidal was a conflicted individual who behaved not with certainty but hesitation, and not out of complete indoctrination but rather a deep angst, and confusion rather than assuredness.

That is why it appears apparent that Major Nidal is more likely a psychopath and not a jihadist, even if he may have eventually succumbed to some of the extremist propaganda that encourages the killing of non-Muslims as a path to paradise. It seemed that the counselor needed counseling himself.

Major Nidal Hasan

Dr. Che Guevara

Dr. Frantz Fanon

Dr. Ayman El-Zawahri


Investigators are seeking answers to the issues of motive for his crimes and why this happened. His family answered, "We simply don't know." If his crime is motivated by more than his madness, with a desire to protest US foreign policy, it can be effectively done not with weapons killing his comrades who depended on him as a doctor for help. It is astonishing how this reportedly polite army major, born and raised in the US, specialized in the medical field, can fire a gun on his own comrades! What is the motivation to commit acts of violence outside any terrorist chain of command?

Dr. Barry Rosenfeld, professor of psychiatry at Fordham University, mentioned that Major Nidal was under severe stress, fighting his deployment to Afghanistan, "deploying to a war zone is stressful to anyone, far worse perhaps to someone who has a history of listening to the horror stories of those who have returned from war zones." He was also working with soldiers suffering from constant stress. In fact, one should underestimate the effect working in a climate of this kind. In fact, Fort Hood has the highest rate of military suicides in the US military and the base witnessed a quadrupling of the post-traumatic stress disorder cases between 2005 and 2007. Many of these cases would have worked closely with Major Nidal to help in their treatment and rehabilitation. Some said that Major Nidal might have singly broke down under mounting stress due to his impending deployment to Afghanistan and the moral dilemma this would have posed for him given his views on the ethical grounds for the war. Questions surrounding his state of mind were mentioned in a TIME magazine article dated November 23rd, Nancy Gibbs mentions that, "NPR reported that top officials at Walter Reed held meetings in Spring 2008, in which they debated whether Major Nidal was "psychotic." Gibbs stated that everyone felt that if you were deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan, you would not want [Major] Nidal in your foxhole."

In line with this interpretation, in the months prior to his killing spree, Nidal had apparently sought to convince his superiors in the chain of command to consider prosecuting some of his patients for what he described as "war crimes" during their time on duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. He described what they had disclosed to him in private counseling sessions and was adamant about pursuing a legal recourse to charge them for what he saw as grave acts of terror against Muslim civilians. Some believe that the irresponsible reaction from his superiors and his view of a deep level of impunity in the US military led to his further frustration and anger. He appeared to be growing increasingly frustrated and agitated which may have convinced him to "take justice into his own hands." Another plausible explanation is one that views his attack as a means of expressing his dismay with conduct of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan from the standpoint of an anti-war activist rather than an Islamic extremist.

One could argue that the only clear conclusive point is that Nidal was the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time!

Major Nidal, Che Guevara, and Frantz Fanon

Interestingly, Major Nidal actions, while not politically-motivated by an agenda, can be cast in contrast to the lives of two other famous medical doctors who supported militarized action: Dr. Frantz Fanon against colonialism in Algeria and Dr. Che Guevara against imperialism in South America.

Dr. Frantz Fanon (1925-1961) was a psychiatrist, philosopher, revolutionary, and author from the French islands of Martinique, who was sent by the French Army to Algeria to head Blida-Joinville Psychiatric Hospital. Following the outbreak of the Algerian revolution in 1954 he joined the FLN liberation front (Front de Libération Nationale) as a result of contacts with Dr. Pierre Chaulet at Blida in 1955. In his book, The Wretched of the Earth (Les damnés de la terre), Fanon discussed in depth the effects on Algerians of torture by the French forces. Fanon has had an inspiring impact on anti-colonial and liberation movements. In particular, The Wretched of the Earth was a major influence on the work of revolutionary leaders including Ernesto Che Guevara in Cuba.


Dr. Che Guevara (1928-1967)
was an Argentine Marxist revolutionary, physician, author, intellectual, guerrilla leader, military theorist, and major figure of the Cuban Revolution alongside Fidel Castro in 1959. By December 1964, Che Guevara had emerged as a "revolutionary statesmen of world stature." Over forty years after his execution, Che's life and legacy still remain a contentious issue. The contradictions of his ethos at various points in his life have created a complex character of unending duality. Despite his polarized status, a graphics of his face have become one of the world's most universally merchandized and objectified images, found on an endless array of items, including t-shirts, hats, posters, tattoos, and bikinis as an icon of youthful rebellion, even in the US.


Nancy Gibbs also stated in the TIME magazine article (November 23), "When an army major turns mass murderer on America's largest military base, it fuels the worst fear of terrorism experts: are lone wolfs who don't need an al-Qaeda training camp the new threat to homeland security?"  She added: "What a surprise when Major Nidal wakes up from his coma to find himself not in paradise but in Brooke Army Medical Center under tight security," upon which he will most likely face a military court trial, and if convicted, he could become the 16th person sentenced to death under the current military death penalty system. What an unhappy end for the life of the Palestinian American medical doctor, whose parents had come seeking the American Dream.

In an immediate attempt to distance themselves from the horrors of Fort Hood, both the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) condemned Nidal's actions and expressed their disgust at the massacre with no reservations, offering their support for the victims and their families. Yet, despite their most fervent efforts to deflect the severe damage Nidal's actions caused the image and perceptions of Islam in America, the stereotype has only been aggravated by the events in Fort Hood.

While there were no reports of attacks on Muslims anywhere in the US following the massacre, one Muslim spoke of how he found a letter at his door with a message reading, "Islam is a disease. Muslim immigrants are the virus...every Muslim should be kicked out of the US!!"


As a strong believer in multiculturalism and one who respects those with different religions and beliefs, I am convinced that not all Muslims are Jihadists, not all Christians are Crusaders, and not all Jews are Zionists. The miserable Nidal is no more than a psychiatric patient with a serious pathology that could have been diagnosed and treated before these heinous crimes were committed on that dark day. The loss of his parents, lack of any sincere friends, an introverted personality, and a deeply conflicted life are all factors that interacted together along with his stressful situation to transform the kind healer into a butcher. That is why I am keen that Nidal be perceived not as a radical extremist "jihadist," but rather as a psychopath.

As we condemn his action without hesitation and offer our condolences to the families of his victims, it is also important to avert future incidents of this kind. That is why there must be a way to identify psychopathy in society and its treatment before it turns into disasters of this kind. It is interesting to read the book entitled Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us (The Guilford Press, 1999) written by Canadian psychologist Prof. Robert D. Hare. This book was reviewed in The Ambassadors Magazine (Vol.9, Issue 19, January 2006).


(photo: Dr. Mohammed El-Ghawaby)

Prof. Talaat I. Farag
Former adjunct professor, Dalhousie University, Canada. 
Founder and director, The Ambassadors Research Foundation
Email: tfarag@dal.ca