Overwhelmed Feds: Sharp Increase In Terror Arrests & Investigations - Across The Country and Online

According to a recently released report by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), 40 people residing in the U.S. have been arrested on terrorism charges, so far in 2015. This represents a sharp increase as compared to the two years prior. In 2014 26 were arrested and in 2013 the number arrested was 22.

These figures, however, don’t include the estimated number of those who have traveled overseas to join terrorist groups such as ISIS. Back in March 2015, FBI Director James Comey said that roughly 180 Americans have joined ISIS abroad.

The ADL reports:

“The number of U.S. residents linked to terrorism per year has varied considerably in the years since 2001, with an approximate average of 28 U.S. residents linked to terrorism annually between 2002 and 2014. The year with the greatest number thus far was 2009, when 58 U.S. residents were charged with terror offenses or otherwise named as having fought or died fighting with terrorist organizations abroad. At least one-third of those individuals were linked to Al Shabaab, the Al Qaeda affiliate in Somalia, which had been actively recruiting Americans.”

If the current rate of eight individuals per month continues, the number of people living in America, linked to Islamic terrorism in 2015, can be expected to exceed the 2009 data.

What is noteworthy is that the vast majority of the cases in 2015 involved the use of the Internet. The Internet was utilized for viewing terrorist propaganda, for connecting with other like-minded individuals and to meet with co-conspirators. Additionally, the results for 2015 demonstrate a shift to almost unanimous support for one particular terrorist organization–ISIS.  Of the 40 taken into custody, there were only two who did not act in support of ISIS–and one of the two did reportedly support ISIS but was accused of having fought with Jabhat al Nusra, Al Qaeda in Syria. Since 2014, approximately 83% of the total number arrested have been supporters of ISIS. And, this support is related to ISIS’ use of the Internet as a means of communication and recruitment.

It has been noted that ISIS members and supporters online have avoided the Darknet for recruiting, but have been found to be using it for other purposes such as exchanging sensitive information and strategizing. The average terrorist or potential terrorist cannot simply pick up the phone and call the Geek Squad for help with hiding their digital communications. Because of that, jihadists have formed online technical support communities, including al-Minbar al-I`lami al-Jihadi, an open network that doesn’t require registration unless the user wants to post content or chat via the platform.

This tech support model has been in practice for a while but is currently on the increase:

“This analysis indicates that jihadist forum and chat room participants are turning to one another with increasing frequency to learn best practices for digital operational security. Many of the questions are mundane and the answers are easily found either by consulting NGO sites dedicated to providing information about online privacy and security or popular commercial sites dedicated to information security.[3] Yet, despite multiple other avenues of information, questions of security regarding popular platforms such as Skype, Google, Gmail, WhatsApp, Tor Mail, are being posed in jihadi forums. Individuals with higher levels of technical acumen regularly warn those inquiring about commonly used products, indicating both their fundamental lack of security and the prevalence of surveillance by nation states on these platforms. These low-level questions are quickly and effectively answered.

Each of these tools provide ways to establish or enhance anonymity when communicating online. Combined use of these tools does not fully safeguard the anonymity of individuals online, yet it can significantly enhance the probability of remaining anonymous. Tools such as Tor and Tails facilitate anonymous browsing behavior. Tails can also alter the MAC address of a system, which serves as the computer’s identification number while browsing, much like a postal address in the physical world. DuckDuckGo and StartPage enable anonymous or quasi anonymous searches.[6] JustPasteIt enables the quick and largely anonymous sharing of information via HTML links and has become increasingly popular with organizations such as the Islamic State.[7] Silent Circle is an encrypted email platform that has recently worked on the Black Phone project to enable stronger privacy.[8] The Guardian Project applications are designed to enhance privacy and secure communications on mobile devices.”

Tiqani al-Islam is one who provides detailed information on Virtual Private Networks (VPNs). The Combating Terrorism Center explains that “by identifying and highlighting which networks should not be used, they are enhancing the aggregate security of the network. By educating users how to use VPNs or the Tor network they are increasing the costs to intelligence and law enforcement” in what has been referred to as the “Technological Treadmill,” in which terrorists seek to stay ahead of counterterrorist agents.

On a more disturbing note:

“Terrorists are able to leverage digital tools in other ways. User Abu ‘Umbar al-Filistini, writing with the Twitter handle Usayyid al-Madani, provided detailed explanations on how to download and use online mapping programs to plan and coordinate “military operations.” This discussion harkens back to the use of Google Earth by Lashkar-i-Tayyiba operatives to conduct the 2008 Mumbai attacks that resulted in approximately 160 civilian fatalities. With the increasing sophistication of geo-mapping capabilities comes a heightened ability to plan operations with a better understanding of local terrain and its tactical advantages and disadvantages.”

Twenty-eight of the 40 arrested in the U.S. in 2015 were charged with providing material support to terrorism. Minneapolis, MN is the home of the largest terrorist plot which involved at least 9 people. A substantial amount of recruitment takes place in the midst of Minnesota’s community of Somali immigrants. But, the recruitment efforts of ISIS now dominate those of al Shabaab.

“People often ask who is doing the recruiting and when will we catch the person responsible,” says U.S. Attorney Andrew M. Luger of the District of Minnesota. “But it is not that simple. In today’s case, the answer is that this group of friends is recruiting each other. They’re engaged in what we describe as peer-to-peer recruiting.”

Not all of the arrested were planning to go abroad. Fourteen of the individuals linked to terrorism in 2015 were plotting or at the very least discussing the possibility of a domestic attack. Five of the 2015 plots were focused on the U.S. military:

“According to law enforcement, Jonas Edmonds was targeting the National Guard base where Hasan Edmonds had trained, using Hasan’s uniform and knowledge; John Booker was targeting the Ft. Riley base in Kansas; Noelle Velentzas and Asia Siddiqui discussed targeting military, government or law enforcement; Abdirahman Sheikh Mohamud wanted to kill soldiers at a military base in Texas; and the unnamed South Carolina minor had planned to undertake a shooting at a North Carolina military base.”

The 40 arrested are an ethnically diverse group of individuals, with a little over one-fifth of them converts to Islam, proving yet again that there is no set ethnic profile. Thirteen of those arrested in 2015 are Caucasian, while 7 are Somali-American.

The arrests in 2015 were relegated to just 12 states. Seven individuals were arrested in California (2 of whom were Minnesota residents), 6 were arrested in New York, 5 in Minnesota, 4 in Illinois, 3 in Missouri, and 2 each in Ohio, Kansas and Florida. Also represented in the study are Wisconsin, Florida, Virginia, New Jersey, South Carolina, Texas, Georgia and Pennsylvania.

In March, it was reported that there are open investigations into potential ISIS supporters in all 50 states. U.S. investigators are becoming overwhelmed, in particular with trying to keep up with the potential threats on the Internet by U.S.-based, ISIS-linked users. Adding to the challenge is the fact that ISIS has been fine-tuning its technical skills and has been advancing onto the Darknet.