Protecting America from Online Radicalization and Homegrown Terror

When twenty-two year old Zachary Chesser was sentenced to 25 years in federal prison this past year, many casual observers wondered aloud how a middle-class kid from Virginia could have descended into a world of Islamist-inspired fundamentalism, promoting violence and extolling the virtues of Islamist propaganda. Within America’s counterterrorism community, however, examples such as Chesser’s have become a far too common phenomenon.

Chesser’s path to radicalization and subsequent attempts to foment relationships with al-Qaeda and al-Shabaab operatives followed a frequent path: The internet. Using the internet as a medium to broaden his radicalization and develop his own propaganda became an increasingly destabilizing force in his life. Chesser’s radicalization culminated in his being arrested as he attempted to board a flight bound for Uganda, ostensibly to join al-Shabaab in Somalia as a “foreign fighter.” 

In addressing the evolving threat of homegrown radicalization and the internet as a mode for advancing such inclinations, the United States Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs released a report this week, largely informed through research conducted by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START).

The report acknowledged the uptick in cases of terrorist plots conceived within the American homeland. Of the more than 53 cases of homegrown, Islamist-inspired terrorist activities between September 11, 2001 - February 2012, 11 occurred within the past year alone.

One potential element contributing to the increase in homegrown radicalization has been the ease with which individuals inclined toward such activities have been able to access and communicate with other like-minded individuals. 

The START report noted that in years past, “The ideology of violent Islamist extremism was limited to select web forums and pre-approved web videos...Previously, extremist web sites were primarily restricted from the general public. As a result, a potential recruit had to search out and befriend members of radical forums in order to be accepted and subsequently gain access to the full functionality of the sites.”

This has changed, however. As the use of social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter extend into the hundreds of millions, it has become far less difficult to connect with others on the path of radicalization.

“Today, however, with the popularization of social networking sites, individuals who are becoming radicalized have the ability to find like-minded individuals more easily. In addition, these social networking sites allow for a level of interaction and information sharing that was not feasible even a few years ago,” the START report lamented. 

Besides merely connecting with other radicals, far more dangerous material is increasingly being found on more mainstream websites. 

As START noted, “Incendiary materials – including videos and lectures – are increasingly found not only on obscure web sites but also on some of the most widely accessed sites in the world – including Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. The result has been a pronounced increase in the volume of extremist material online, and a corresponding increase in the number of individuals who are viewing this material.”

The internet has been a tremendous advent in mankind’s ability to access and disseminate information on a scale previously thought impossible. With such abilities, however, comes the need to acknowledge and anticipate unintended consequences. 

While the prospect of increased radicalization resulting from greater internet accessibility of incendiary material is indeed frightening, such a phenomenon should not embolden the federal government into embarking upon intrusions which would affect the constitutional rights of individuals. 

Greater government control of the internet is not the solution to this problem. Vigilance and public awareness are the necessary checks to answer this challenge.

In concluding their assessment of online radicalization and homegrown extremism, the START report culminated in a number of findings.

Among the findings issued by the START report include the recognition that, “Violent Islamist extremists use the Internet to recruit, radicalize, and mobilize individuals – including Americans. Chesser is likely a harbinger, not an outlier, for violent Islamist extremism online, not just in the United States, but globally.”

Although a recent Duke/RTI study showed a slight decrease in homegrown radicalization over the past two years, the widening threat of online radicalization augurs the potential for those levels to rise. An unappealing prospect, but one to which all Americans must be aware. 

Article originally appeared at The Foundry