FRESNO, California, March 19, (Agencies): Law enforcement officials believe the San Bernardino massacre and a stabbing attack on a California college campus were done by lone wolves inspired by the Islamic State group, and counterterrorism experts say both show how the organization is expanding its reach through social media.
Recruitment videos the extremists post online are often short and flashy. They feature hip-hop music, promising a chance to be part of a global cause and, experts say, most importantly target to a vulnerable audience. “For somebody searching for meaning and feeling disconnected, that’s a very powerful message, and difficult to resist,” said John Cohen, a criminal justice professor at Rutgers University and formerly the Department of Homeland Security’s counter terrorism coordinator.
That’s how Faisal Mohammad, an 18-year-old freshman at the University of California, Merced, appears to have become self-radicalized. The FBI says he visited IS websites for several weeks before he wounded four people in the Nov. 4 knife attack. A campus police officer shot and killed him.
A month later, the gun-wielding husband-and-wife team in San Bernardino shot and killed 14 people and wonded 21 others. Investigators say they were also influenced by the Islamic State group, but not directly connected to it. “The Internet enables people who aren’t necessarily able to function well in a group to claim at least that they’re inspired by an ideology,” said Jessica Stern, a research professor at the Pardee School for Global Studies at Boston University.
Mohammad had been shunned by a study group at U.C. Merced, where he was a freshman, authorities have said, and Syed Rizwan Farook, 28, launched the San Bernardino attack with his wife against a group of colleagues gathered at a luncheon.
“More must be done to combat jihadists’ narrative and their use of the Internet to radicalize, recruit, and fundraise,” said Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a Republican from Bakersfield. He cited two dozen IS-inspired plots in the United States since 2014. Lone-wolf attacks carried out in this country are a “Western luxury,” said Max Abrahms, a political science professor at Northeastern University. He says it’s a sign that there are not large terrorists groups carrying out attacks. But he agrees that isolated attacks are likely to increase as the Islamic State is increasingly under fire in its strongholds in Iraq and Syria. “Islamic State is going to continue to decentralize as it gets battered,” Abrahms said.
“The Internet isn’t going away. The group is going to call upon locals to commit attacks.” Meanwhile, a Virginia man pleaded guilty in US federal court on Friday to trying to join Islamic State in Syria earlier this year, becoming the fourth American this week to be convicted of attempting to support the group. Joseph Hassan Farrokh, 28, a US citizen from Woodbridge, Virginia, admitted that he attempted to fly to Jordan in January in order to cross into Syria and fight for Islamic State, in a plea agreement hearing at the US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, in Alexandria.
An acquaintance of Farrokh, Mahmoud Elhassan, 25, was also charged in January with helping Farrokh join the militant group by driving him partway to the airport and by introducing Farrokh to someone he believed to be an Islamic State recruiter — but who was actually an FBI informant. Elhassan has not yet entered a plea in his case, but he planned to eventually join Farrokh in Syria to fight with Islamic State, according to Farrokh’s plea agreement.
Convictions for Islamic State-related activity by Americans have become more frequent in recent months as more than 80 such cases brought by US prosecutors since 2013 work their way through federal courts. Farrokh is the fourth American to be convicted of attempting to support Islamic State since last Friday, when a Mississippi man pleaded guilty to trying to join the jihadist group with his wife.
An Ohio man pleaded guilty on Wednesday to urging people to join the militant group through social media, and an Arizona man was convicted by a jury on Thursday of helping his roommates attack a “Draw Mohammed” cartoon contest in Texas last year.
Farrokh is one of five people whom federal prosecutors in Virginia’s Eastern District have accused of trying to join Islamic State in the past year and a half. One of them, Reza Niknejad, 20, successfully traveled to Syria last year to join the group, according to court records. Two other defendants in the district were sentenced last year to 4-1/2 and 11-1/3 years in prison for trying to do the same. More recently, a 26-year-old American man who fought alongside Islamic State was identified through his Virginia driver’s license as Mohammed Jamal Khweis after being captured by Kurdish forces in Iraq earlier this week. Iraqi authorities will have to transfer him into US custody before federal prosecutors can bring any charges against him, the Justice Department said.