There Have Been Zero Terror Attacks in the U.S. by People Radicalized by ISIS Through Social Media

News & Politics

The term “radicalized” is a problematic one, namely because virtually no one who carries out sub-state political violence (which we’ll broadly refer to as terrorism) follows the same pattern. Some are hyper-religious while others have but a passing knowledge of the Bible or Quran. Some are battle-hardened fighters, while others carry out their “jihad” in a typical workplace violence mode. But in the wake of a terrorist attack, authorities and the press alike scramble to ask the question: When exactly did the attacker begin to show signs of violent ideology? In the case of Islamic-tinted violence, the question more specifically is: When did they first show support for either al Qaeda or ISIS ideology?

The answer to this question for the four last major "Islamic" terror attacks—two in the United States and two in Paris—is, to the person, before the rise of ISIS on social media was a significant force. Almost all the killers were known to authorities before they carried out their attacks and all of them were showing outwards signs of "jihad" before late 2013, when ISIS social media became a significant, independent online phenomenon. So why do governments and the media keep conflating the two? Why, in the wake of these attacks, do we see increased calls for censorship, monitoring or counter-propaganda when there's been no evidence that anyone who's carried out an attack in the west was recruited or radicalized via social media?

First, it's important to make a distinction between those who are radicalized to join the Islamic State via social media—for which we have some examples—and those who were radicalized to carry out attacks in the West—for which we have no examples. This piece will focus on the latter.

Over at Slate, resident technocratic authoritarian Eric Posner, who also gave us such liberal headlines as, “Obama Can Bomb Pretty Much Anything He Wants To" and “Prosecuting Dictators Is Futile" laid down the gantlet:

ISIS Gives Us No Choice but to Consider Limits on Speech

This polemic begins in earnest and is equal parts chilling and equal parts untrue:

It has become increasingly clear that terrorist groups such as ISIS can extend their reach to American territory via the Internet. Using their own websites, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and other platforms, they lure young men and women to their mission—without having to risk the capture of foreign agents on U.S. soil. The Americans ensnared in ISIS’s net in turn radicalize others, send money to ISIS, and even carry out attacks..

First, the link claiming ISIS propaganda has “ensnared” Americans to carry out attacks links to a story that does not back up this claim. The reality is there is no evidence that ISIS online propaganda has ensnared anyone to commit violence in the West. The phrase “it’s become increasingly clear” is a red flag for bogus trend stories. If it’s “clear,” then why is Posner writing this article? If it’s not, shouldn’t the burden be on Posner to show, specifically, how he came to this conclusion?

The only evidence Posner can produce is a profile in the New York Times about a 17-year-old boy in Virginia who was “radicalized” by ISIS social media and propagandized for others (but never carried out or planned an attack), and a rather dubious study by George Washington University documenting 300 “US-based ISIS sympathizers.” If true, this should be of concern to authorities, but all of this still doesn’t show clear causality between online ISIS propaganda and someone actually committing an act of violence in the West. Adding new war-time limits to free speech demands a clear connection. Thus far, there is none.

This casual conflation of ISIS propaganda with actual attacks was on full display after the San Bernardino shootings. Initial, anonymous law enforcement sources said the couple, Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik, had pledged support for ISIS on social media, further feeding this narrative. This later turned out not to be true.

Indeed, the New York Times story Posner links to in order to prop up his claim involves a sleight-of-hand that was later debunked by the FBI:

As the Obama administration takes on the multidimensional challenge posed by the Islamic State after the killings in San Bernardino, Calif., the online community of sympathizers in the United States is a critical focus.

But wait: The FBI announcement two days later says that the San Bernardino shooters never made any pro-jihadi social media posts. Why is the "online community of sympathizers in the United States a critical focus" if there’s no evidence such a community was being leveraged in support of these attacks? It’s natural in the wake of such horrific violence to want to “do something" to prevent another attacks, but the focus on "ISIS social media" continues to ignore the fact that there’s no evidence such a phenomenon has actually led to an attack in the West.

The Charlie Hebdo attackers, who were sponsored not by ISIS but AQAP, were radicalized sometime around 2010/2011. The Garland attacker, Elton Simpson, had been watched by authorities for radical statements as early as 2006. The Paris attackers were all well-known jihadists that EU authorities had been monitoring long before 2013. The San Bernardino attackers, says the FBI, had been interested in jihadist ideology (at that time the al Qaeda variant) as early as 2010. All this was before the rise of ISIS on social media as such.

Does social media make jihadi propaganda easier to disseminate? Probably. Does social media make it easier to terrorize after said attacks, or to promote the ISIS brand after said attacks? Possibly, but neither of these scenarios actually shows how ISIS propaganda leads to attacks in the West. While these features may be troubling, those, like Posner, who want to censor free speech on social media still have their work ahead of them: How does ISIS on social media present a unique problem that wouldn’t otherwise be satisfied by pre-social media platforms like message boards, email and good ol’ fashioned face-to-face meetings and phone calls (which Posner, of course, also wants to monitor and regulate).

To drive home his point, Posner says something uniquely troubling:

Speech that blasts the American constitutional system and praises America’s enemies has been held constitutionally protected time and again. 

However, these rules go back only to the 1960s. Before then, in the United States, people could be punished for engaging in dangerous speech. The U.S. government prosecuted Nazi sympathizers during World War II, draft protesters during World War I, and Southern sympathizers in the Union during the Civil War. It’s common sense that when a country is embroiled in a war, it should counter propaganda that could populate a fifth column with recruits.

Here, Posner casually claims that the free speech gains made in the '60s were simply a one-off, akin to an adolescent phase, and that a constant state of censorship and war is actually the natural state of things. For those who worked hard in the '60s to peel back some of the more authoritarian vestiges of red-scare infringements on speech, this may come as a shock. But again, Posner just smugly asserts it. A temporary restraint on free speech, or any other right, is understandable, but what Posner doesn’t flesh out is that this war, unlike WWI or the Civil War, is not a war that will likely end in our lifetime.

The war on terror is not a war anyone realistically thinks will ever end in a traditional sense, so what Posner is calling for—censorship of “terrorist” or "extremist" speech—means we will irreversibly alter the relationship between the state and those exercising free speech for the foreseeable future. Shouldn't such a radical step need more than sloppy assertions, vague impressions, and post-terror exploitation in order to be justified? Or, at the very least, shouldn't it provide at least one example of the problem it's ostensibly trying to solve? 

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