In the wake of the Garland, Texas ISIS-inspired jihad attack, which was preceded by calls for an attack via Twitter, US officials are growing increasingly concerned that terrorism is going viral.
The House Committee on Homeland Security held a hearing on Wednesday, “Terrorism Gone Viral: The Attack in Garland, Texas and Beyond,” to examine the role of the Internet and social media in spreading propaganda, recruiting followers, and directing jihadist-inspired attacks targeting the homeland.
In the weeks preceding the Garland, Texas attack, Elton Simpson, the alleged attacker, fired off a series of tweets pledging allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and called for jihadi terror attacks on the Muhammad Art Exhibit and Cartoon Contest using the hashtag #TexasAttack on Twitter.
“Extremists issued a ‘call to arms’ to attack an event, a radicalized follower clearly heeded that call, and he took steps to make sure his act of violence would spread and motivate more,” said committee chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas). “Social media networks have become an extension of the Islamist terror battlefields overseas, turning homegrown extremists into sleeper operatives and attackers.”
Several hours before Simpson and his co-conspirator, Nadir Soofi, opened fire at the event, the FBI sent a bulletin to the Garland Police Department stating Simpson, who had been under FBI investigation for jihadist activity since 2006, might show up.
FBI Director James B. Comey recently commented at a news briefing that the influence of social media has made investigations into homegrown extremists increasingly difficult, saying, “Where are they on the path from talker to doer?”
Days after Elton Simpson and Nadir Soofi, two radicalized Muslims and Phoenix, Arizona roommates killed Sunday in an avowed jihad attack on the civic center in Garland, Texas where an art exhibition and contest was being held for the best cartoon of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad –an act punishable by death under Islamic law — Comey soberly said there are "hundreds, maybe thousands," of Muslims or new converts inclined to accept radical Islam’s call to jihad across the nation. Moreover, they may be receiving recruitment approaches, perhaps even directives, to attack targets in the US from jihadi organizations like the ISIS and Al Qaeda.
In the ninth issue of the Islamic State’s digital English-language magazine, Dabiq, the jihadi group heaped praise on Soofi and Simpson for their attempt to storm into the Curtis Culwell Civic Center in Garland, Texas with long guns to kill as many attendees of the Stop Islamization of America and the American Freedom Defense Initiative where the contest for the best cartoon of Prophet Muhammad was being held.
Homeland Security Today reported in August that social media-influenced Islamist jihadism had already taken place on US soil, some successfully, and noted that many others were thwarted. Still, the fear of counterterrorists and intelligence officials today is that so many more Muslims are beingradicalized by ISIS and other jihadi groups’ sophisticated social media efforts.
"I know there are other Elton Simpsons out there," Comey said. "But I also know there are Elton Simpsons out there I cannot see."
Indeed. US counterterrorism intelligence officials told Homeland Security Today they “have every reason to believe” small cells of Islamist jihadists – all Muslims or individuals who recently converted to the Muslim faith who’ve been radicalized by online jihadist propaganda — or recruiters at the Mosques they attend – are believed to be planning “far more spectacular attacks in the US” than the attempted attack in Texas, at which time officials acknowledged there may be hundreds, if not thousands of radicalized individuals in the US — some undoubtedly in direct contact with jihadists overseas.
On Wednesday, Homeland Security Today reported Usaamah Abdullah Rahim, the Boston terror suspect shot by authorities on Tuesday, was radicalized by ISIS and other Islamist jihadist influences via online ISIS jihadi propaganda, and was an imminent threat to local law enforcement.
The law enforcement officials who had Rahim and associates under persistent surveillance believed they had actionable intelligence that Rahim imminently intended – with other co-conspirators – to begin "randomly kill[ing] police officers in Massachusetts,” including the beheading of an “infidel” in another state, according to court documents.
Both cases are a reminder of the dangers posed by individuals radicalized through social media.
“The proliferation of jihadist propaganda online has established a new front in our battle against Islamist extremists,” McCaul said. “We are no longer hunting terrorists living in caves who only communicate through couriers. We are facing an enemy whose messages and calls to violence are posted and promoted in real-time.”
Jihadist propaganda: A growing threat
While the Garland, Texas attack and recent plot to inflict harm on law enforcement by the Boston terror suspect highlight the growing threat of jihadist propaganda, terrorist use of the Internet and social media to spread their message, recruit followers and call for attacks is not a new phenomenon.
In March, Homeland Security Today reported ISIS supporters were finalizing an English language hit-list of 100 US military personnel, including their photos and addresses, which began to be circulated on jihadi forums and social media on March 21. This was not the first list of its kind.
Back in 2011, Homeland Security Today reported on a similar jihadi hit list targeting the nation’s top military leaders being circulated by members of the Al Qaeda-linked Ansar Al Mujahedeen jihadist forum.
And although ISIS is known for its mastery of social media as a mechanism for spreading propaganda, a report by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) revealed Al Qaeda leadership has repeatedly emphasized the importance of cyber jihad.
