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Web-savvy terrorists have success luring U.S. recruits with social media

| Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2015, 11:00 p.m.
Newlyweds Jaelyn Delshaun Young, 19, and her 22-year-old husband Mohammad Oda Dakhlalla planned their honeymoon: to Syria to join ISIS. But the FBI, attracted by their Twitter posts, arrested them when they arrived at a Mississippi airport to begin the trip.
George Washington University
Newlyweds Jaelyn Delshaun Young, 19, and her 22-year-old husband Mohammad Oda Dakhlalla planned their honeymoon: to Syria to join ISIS. But the FBI, attracted by their Twitter posts, arrested them when they arrived at a Mississippi airport to begin the trip.
Bosnian immigrant Abdullah Ramo Pazara, of St. Louis, came to the United States in the 1990s and left for Syria to join ISIS in 2013.
George Washington University
Bosnian immigrant Abdullah Ramo Pazara, of St. Louis, came to the United States in the 1990s and left for Syria to join ISIS in 2013.
Shortly after obtaining U.S. citizenship in 2013, Bosnian immigrant Abdullah Ramo Pazara (left) traveled to Syria and quickly rose to the rank of commander in a Balkan-dominated ISIS battalion.
George Washington University
Shortly after obtaining U.S. citizenship in 2013, Bosnian immigrant Abdullah Ramo Pazara (left) traveled to Syria and quickly rose to the rank of commander in a Balkan-dominated ISIS battalion.

The police officer's daughter and imam's son looked, to their relatives and friends, like any other newlyweds about to begin a life together.

But behind the veneer, Mohammad Dakhlalla, 22 and Jaelyn Young, 19, planned a secret honeymoon to Syria to join the Islamic State, according to a report released Tuesday by the Project on Extremism at George Washington University.

The two Mississippians are among 71 Americans arrested on charges of joining or trying to join ISIS since the group formed in March 2014.

Fifty-six of those were arrested in 2015, more than in any year since Sept. 11, 2001, according to the report. What's more, those charged “are merely the tip of the iceberg,” the report states.

FBI Director James Comey has told Congress that the bureau is investigating about 900 cases spread across all 50 states.

“They're trending younger. The average age (of recruits) is 26, but of the cases we looked at, one-third were 21 years old or younger,” said Seamus Hughes, deputy director of the Program on Extremism and a co-author of the report. For other terrorist groups, the average age of recruits is closer to 30, he said.

Much of ISIS's appeal to young recruits runs through social media, whose platforms give the group unprecedented reach into communities around the world. People don't need to attend a radical mosque or spend time with recruiters to be exposed to the caliphate's propaganda. They merely need to turn on their computer or open a smartphone app.

“They post near real-time updates of ISIS-led attacks and life in the caliphate, encouraging their fellow Americans to make the trek and, at times, scolding their real-world and online friends for their lack of commitment to the cause,” states the report, “ISIS in America: from Retweets to Raqqa.”

The report describes an online operation both vast and nimble, large enough to bombard anyone with pro-ISIS messages, yet able to quickly adapt to evade efforts to silence them by social media companies — Twitter, to name one — whose technology they're using.

The report divides ISIS-related Twitter accounts into three categories: nodes, whose users create most of the original content that supporters retweet; amplifiers, some of which might be automated accounts that retweet the nodes; and shout-out accounts.

“Shout-out accounts are a unique innovation and vital to the survival of the ISIS online scene,” the report states.

Twitter administrators routinely shut down ISIS-related accounts, but owners of the deleted accounts quickly reemerge with new handles that Twitter hasn't blocked. Shout-out accounts retweet those new handles, allowing online operatives to quickly rebuild their following, the report found.

The account suspensions, meanwhile, “become a badge of honor” to ISIS-affiliated users, who use them as a means of bolstering their credibility in the online community, according to the report.

The online hacker collective Anonymous pledged, after the Paris terror attacks, to help identify and shut down ISIS-related Twitter accounts and websites.

About 40 percent of ISIS' American recruits are converts to Islam, compared to 23 percent of all Muslims in the United States being converts to the faith, the report states. ISIS supporters aid the radicalization by taking malleable converts in search of information about their new faith and gradually introducing them into “an echo chamber” of online propaganda, Hughes said.

“They don't allow dissenters in there,” Hughes said.

Of the 71 people charged with trying to aid ISIS, just over half tried to travel abroad to join the group, the report found. A minority — 27 percent — plotted attacks within the United States. U.S. recruits are a mere fraction of the thousands of recruits who've left from Europe.

The ages of those arrested in the United States range from 15 to 47, and include Pittsburgh-born Amiir Farouk Ibrahim, who grew up in Saudi Arabia and Cairo. His passport was found in 2013 in a compound captured from the Sunni terrorist group that preceded ISIS.

Poverty and education — two factors closely associated with how likely a person is to commit a crime — don't work as a predictor for terrorism, Hughes said.

“It's hard to figure out a typical profile. You've got rich, you've got poor. You've got kids in high school, you've got college-educated (recruits). It just runs the gamut,” Hughes said. “There's not going to be a checklist law enforcement can do that says if you hit these 10 buckets, we know you're someone to be concerned about.”

Mike Wereschagin is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7900 or mwereschagin@tribweb.com.

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