U.S. war on terror focuses on new battlefield: the Internet

A Woodlawn man watches online videos of Osama bin Laden, posts about jihad on his Facebook page, and — according to federal prosecutors — agrees to a plot to detonate a bomb at a military recruiting center in Catonsville.

An Ellicott City teen is accused of using the Internet to solicit volunteers and money for a jihadist war in South Asia and Europe.


A former Army private from Laurel comes across an Islamic website, becomes a Muslim and makes plans to join a State Department-designated terrorist group in Somalia so he can live under Sharia law.

That soldier, Craig Benedict Baxam, is the most recent Marylander accused of finding his way to Islamic extremism online. He was charged last week by federal authorities with attempting to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization.


A besieged al-Qaida, weakened by 10 years of war, the killing of Osama bin Laden and the removal of other top leaders, is now focusing much of its attention on inspiring recruits in the United States and elsewhere to carry out attacks that the terror group itself might no longer be capable of mounting.

The United States, meanwhile, is moving to counter the potential appeal of the jihadist pitch.

The FBI is monitoring Islamist websites and chat rooms. The State Department is logging on to online forums, blogs and social-networking sites to rebut what officials call "the extremist narrative."

And the White House released last month a first-ever strategic plan to fight homegrown terrorism. The plan seeks closer relations with local communities seen by organized terrorists as recruiting grounds, to help them build resilience against members becoming radicalized — and to encourage their cooperation with law enforcement.

Terrorism analyst Daveed Gartenstein-Ross called it "the softer side of counterterrorism."

"It's a question of, how do you relate to communities without antagonizing them?" said Gartenstein-Ross, director of the Center for the Study of Terrorist Radicalization at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington. "Where you have extremism, how do you promote new engagement rather than ideas being tucked away until they become more radical and manifest themselves in some sort of violence?"

It is unclear what impact such efforts might have had on Baxam.

The 24-year-old former soldier, who converted to Islam shortly before he left the Army last summer, was arrested in Kenya last month as he made his way to Somalia, where he hoped to join al-Shabaab and live under its strict interpretation of Islamic law.


The State Department declared al-Shabaab a foreign terrorist organization in 2008. Officials say the al-Qaida-linked group is responsible for suicide bombings, assassinations and other attacks on the Somali government, community leaders, aid workers, peace activists and journalists.

According to prosecutors, Baxam told FBI agents that the world is at war with Islam and that if the United States attacked al-Shabaab, he would take up arms to defend it. He was "looking for dying with a gun in my hand," he reportedly told the agents, and believed it would guarantee him a place in paradise.

His court-appointed public defender says Baxam wanted only to live his life in a new land, according to his new religion.

Federal public defender John C. Chamble described the 2005 Laurel High School graduate as "naive" and "impulsive," but said any comments Baxam made about defending al-Shabaab or taking up arms came in response to leading questions by the FBI agents who interviewed him.

Baxam is not accused of planning an attack in or against the United States. There is no evidence that he was recruited by al-Shabaab or had any contact with that group or anyone else about his plan.

But elements of his case, including his online study and conversion to Islam, recalled Antonio Martinez, the Woodlawn man charged in December 2010 with attempting to set off a bomb at the Armed Forces Career Center on Baltimore National Pike in Catonsville.


The dummy device that Martinez is accused of trying to detonate in the strip mall parking lot had been given to him by undercover FBI agents. They had monitored his Facebook musings about Islam and jihad after receiving a tip from an informant he allegedly tried to recruit.

Martinez, who adopted the name Muhammad Hussain, pleaded not guilty last year. He is scheduled for rearraignment on Wednesday, when he could enter a new plea.

Mohammad Hassan Khalid, a Pakistani teen who grew up in Ellicott City, was indicted last year on charges of providing material support to terrorists.

Khalid, 18, is accused of using the Internet to help create a "a violent jihad organization." Authorities say he worked with the suburban Philadelphia woman known as "Jihad Jane" to recruit Americans and Europeans who would be divided into teams and assigned tasks that included planning, research, finance and action.

Khalid, who graduated from Mount Hebron High School last year with plans to enroll at the Johns Hopkins University, has pleaded not guilty.

