Battling terror’s online threat

On the Internet, extremist groups have found a vast platform where they can tailor their message.

Rahatul Khan, his friends and family say, did not have a bad bone in his body.

He was a tall 19-year-old with serious eyes, an aspiring lawyer who studied government at the University of Texas, and who was known for his compassion and intellectual curiosity.

At charity events, Khan pushed his father to stay a little longer and give a little more. At his North Austin mosque, he often set up tables and supervised the younger children. And when his mother was about to quit her job as a psychiatrist at Fort Hood, burned out from a long commute and the weight of other people’s pain, it was Khan who encouraged her to keep going, she said, reminding her the soldiers needed her help.

But online Khan was a different person. The sharp and ruthless “AuthenticTauheed19.” Working with co-conspirators overseas through a website that served as a pulpit for radical ideologue Sheikh Abdullah al-Faisal, Khan recruited followers to jihadi armies abroad.

His case was one of the first to spark an investigation in Texas into online radicalization, a form of indoctrination, to commit violence in the name of terrorist groups and militant organizations. What lured Khan down the path to extremism is a question law enforcement officials and political analysts are still struggling to unravel. In the digital age, where a message of hate can travel from one part of the world to another in a matter of seconds, the phenomenon is growing and the consequences chilling.

Title photo: An armed member of the militant group al-Shabab attends a rally in support of the merger of the Somali militant group with al-Qaida on Feb. 13, 2012. In recent years, terror groups like these have escalated their efforts to radicalize and recruit young Westerners. (Associated Press file photo)

Investigators say a couple who opened fire this month at a disability center in San Bernardino, Calif., killing 14 people, were possibly radicalized over the Internet. The Web played some part in such a lone-wolf attack in Texas in 2009, when Maj. Nidal Hasan shot 13 people dead at Fort Hood. It played an even larger role this year in Garland, authorities say, when two men planned a mass shooting at an anti-Islamic cartoon contest.

Over the past two decades, militant organizations such as al-Qaida and the Islamic State group have escalated their efforts to radicalize and recruit young Westerners like Khan, peddling warped and brutal views of Islam through mass online distribution of extremist propaganda aimed at vulnerable and isolated youths in Texas and around the world.

After the recent terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, state and national officials are once more calling attention to the Internet threat. Yet religious leaders, civil rights lawyers and parents say the greater focus should be on cultivating a political climate where young Muslims don’t feel marginalized and disconnected from their faith and culture, leading to isolation or confusion that can be exploited by online radicals and recruiters.

“You have to have an open society, and people have to be able to express their views politically,” said Mustafaa Carroll, executive director of the Houston chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “Right now, everyone is so fearful in the American Muslim community that there is no discussion. And when children and young people have no place to go with their questions, they go online and you open the door to groups and people who tell them the answer is to kill.”

The Round Rock home where Rahatul Ashikim Khan was arrested in June 2014. (Claire Osborn/American-Statesman)

From Round Rock to Syria

In his two-story brick home in Round Rock, Khan would work on his laptop alone in his bedroom, his parents said. No one in his family knew he had been listening to audio clips of al-Faisal, whose radical interpretations of Islam have inspired such followers as the “Underwear Bomber” and a plotter of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Khan, who was born in Bangladesh, moved to Austin with his parents and older brother when he was 12, and he considered himself an American. He watched UT football games and attended neighborhood public schools, where some remember he excelled in his classes but hung out with the wrong crowd and started smoking pot.

When he turned to religion in his late teens, he traded his jeans and T-shirts for traditional Muslim clothing and grew out his beard. One religious leader said he had been relieved to see Khan’s wild streak tamed. To a family friend, Khan tried to minimize his transformation, saying, “It’s just the fashion these days.”

But online, under the influence of al-Faisal and working through the website “AuthenticTauheed,” Khan was becoming a useful cog in a “well-greased machine,” as a federal judge described it. The international network would arrange travel plans and passports as well as wire funds for weapons and training to militant groups, such as al-Qaida, al-Shabab and al-Nusra Front.

Khan, FBI agents said, would identify and lure other young jihad supporters as the network moved fighters to Kenya, Somalia and the front lines in Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has become a magnet for jihadis and rebel groups fighting to overthrow his government.

Among those caught in the web was Michael Wolfe, a Houston native and father of two also living in the Austin area. Wolfe liked to skateboard and prepared to carry out “a violent form of jihad” through YouTube videos.

