Social media might just seem like a fun tool to help you communicate with family and friends, but it can also be very dangerous in the wrong hands. For instance, the terrorist group ISIS has effectively used popular social media sites like YouTube and Twitter to recruit supports and spread propaganda. They may even have help from a computer whiz from the U.S.! That's why the FBI is turning to social media to capture would-be terrorists in the U.S. before they even have a chance to join the enemy.
The FBI is targeting American citizens and legal residents who post terrorist sympathies online. These supporters are especially scary because they could receive terrorist training overseas and then legally come back into U.S. with little scrutiny. The FBI contacts these wanna-be terrorists using informants and agents on sites like Instagram, Facebook and Twitter to see if the threat seems real.
It shows that undercover FBI agents or informants first identified or connected with the suspects via social media in at least four cases, using fake social media identities to engage them and, in Sheikh’s case, possibly engaging in “catfishing” by luring him into a personal relationship with a phony online persona. Agents also created a “false-flag” or “honeypot” Facebook page to help snare him.
But, the FBI's practices are coming under some scrutiny because some believe they're crossing the line. In the case of Basit Javid Sheikh, the man wanted to fight for a Syrian opposition group that was not labeled as a terrorist organization by the U.S. until an FBI informant posing as a female Syrian nurse suggested he join the terrorist group Al-Nusra Front. In two other cases, attorneys have claimed their clients were suffering from personality disorders like schizophrenia when they spoke with informants about joining terrorist groups.
While the FBI might have wandered into a gray area, it probably didn't cross the line in tracking down possible terrorists online. That's because the FBI gave the suspects a chance to back out of the plan.
The NBC News’ review of the recent cases revealed a pattern: Suspects began posting on Facebook or other social media expressing support for or seeking contact with one of the Islamic groups fighting in Iraq and Syria and were then engaged by informants or undercover FBI agents. Their new online friends offered to help them, supplying supposed contacts in the Mideast, encouraging them to purchase plane tickets and, in at least one case, promising financial assistance upon arrival. Then, after offering the suspects a chance to back out – a tactic that Karen Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School in New York City, said is intended to weaken any legal defense arguing entrapment – they arrested them at airports or U.S. border crossings as they sought to begin their journeys.
This is important because it gives the U.S. a way to fight back against terrorist groups that are using social media to recruit potential terrorists right from our own country.
These cases could end up with each suspect receiving well over 10 years in prison. That could bring fear and doubt to potential terrorists in the U.S. in the future and stop them from reaching out for dangerous information online.