Terrorists Seen Using the Internet to Rapidly Inspire Attacks

  • ‘The digital world knows no bounds,’ FBI’s Steinbach says
  • He tells lawmakers radicalization now takes only weeks or days

One of the biggest challenges to preventing terrorist attacks inside the U.S. is the speed at which individuals can be radicalized over the internet, a top FBI official told senators.

QuickTake Fighting Islamic State

In the past, terrorist groups would spend months or years radicalizing individuals, Michael Steinbach, executive assistant director of the FBI’s National Security Branch, told a Senate panel Wednesday in Washington. The internet can reduce that timeline to days or weeks, and no group is better at it than Islamic State, he said.

The volume of internet communications coupled with the ability to shield online activity through encryption makes it especially difficult for law enforcement and intelligence agencies to find so-called lone wolfs who are rapidly radicalized, Steinbach said.

"The digital world knows no bounds," Steinbach said. "It’s up to us to sort through the noise and identify those signals that are most concerning."

U.S. officials and lawmakers are seeking fresh approaches to counter terrorist propaganda online and quickly identify plots after the shooting in Orlando, Florida, last month, the worst terrorist act in the country since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

Orlando Shooter

Steinbach confirmed that the Orlando shooter, Omar Mateen, had seen terrorist propaganda online. He didn’t provide details.

Officials from the State Department and Homeland Security Department also testified at Wednesday’s hearing of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.

"It’s clear to our enemy that the information battle space is as important as the physical battle space," Meagen LaGraffe, chief of staff for the State Department’s Global Engagement Center, told lawmakers. The center is charged with working with U.S. and international groups to counter terrorist messaging.

The Homeland Security Department also announced Wednesday that $10 million in grants would be made available to state and local programs for that purpose.

Most terrorist plots uncovered by law enforcement agencies in the U.S. in 2015 were inspired or enabled by terrorist groups, rather than directed by them, Steinbach said.

Passively viewing online material isn’t against the law so the challenge for law enforcement agencies is identifying actual threats and plots, Steinbach said. The Federal Bureau of Investigation currently is investigating about 1,000 terrorism-related cases in the U.S., most of which involve some level of radicalization over the internet, he said.

"In the world that we live in today, the threat starts online in many cases," he said.

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