“Terrorism is now moving at the speed of social media,” warned top FBI counter-terrorism official Michael McPherson during a speech leading into an exclusive interview with The Jerusalem Post last week.
McPherson spoke to the Post after his speech at the International Institute for Counter Terrorism IDC Herzliya’s 18th annual world summit.
He explained that social media have reached a new level of influence as a tool for terrorists, saying, “none of us are beyond the power of online messaging.”
The top counter-terrorism official said that radicalization – the process in which normal citizens evolve to become terrorists – has changed and now primarily starts or runs entirely as an online process.
Elaborating, he said that there is no longer an extensive old-style al-Qaeda vetting process to get into Islamic terrorism cells, but the groups are still either directing or inspiring attackers.
“Never before have we seen so many individuals not only inspired by rhetoric, but ready to act for an alleged ‘cause’,” said McPherson in describing the process by which terrorism groups incite “lone wolves” to perpetrate attacks.
Because social media and personal electronic devices have become so prominent with terrorism groups and in society in general, he said it is important that the FBI gets the legal tools it needs to obtain electronic evidence.
This sometimes leads the FBI into “the age-old argument about privacy versus security - where is that balance?,” he asked rhetorically.
The FBI works hard to get search warrants in most cases, though he did acknowledge that in cases where a US citizen communicates with a foreign individual of interest that evidence can be lawfully collected even without warrants - as was done in the case of an ethnic-Uzbek named Jamshid Muhtorov.
Muhtorov was sentenced in June to 11 years in prison by a US court in Denver for terrorism issues related to Uzbekistan after a long fight over whether the evidence collected without warrants was admissible in court.
Remarkably, the US prosecution publicized in detail its intelligence process for collecting the evidence, exposing a world that is otherwise kept classified.
McPherson said that it was, “rare that we would use overseas collection in some type of US court” and that it was even more unusual to have presented the intelligence process in a public setting. “It was rare, and will remain rare.”
Regarding dealing directly with social media outlets, he said that the FBI’s approach is dialog. “Companies must make [their own] conscious decisions” about where to draw the line about when to take down posts because of incitement or connections to terror groups, adding the dialogue is “not a space for the FBI to dictate.”
“We can educate them… about what the threat is, how it moves,” but they “make their announcements about what they take down” and what they do not.
Of course, McPherson said that, “the keyboard warriors online are only part of the overall efforts” of terrorists which still include organizations directly supporting terror attacks and giving direct orders to operatives to carry out specific attacks.
Regarding Israeli-US counter-terror cooperation, he called it “robust… It is only getting stronger.”
He said that many FBI agents visit Israel and receive training for better understanding terrorists’ culture and ideology which the agents then “bring it back to us… to invest in our cases as well.”
In addition, he said, “Israeli partners also come to us” and that both sides “share lots of information with each other” while working independently on most investigations.
One exceptional investigation which went even beyond standard information sharing was the cracking of the case of the JCC hoax bomber.
The minor behind 2,000 fake bomb threats in the US, Israel, Europe and elsewhere was indicted in Israel in April 2017 and convicted this past June after deep coordination between the US and Israel. “The successful disruption and arrest were because of the cooperation. One country could not have done it without the other,” McPherson concluded.