WASHINGTON – The Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee issued a staff report Monday detailing the internet radicalization of a homegrown terrorist to violent Islamist extremism and the inadequacy of U.S. policy to counter online radicalization.
The report presents a classic case study of how quickly online radicalization can occur compared to the traditional process of face to face contact between an aspirant and an established terrorist group.
In the case of Zachary Chesser, a young Virginia man now serving 25 years on terrorism related charges, the trajectory from high school graduate to incarcerated felon occurred in just two years.
“Chesser represents a growing breed of young Americans who have such comfort and facility with social media that they can self radicalize to violent Islamist extremism in an accelerated time period, compared to more traditional routes to radicalization,” the report said.
Chesser’s “prolific online writings and written correspondence with Committee staff provide a window into his thinking, and in turn, may shed light on the thinking of other like-minded individuals who may follow in his destructive path of radicalization toward violent Islamist extremism.”
Committee staff corresponded with Chesser over a three-month period from August through October 2011 and included four of those hand-written letters in the report.
Chesser’s extensive online writings also were analyzed closely. He was a member of and contributed to at least six terrorist online sites, created three YouTube terrorist propaganda channels, managed at least two Twitter accounts and a Facebook page, and authored two blogs advocating violent Islamist extremism.
The report offered two recommendations: It called on the federal government to develop a strategy aimed specifically at global internet radicalization and propaganda. “The U.S. Government needs a comprehensive Internet strategy to address online radicalization that integrates activities across the State Department, the Defense Department, the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, and other agencies into a single, coherent approach – while vigilantly respecting the First Amendment rights of all Americans,” the report concluded.
The report also recommended the federal government develop a “whole of society” approach to countering violent Islamist radicalization that includes “how to facilitate community intervention by family, friends, and community and religious leaders supported by federal, state, and local government resources. In addition, the U.S. government should strengthen its ability to assist Muslim American communities seeking to address and counter radicalization online.”