The report indicated that in 2003, Al Qaeda codified the “sacred duty of cyber jihad” into a document called, The 39 Principles of Jihad, which was posted to the Al Farouq website, a known Saudi-based Al Qaeda domain. In addition, in a May 2010 letter by Osama Bin Laden to Shakykh Mahmud found inside Bin Laden’s Abbottabad, Pakistan compound, Bin Laden said, “The wide-scale spread of jihadist ideology, especially on the Internet, and the tremendous number of young people who frequent Jihadist websites, [are] a major achievement for jihad …"
Today, Al Qaeda and its subsidiaries are masters of not only YouTube, Twitter and Facebook, but also Tumblr, WhatsApp, Instagram and Skype. Just last year, MEMRI released a report on how jihadists of all stripes had infested SoundCloud, a Berlin-based social networking platform created in 2007 that allows users to upload and share audio content for free.
Jihadist use of social media to spread propaganda should not be taken lightly. Earlier this year, a report conducted by the University of Southern California-based DHS National Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events (CREATE) revealed ISIS has been “lethally effective” in targeting the Somali-American community in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota, which has been described as a terrorist pipeline to the Middle East, through social media.
Commenting on this disturbing trend at the hearing, McCaul said, “From digital magazines to online videos that glorify barbaric murder, ISIS is using its multi-platform engagement to create a jihadi subculture that supports its violent ideology and encourages attacks against the United States and its allies.”
US response to “terrorism gone viral”
In response to ISIS’ relentless social media campaign, which has allowed jihadists to infiltrate every nook and cranny of the globe, the FBI is increasingly focusing its efforts on a concept they refer to as “Going Dark,” the public safety problem created by the failure of law enforcement to keep pace with technology.
“Those charged with protecting our people aren’t always able to access the evidence we need to prosecute crime and prevent terrorism, even with lawful authority,” Comey explained in a statement last year. “We have the legal authority to intercept and access communications and information pursuant to court order, but we often lack the technical ability to do so.”
Commenting at the hearing, Assistant FBI Director Michael B. Steinbach said that the risks associated with “Going Dark” must be addressed swiftly to allow law enforcement to position themselves to identify and prevent terror attacks against the homeland.
“We live in a technologically driven society and just as private industry has adapted to modern forms of communication so too have the terrorists,” Steinbach said. “Unfortunately, changing forms of internet communication are quickly outpacing laws and technology designed to allow for the lawful intercept of communication content.”
In addition, with the large volume of foreign fighters leaving the US and Western countries for terrorist training and activities in Iraq and Syria, countering violent extremism (CVE) efforts in the homeland are vital to diminishing the appeal of terrorism here at home.
The National Counterterrorism Center (NCC) is working closely with the Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice and FBI to dissuade individuals from traveling to Iraq and Syria, according to Deputy NCTC Director John Mulligan.
According to Mulligan, one of the most important elements of CVE is countermessaging, the creation of alternative narratives to the jihadist propaganda being spread on the Internet and social media. Working with local communities to ensure that community voices are heard are critical to these efforts.
However, many local communities do not speak up against terrorism for fear of becoming associated with violent extremism, unfamiliarity with the gravity of terrorists’ presence online and lack of resources to develop and disseminate alternative content.
Consequently, Mulligan stressed the importance of working with communities to overcome these challenges. For example, the Peer2Peer program, a public-private partnership between EdVenture Partners and the Department of State, works to empower university students to create counter narratives to jihadist propaganda on social media.
“With programs like these, we have seen that private sector and community contributors can be much more nimble, creative, and credible online,” Mulligan said. “It is in everyone’s interest to help mitigate this fear and encourage the use of law-abiding measures that communities can employ to confront terrorist narratives in virtual environments.”
Understanding the vital role CVE plays in curbing foreign fighters, DHS continues to work to bolster CVE in local communities, according to DHS Under Secretary, Intelligence and Analysis Francis X. Taylor. Since September 2014, DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson has engaged with critical stakeholders in Chicago, Columbus, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Boston and New York to assess options for addressing the threat of jihadist propaganda and foreign fighters on a local level.
“Within the limitations of appropriate government action, we will address the evolving nature of online recruitment and radicalization to violence – particularly violent extremist use of social media – by encouraging credible voices to challenge and counter violent extremism,” Taylor said.
To increase CVE awareness in local communities, Johnson recently tasked the DHS Coordinator for Countering Violent Extremism to update the current CVE approach and develop a department-wide CVE strategy. The new strategy information aims to engage with local community partners, encourage communities to develop their own CVE initiatives and increase information sharing between DHS and state and local law enforcement, fusion centers and first responders.
“DHS’s approach emphasizes the strength of local communities and the premise that well-informed and well-equipped families, communities and frontline personnel represent the best defense against violent extremism,” Taylor said.
McCaul concluded that the new frontline in the war against Islamist terror will require a new approach with a heavy focus on the ideological battle space.
“ISIS tailors its message for specific audiences around the globe and, in doing so, projects power far beyond its growing safe havens by amplifying its battlefield successes and winning over new converts across the world," McCaul said. "Its media sophistication helps legitimize its self-proclaimed Caliphate and its perverse interpretation of Islam."
“Their tactics are a sea change for spreading terror, and they require from us a paradigm shift in our counterterrorism intelligence and operations,” McCaul said.