Michael Wolfe

Michael Wolfe

Both Khan and Wolfe, now 24, were arrested June 17, 2014, when Wolfe and his family tried to board a plane to Canada on his way to join the fight in Syria. By then, the Islamic State was at the climax of its rise, spreading into Iraq and capturing cities such as Mosul.

Standing in federal court in a jail jumpsuit this September, on the day he was sentenced to a decade in prison for attempting to provide material support to terrorists, Khan said he believed he had been doing the right thing.

“When I was young, I ran into people who showed me the suffering of many innocent people all over the world, and about the same time, they misused aspects of my religion and that led me to believe that it was my duty to do something,” he said.

Sheikh Abdullahal-Faisal uses the website "AuthenticTauheed" as a pulpit to spread ideas of jihad and hate.

Radicalizing on the Web

Al-Faisal’s call to jihad was first captured more than 15 years ago on cassette tapes played inside Islamic bookshops and sold on the streets of East London. It urged all Muslim men to kill Christians, Jews and Hindus and promised virgins in paradise for those who die in holy war.

Al-Faisal now lives in exile, banned from travel and proselytizing in mosques in his home country of Jamaica, where he was deported in January 2007, after he served more than four years in a United Kingdom prison for inciting murder and stirring racial violence. But online, through tweets, blogs and chat rooms, his words still reach the masses.

For almost four decades, political analysts say, the West has grappled with understanding and fighting the appeal of men such as al-Faisal, ideologues who sell dreams of utopia under Islamic law and tell young people, like Khan, that it is their duty to take up arms in the quest of a restored caliphate, a form of Islamic government dating back to the seventh century.

On the Web, they have found a vast platform where they can tailor their message to reach people of all ages and backgrounds. They target the disenfranchised and alienated, counterterrorism experts say, but also sweep up idealistic adolescents looking to save civilian lives in distant wars.

For every individual, the process of radicalization is unique. “It is very idiosyncratic and personal,” said Bruce Hoffman, a Georgetown University political analyst and professor. “We would like to believe there is some simple solution — one single reason and then we can go in and fix it, but there’s not.”

Al-Qaida, which was created in 1988 and had a division solely devoted to communications, was the first terrorist group to wield the Internet to manipulate the masses. But no extremist organization has mastered online propaganda better than its deadly off-shoot, the Islamic State group, which shocked viewers by displaying videos of the beheadings of Western journalists and activists.

The Islamic State has flooded the Web with apps, social media campaigns and gory videos, as it has sought to carve out an autonomous region in the heart of the Middle East.

The Islamic State, also known as ISIS, has the resources that al-Qaida never had, analysts said, including territory, vast finances derived from oil fields and a growing ability to lure Westerners to travel across borders to join its ranks. Some estimates put the numbers of such recruits at least 4,500 people, more than 250 of whom are believed to be American.

The cases against Khan and Wolfe were among the first aimed at slowing the phenomenon of Islamic State recruitment in the United States. Now all FBI field offices are working on similar cases.

“ISIS has been very successful at finding dissatisfied young Americans, who find its message appealing, whether they are looking to fill empty lives or to strike out because they feel discriminated against,” retired Adm. Bobby Inman, the former director of the National Security Agency, told the American-Statesman. “I don’t think we have a feel at all for how large the network is, but we know the pool of people to poach is large.”

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Homegrown threat

On “AuthenticTauheed,” named after the most fundamental concept in Islam that holds God is one, Khan said he wanted to wage violent jihad and maim foreigners. The problem for investigators was: How far would he go?

“In this country, we have rights. We have the right to free speech, but it is when they start going down this path of violent action — that’s when the FBI intervenes,” said FBI supervisory Special Agent Jason Cromartie.

Like many agents, Cromartie joined the FBI after the 9/11 attacks to protect the country. He hates the phrase “zero margin for error,” but that is what the job is like.

“We are primarily in the prevention business,” he said. And in recent years, that business has gotten even harder.

Up until the past decade, terrorist threats to the U.S. tended to be external. In the 1970s and ’80s, the fear was of airliner hijackings. In the late 1980s to early ’90s, it was bombings. After 9/11, as the battle of ideas moved online, the lines have become blurrier for national security and law enforcement officials who must separate those speaking about violence from those self-radicalized individuals willing to do damage.

