In 2006, a disaffected 22-year-old Chechen living in California spent 18 months trolling radical websites, eventually getting invited into private online forums where he watched bomb-making videos.
“Ivan” was actually a 30-something FBI agent named Ernest Hilbert, whose investigation provided federal agents with a window into online grooming that targeted young transplants living in U.S. cities.
“It used to be that the process had to be physical and now 90 percent or more can happen online,” said Hilbert, 43, now a managing director for Kroll Advisory Solutions, the private security company.
Law enforcement officials said their early assumption is that the alleged Boston Marathon bombers acted alone and were motivated by a web-based radicalization that turned them from kids next door into self-taught militants willing to injure more than 260 people and kill three, including an eight-year-old boy.
Hilbert, whose online persona was remarkably similar to the real lives of the two suspects -- brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who arrived from the Russian Caucasus in 2002 -- said “self-taught” doesn’t mean the bombers had no help on their journey to militancy.
As he spent months posing on the Internet as a Chechen increasingly drawn to militant Islam, Hilbert’s alter ego was engaged by others in long conversations on Skype chat or in web forums. They told him to draw on the tenets of the Koran and his Chechen roots as an antidote to the injustices he experienced as an immigrant.
Some of those conversations became regular interactions. Eventually, he was sent links to videos on how to build a bomb and demonstrations of the damage those devices inflicted on U.S. troops abroad.
The agent was never given a specific mission. Instead, he was encouraged to find his own ways to act on his beliefs.
A growing trove of evidence, both online and offered by relatives, shows similar elements in the experience of the Boston bombing suspects, especially 26 year-old Tamerlan, who relatives said grew more strident over a two-year span before the attack. He was killed in a shootout with police on April 19.
Dzhokar Tsarnaev told investigators the brothers found bomb-making information in the pages of Inspire, an online magazine affiliated with al-Qaeda, Maryland Representative
C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said.
A U.S. official briefed on the interrogation confirmed that wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were given as a motivating factor behind the Boston attack.
“Everything that I see right now seems like they were radicalized through the Internet,” Ruppersberger said.
That process appeared to be a gradual one. Tamerlan, who at one point had hoped to be an Olympic boxer, gave up sports and began encouraging his mother and his wife to wear a headscarf in public.
His YouTube channel, started in August 2012, contains “likes” of an interview about Russians converting to Islam and a recording of an interview with a famous sheik.
The page also links to a video entitled “The Black Flags from Khorasan,” which refers to a prophecy of Mohammed predicting the rise of an army from the Central Caucasus that will march to Jerusalem. There are also videos of a well-known Russian singer named Timur Mucuraev, who in his music advocates jihad, according to Andrei Soldatov, a Russian researcher and expert in the country’s intelligence services.
Soldatov says he believes the brothers’ online interactions first brought the suspects to the attention of Russian authorities, who asked the FBI to interview Tamerlan before a trip he took back to Russia in 2012, citing his growing militancy.
Soldatov said Russia’s Federal Security Service, known as the FSB, uses sophisticated software to monitor social media sites, looking for incipient signs of the same radicalization process described by Hilbert.
“They might have picked up one of these guys discussing his ideas on a forum or chat monitored by the FSB and other law enforcement bodies of Russia,” Soldatov said in an interview.
Investigators are also taking a closer look at the 2012 trip back to Russia for any signs the oldest brother received training or had contact with militant groups fighting since 1994 to separate from Russia, according to lawmakers briefed on the investigation.
Hilbert said that as his online interactions deepened, he was invited to visit a mosque and several religious schools, including one in the U.S., which he said he couldn’t name because it may still be under investigation.
The months-long grooming -- beginning on public sites and continuing in invite-only web boards and forums -- amounted to crowdsourcing for potential converts to a militant brand of Islam, especially ones who were already located in the U.S.
His guides were especially effective at playing on the conditions faced by recent immigrants, who often find it hard to acclimate to their new country. In the days following the attack, the suspects’ uncle, Ruslan Tsarni, blamed the difficulties they had adjusting to life in the U.S. as a possible motivation for the attack, calling them “losers.”
“Everything we know about the older brother makes him the perfect candidate as someone who is so unhappy in this country that the right person saying the right things will switch you,” Hilbert said. “Education is the key to this process.”
After he was probed on his beliefs and vetted over his claimed identity, Hilbert was eventually given passwords to private forums, where he learned how to make bombs based on models used by militants in Iraq. That access to a more trusted environment also tightened the bonds between the agent’s alter ego and his guides -- and all of it occurred in cyberspace.
The agent repeatedly declined offers by his online groomers to travel abroad, explaining that his father forbade it.
Hilbert said the investigation, which ended after 18 months online, gave him a respect for the psychological power of the grooming he received and the effect of long hours spent in what amounted to a virtual camp for extremists.
“These guys aim at creating a friendship but really it’s a manipulation of you based on the thoughts you put out,” Hilbert said. “Having done the role, every night I went home hating myself, because in order to sell it, you have to act like you believe it.”
The case is U.S. v. Tsarnaev, 13-02106, U.S. District Court, District of Massachusetts (Boston).
-- With assistance from Phil Mattingly and Jim Rowley in Washington and Jason Corcoran in Moscow. Editors: Fred Strasser, David E. Rovella