Though there is no litmus test to predetermine when or even if an extremist on the Web will become a violent terrorist, there are a few tell-tale signs.
While there are many factors that could indicate an individual online is considering committing a terrorist act, there is no smoking gun to determine who will actually act out, said Alix Levine, director of research at Cronus Global, in a recent presentation at the 2012 GovSec conference in Washington.
“On the Internet you can be anyone you want to be," said Levine, who assists and advises government officials on tracking and spotting potential terrorists. "You can be Osama bin Laden or support [those views] in forums." But an individual “won’t necessarily act that way in the real world. At what point does virtual and reality collide? What pushes someone over the edge?”
Finding the trigger point becomes even more critical as some potential terrorists, such as Antonio Martinez — aka Muhammad Hussain — quickly move from convert to attacker. Martinez attempted to detonate a bomb at a Catonsville, Md., military recruiting center in December 2010, less than six months after his conversion to Islam. The Baltimore, Md., native, who was 21 at the time, faces up to 25 years in prison, The Baltimore Sun reported in January.
The death of bin Laden, decrease in power of al Qaeda, and increasing prevalence of the Internet and social media have led to a growing, decentralized, global jihadi movement of homegrown violent extremists, Levine said. “You don’t need permission or be a member [of al Qaeda]. It’s not an organization anymore,” she added. As a result, law enforcement needs to cast a wider net to catch potential criminals.
Some online behaviors of known terrorists that could indicate a predilection towards physical violence include:
- Posting pictures of themselves with weapons.
- Posting but removing other incendiary posts to avoid detection by law enforcement.
- Threatening celebrities to gain fame.
- Disseminating terrorist propaganda.
- Access to elite (i.e., password protected) radical forums.
- Creating their own propaganda.
- Public posts of their desire to be part of the movement.
- Creating content to help others strategically plan violent activities.
However, there is no one set of criteria to determine whether or when an individual is ready to act. And there are other terrorists who weren’t on the Internet at all or may have read but not posted material. "If an individual has not committed an illegal act, has never been convicted, yet expresses interest in radical Islamist views, will that person act in the future? When should law enforcement step in? What would be a trigger for that individual?" Levine asked.
Today, radical Islamists use a variety of online forums and tools to disseminate their message. Mainstream social networking sites, such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Flickr, which Levine describes as the first tier of information exchange, are all used. However, although anyone can post, the challenge is not to post anything so radical as to be kicked off the site.
The next level is non-password-protected extremist forums offering innocuous content as well as a section with radical views. Often there is a password required to post but not to read content. The most extreme level — with the greatest number of potential terrorists — is password-protected sites, which are difficult to access. To get a password, “you need to have someone vouch for you, and you need to have an online [radical] presence,” Levine said. She described individuals on the password-protected sites as “definitely more dangerous.”
Levine said that in the last two weeks all the top-tier sites have been taken down. “There’s very little information on why or how. I believe it’s the longest that any of these forums have been down. ... I’m keeping an eye on it to see how it affects the movement,” she said
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