Barriers filled with dirt and sand, designed to protect against a bomb blast, can be seen surrounding the courthouse at Fort Hood, Texas. Tight security measures are in place at Fort Hood and neighboring city of Killeen in preparation for the court-martial of Maj. Nidal Hasan, who faces the death penalty or life without parole if convicted in the deadly 2009 shooting rampage that killed 13. (Angela K. Brown/AP)
FORT HOOD, TEXAS — The military courthouse on the edge of Fort Hood has been transformed into a fortress, surrounded by hundreds of stacked freight car-sized shipping containers, and by tall dirt- and sand-filled barriers designed to protect it against the impact of a bomb blast. Armed soldiers stand guard around the building.
Tight security measures are in place at the Texas Army post and neighboring city of Killeen in preparation for the start of jury selection Tuesday in the capital murder trial of Maj. Nidal Hasan, the Army psychiatrist charged in the 2009 mass shooting that left 13 dead and nearly three dozen wounded. Just two years after a bomb attack was thwarted in Killeen, some military law experts say the community may once again be a target by supporters of Hasan, an American-born Muslim who has tried to justify the deadly rampage as protecting Taliban leaders in Afghanistan.
“He’s admitted he’s on the side of terrorists ... so this area is now a high threat level for jihadists,” said Jeff Addicott, director of the Center for Terrorism Law at St. Mary’s University School of Law in San Antonio. He is not involved in Hasan’s case.
Hasan, 42, faces execution or life without parole if convicted of 13 counts of premeditated murder and 32 counts of attempted premeditated murder in the worst mass shooting on a U.S. military installation. Jury selection is expected to last at least a month, and once testimony starts in August, that could take at least two months.
In Killeen, law enforcement officials won’t discuss security specifics. But businesses are receiving “If you see something, say something” posters. They feature the picture of a gun store employee who helped avert a deadly attack in 2011 when he alerted authorities of a suspicious customer who turned out to be an AWOL soldier from Fort Campbell, Ky.
Pfc. Naser Jason Abdo was arrested at a Killeen motel where authorities found pressure cookers and other bomb-making components, a loaded gun, 143 rounds of ammunition, a stun gun and al-Qaida magazine article on how to make an explosive device. Abdo, who became a Muslim at 17, said he planned to blow up a restaurant full of Fort Hood troops — his religious mission to get “justice” for the people of Iraq and Afghanistan. Abdo was sentenced to life in federal prison last year.
But it appears a similar attack actually was carried out this year. Two pressure-cooker bombs went off near the finish line of the Boston Marathon on April 15, killing three people and wounding more than 260. Bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who was captured four days later, had downloaded an issue of the same al-Qaida magazine detailing how to make bombs from pressure cookers, according to a federal indictment. His brother Tamerlan Tsarnaev died during the pair’s getaway attempt.
Some in Killeen are concerned. Guns Galore store manager Cathy Cheadle — whose sales representative Greg Ebert appears in the poster under the quote “He said something; would you?” — said she hopes the community remains on high alert.
“If one tried it and didn’t succeed, I think everybody wants to be in the news and ... somebody else would think, ‘I want to succeed,’” in an attack, Cheadle said. “I think people should be that alert anyway. As a test, how many people would walk by a backpack and not say anything?”
Although Fort Hood’s security plans are sealed by the military judge’s orders, the increased measures are evident. In the courthouse, everyone passes through a metal detector. In addition to news reporters and those involved in the case, only victims’ relatives are allowed in the small courtroom. No other spectators are allowed.
For pretrial hearings, Hasan has been transported to and from the Fort Hood courthouse from his cell at the nearby Bell County Jail via helicopter, but never at the same time to ensure his safety, said Bell County Sheriff Eddy Lange. Fort Hood, by restricting access, has never allowed any news organizations to take photographs or videotape Hasan.
Last month, someone called the nearby Belton Police Department and threatened to bomb a county courthouse near Fort Hood unless officials met Hasan’s “demands,” Lange said. No bomb was found, and no one has been arrested.
Hasan has not made any demands in jail or at court hearings. But he objected to the judge’s denial of his “defense of others” strategy, which must show that killing was necessary to prevent the immediate harm or death of others. The judge has barred him from telling jurors that he shot U.S. troops because they were an imminent threat to Taliban leaders in Afghanistan.
“We constantly monitor our sources to see if there are any threats, but we’ve been doing that from the beginning,” Lange said. “It’s always been in the back of our minds.”