Two role-playing “suspects” are led by an FBI SWAT operator to a safe location outside The Avenues mall in Jacksonville, Fla., as the Complex Mall Attack Initiative exercise advances on Sunday, May 4, 2014. (FBI photo)

Social Media Driving ‘Younger and Younger’ Terror Radicalization, Warns Wray

FBI Director Christopher Wray said the threat — to both soft and hard targets — from extremists born in the United States is more worrisome than ever as incidents have shown “the reach and influence of social media propaganda on our youth.”

“Since 2014, ISIS has been encouraging Western followers to conduct attacks on their behalf — and a number of successful [homegrown violent extremist] attackers have pledged allegiance to ISIS before, during, or even after their attacks. In most cases, HVEs are inspired by a mix of ideological factors and personal grievances or setbacks. Some recent HVE attackers have lost jobs, dropped out of school, or been arrested for other offenses unrelated to terrorism in the weeks or months before their attacks,” Wray said Wednesday at the Utah National Security and Anti-Terrorism Conference in Salt Lake City. “But even when we know and are on the lookout for all of this, HVEs are still hard to identify — and hard to stop.”

On the threat from traditional terrorist groups, “al-Qaeda is nothing if not patient,” he said.

“They still want to carry out large-scale, spectacular attacks in our country. But in the near term, they’re also focused on small-scale attacks targeting American interests overseas, to increase their chance of success. And we’re particularly worried about the threat to the homeland from al-Qaeda’s affiliates, like al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and al-Qaeda in Syria.”

Wray noted that while ISIS has suffered territorial and leadership losses, “their innovative use of social media to recruit supporters and inspire attacks means they continue to pose a significant threat.”

“They continue to encourage their supporters to take action wherever they are. No need to train with us or get our approval before you kill in our name, they say,” he said. “And we’ve seen the results of this in recent attacks across Europe. We’re also increasingly concerned about ISIS affiliates in Africa and Asia, where they’ve attempted attacks against locations known to be gathering spots for Americans and Westerners.”

The FBI director also stressed that developments in domestic terrorism — “U.S.-based movements that promote violent extremist ideologies” covering “militias and anarchist groups to race supremacist groups and environmental extremists” — are being closely watched by authorities.

“Given the current lack of nationally organized domestic extremist groups or influential leaders driving their agendas, we think these sorts of attacks are now more likely to come from people who self-radicalize,” Wray added. “People who come up with their own customized belief systems and hope to advance them through violence.”

The Bureau is currently investigating about 5,000 terrorism cases, both the United States and abroad. About a thousand of these cases are homegrown violent extremists, with investigations in all 50 states. And about a thousand of the total terrorism cases deal with domestic terrorism.

Wray used a Utah case to highlight concerns with the radicalization at “younger and younger ages.” A 17-year-old boy was arrested in March, accused of raising an ISIS flag and spray-painting “ISIS is coming” at Hurricane High School in February and of trying to detonate a backpack bomb at Pine View High School in St. George.

Homegrown extremists are mostly male, mostly born in the U.S., “and their ethnicities are all over the map,” he said, but ultimately “they’re hard to identify, because there’s no profile of a typical homegrown violent extremist.” Potential targets could be basically anywhere.

Confronting these threats, Wray emphasized, requires “partnerships, intelligence, and innovation.”

“And to reduce the threat, we’re taking terrorism subjects off the streets using every tool we’ve got. Not only federal terrorism charges, but also other federal, state, and local charges, along with other disruption and mitigation strategies. Our partnerships are not limited just to other law enforcement agencies. Many of the cases we’re seeing now of potential homegrown violent extremists involve people dealing with mental health issues. So we in law enforcement need to reach out proactively to our partners in the mental health field,” he said.

“The reality is that most HVEs aren’t entirely unknown. There’s usually a family member or a friend or someone in the community who saw the radicalization happen. We need those people to speak up. Everyone’s heard the phrase, ‘If you see something, say something.’ When most of us think of that phrase, we picture an unattended bag on a train. But to my mind, it’s much more than that, and more nuanced,” the director continued. “What if we notice a disturbing change in a family member, a friend, or a member of the community? What if we see that person becoming more withdrawn, more isolated? What if we see that they’re beginning to embrace a violent ideology? We’ve got to ask ourselves, as members of the community, what’s our role? What’s our responsibility? The threats we face are bigger than any one of us. So we’ve got to work together and do everything we can to keep people safe from harm.”

The FBI, Wray added, “is doing a much better job these days of integrating intelligence and operations, but we need to push ourselves even further.”

And when the director encourages innovation, “I’m not just talking about technology.”

“It can be anything that helps us bridge a gap in an operational need, or that makes us more effective in carrying out the mission. For example, the [Joint Terrorism Task Force] concept itself was an innovation when first launched — and now, we can’t imagine doing counterterrorism without it,” he said.

“There’s no doubt that the terrorist threat has evolved. What hasn’t changed is terrorists’ commitment to do us harm. Fortunately, the other thing that hasn’t changed, almost 17 years after 9/11, is our resolve to stop them. And we’re doing just that, by working together as one team… You can call it interagency cooperation, you can call it information-sharing, or you can call it driving synergies and collaboration. The label isn’t important, frankly. What matters is that we get the job done and keep our country safe.”

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Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a senior fellow specializing in terrorism analysis at the Haym Salomon Center. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15, a private investigator and a security consultant. She is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera and SiriusXM.

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