In a visit to Austin in September, CIA Director John Brennan underscored the concern. “Just like it is against the law to go into a crowded movie theater and cry ‘fire,’ because of the risk and harm that you will then engender, (we must find) what is it that these individuals are doing in that digital environment that is the equivalent of yelling fire and risking people’s lives,” he told the American-Statesman.

A confidential tip led Cromartie and other investigators to Khan in March 2011. Khan was a skilled debater who discussed guns, the war against Islam and preparation for a Third World War. To test whether he would act, they introduced him to a confidential source claiming to want to move to Somalia and join al-Shabab.

Potential signs of radicalization

The rate of radicalization varies and can be very quick or can take years. Law enforcement officials suggest monitoring a child’s social media accounts and Internet browsing history. Other signs to watch include:

  • Any sudden change in the way a child interacts socially with family and friends, such as cutting ties or frequently interacting with small, isolated groups of individuals.
  • Withdrawing from person-to-person interaction and spending hours online and in social media.
  • Intolerance toward others with different political or religious beliefs.
  • Openly defending terrorist groups and attacks.

To report suspicious activity:

Source: FBI

Khan told the source “his brain ‘starts bleeding’ when he sees weak ‘Bengalis’ who have … ‘no love to shed blood,’” according to his indictment. But it was when he introduced the informant to a co-conspirator that he broke the law.

After countless hours of surveillance and coordination with other FBI agents in Florida, the investigation culminated three years later at the George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, where Wolfe, his wife and children tried to board a flight to Toronto, as a step toward reaching Syria, under the guise of attending a concert in Turkey.

On the day Khan was sentenced, his defense lawyer, Joe Turner, questioned the FBI’s involvement, arguing there was “a distinction between catching a terrorist and creating a terrorist.”

Perhaps he had been young and impressionable, prosecutors said. But the young people he influenced, younger, uneducated men like Wolfe, were “more impressionable,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Greg Sofer told federal Judge Sam Sparks.

“They were young and trying to find a way through life, and Mr. Khan, through his own words, planted the seed, and that seed is incredibly dangerous to this country, to the citizens of this community,” Sofer said.

Abeer Syed, right, and her daughters Manaal Choudhury, left, 10, and Malaika Choudhury, 11. Syed, like many other Muslim parents, says the answer to preventing extremism is in education, but she stresses that the threat is not exclusively a Muslim problem. (Jay Janner/American-Statesman)

Thwarting paths of violence

Even after the arrests of Khan, Wolfe and others, al-Faisal continues to post his lectures on “AuthenticTauheed.” But thwarting young people from paths to radicalization won’t happen with weapons and handcuffs, law enforcement officials and religious leaders say. It will take wide community efforts to ensure young people don’t feel disenfranchised and to provide them with a strong foundation on the Islamic faith.

In extremism, “a huge part of what we see is ignorance — people who don’t pick up and read the Quran but want to take a stand for what they believe in,” said Abeer Syed, a Round Rock resident and mother of two young girls. Syed, like many other Muslim parents, says the answer is in education but the threat isn’t exclusively a Muslim problem.

“We are more worried about our children being shot by a non-Muslim extremist than we are of our children becoming Muslim extremists,” said Aimen Ansari, another mother living in East Austin. In such a hostile climate toward Muslim Americans, parents said, it is difficult for teens to come forward with questions when they see bombs being dropped in their native countries.

When Khan was 19, he wanted to know what he could do to help in the humanitarian crisis in Syria and Iraq, where a brutal civil war was claiming the lives of thousands of Muslim families like his. His father warned him not to get involved, saying that in such a conflict it was hard to tell apart enemies from friends.

“We are more worried about our children being shot by a non-Muslim extremist than we are of our children becoming Muslim extremists.”

Aimen Ansari, Muslim mother living in East Austin

But some imams said they had concerns Khan and a group of young people might be leaning toward extremism when, only a few months before his arrest, another young man interrupted a scholar during a speech at the North Austin Muslim Community Center and was banned for spouting radical views. He and his friends, Khan among them, left the mosque that day and didn’t return.

Sitting in his office on the rainy Saturday after the Paris attacks, Sheikh Mohamed-Umer Esmail, who leads the Nueces Mosque near UT, said he knew Khan since his high school days and was disappointed.

“He did not reach out to me at all,” Esmail said. “I do wish I could have done more. I didn’t think they would go that far.”