The number of Americans who have been radicalized since Sept. 11, 2001, remains small. Brian Michael Jenkins, a senior scholar at the Rand Corp., counts fewer than 200 cases among a Muslim community estimated at 3 million in the United States.


"The jihadist ideology is simply not gaining any foothold among American Muslims," Jenkins said. "It's rejected."

Still, homegrown terrorists, because they know the country and its vulnerabilities, and move freely and undetected through society, pose a distinct threat.

Most notoriously, Army Maj. Nidal Hassan is accused of killing 13 soldiers and civilians at Fort Hood, Texas, and wounding 32 more when he opened fire with a semiautomatic pistol in November 2009.

The potentially more lethal plot of Times Square bomber Faizal Shahzad, a Pakistani-American, fizzled not because it was thwarted by authorities, but because his car bomb failed to detonate.

Investigators and analysts say the radicalized fit no single profile. They have included young and old, men and women, natives and immigrants, rich and poor, college graduates and high school dropouts, lifelong Muslims and recent converts.

Compounding the challenge for authorities, they are often isolated from their communities and work and plot alone.


"Most of the cases, more than two-thirds, involve a single individual," Jenkins said. "Their actions are invariably a matter of self-initiative. … And it's very, very difficult to pick them up because they don't necessarily hit any of the tripwires that might bring them to the attention of authorities."

One common theme does emerge. While many are isolated within their communities, most are well-connected online, where al-Qaida and its affiliates are expanding their activities.

"Whereas the Internet was previously used to spread propaganda, it is now used in recruiting, radicalizing, training and inciting terrorism," Mark F. Giuliano, assistant director of the FBI Counterterrorism Division, said last year. "Thousands of extremist websites promote violence to a worldwide audience predisposed to the extremist message."

Jenkins says the shift to the virtual battlefield is partly a result of U.S. success on real ones.

"These groups no longer have the capacity that al-Qaida had in 2001 for planning and preparing and executing these ambitious, centrally directed attacks," he said. "As we have degraded those operational capacities, they have put greater emphasis on a do-it-yourself strategy — that is, greater efforts on communications, on reaching people through the Internet and persuading them to do whatever they can wherever they are."

The United States is working to show up in the same places to rebut terrorists' claims. The State Department established the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications in 2010 to develop, in the words of Ambassador Richard LeBaron, "narratives and public communications strategies to confront and discredit the extremist messages."


Speaking recently at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, LeBaron said the center is addressing a "specific, narrowly defined" audience: "People who are sympathetic to the views of al-Qaida and could be vulnerable to its propaganda; people who could be persuaded or enticed into crossing the boundary between sympathy and action, until they pick up a gun or strap on a bomb or directly facilitate an attack.

"Our job is to nudge people into a different path; help them question some of their assumptions; and contribute to an environment in which terrorist violence is not considered a viable, acceptable or effective option."

That work includes "digital outreach" to challenge "extremist messages online in Arabic, Urdu and Somali through participation on forums, blogs, media and social-networking sites," LeBaron said.

The U.S. government hasn't always been comfortable with such outreach, says Matthew Levitt, director of the Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

"We're concerned about free-speech issues, we're concerned about getting involved in something that's being done in the name of religion, etc.," he said. "But there are ways to come at this that shouldn't make people feel uncomfortable."

He compares the current approach to public service campaigns against smoking.


"It's not illegal to smoke, the same way it's not illegal to say nasty things. But we do spend a lot of time and money and have a lot of policies in place to try and contest what is a dangerous habit — dangerous for yourself and for others. We could be doing the same with violent extremism."

One early product of the State Department center is a video that contrasts claims by terrorist leaders that violence is the only way to overthrow the entrenched regimes of the Middle East with footage of the largely peaceful movements that brought new governments in Egypt and Tunisia.

LeBaron says the Arab Spring has helped to marginalize al-Qaida in the Middle East. But he warns that the group cannot be counted out.

"We expect al-Qaida and its supporters to continue to seek every opportunity and advantage to get back into the discussion, seize on chaos or discontent, and reach out anew to potential recruits and supporters," he said. "But when they try to do this in the communications arena, CSCC will be there to meet them, using the tools of engagement to confront, discredit and marginalize their appeals."