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SAN'A, YEMEN - A radical American imam who communicated with the Fort Hood shooting suspect and called him a hero was once arrested in Yemen on suspicion of giving religious approval to militants to conduct kidnappings.
Yemeni authorities are now hunting for Anwar al-Awlaki to determine whether he has Al-Qaida ties.
Al-Awlaki, who has used his personal website to encourage Muslims around the world to kill U.S. troops in Iraq, disappeared in Yemen eight months ago, his father said. Yemeni security officials say they believe he is hiding in a region of the mountainous nation that has become a refuge for Islamic militants.
After his arrest in 2006, investigators were unable to prove any links to Al-Qaida, and he was released in late 2007, said two Yemeni counterterrorism officials and an Interior Ministry official. They spoke Tuesday on condition of anonymity.
Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan is accused of killing 13 people in a rampage at the Fort Hood Army post in Texas. He communicated with Al-Awlaki in e-mail exchanges 10 to 20 times over several months last year, said a U.S investigative official and Rep. Pete Hoekstra of Michigan, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee.
The communications, which were intercepted by the FBI, consisted primarily of Hasan posing questions to the imam as a spiritual leader or adviser, and their content was "consistent with the subject matter of [Hasan's] research," a law enforcement official said.
The FBI investigated at the time and concluded Hasan was not a threat. And investigators say now there is no evidence Hasan received help or orders to carry out the Fort Hood attack.
But the man to whom Hasan turned for advice has for years preached in sermons circulated on the Web that the United States was engaged in a war against Islam and urged Muslims to fight it.
In January, Al-Awlaki posted an article called "44 ways to support jihad," saying joining or helping "holy warriors" fight the United States and its allies is "obligatory for every Muslim." The article encouraged Muslims to donate and raise money for mujahedeen and to encourage people to join.
Al-Awlaki, 38, a U.S. citizen born in New Mexico to Yemeni parents, preached at a Virginia mosque that Hasan's family attended.
He has had several encounters with Al-Qaida figures. In 2000, he met two of the 9/11 hijackers, Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, at a San Diego mosque where Al-Awlaki was a preacher.
The FBI investigated Al-Awlaki in 1999 and 2000 after learning he may have been contacted by a possible "procurement agent" for Osama bin Laden. His telephone number was also found when police raided the Hamburg, Germany, apartment of Ramzi Binalshibh, a Yemeni Al-Qaida figure believed to have been a key facilitator of the 9/11 attacks, according to the commission report.
Al-Awlaki's father, Nasser al-Awlaki, said Tuesday he has not had any contact with his son in eight months and did not know his location. Anwar's wife and five children are staying with Nasser al-Awlaki, he said.
The father, who was studying agriculture in the U.S. when Anwar was born and later served as Yemen's agriculture minister, insisted his son has no links with Al-Qaida.