New York terrorist attack shows terror of online radicalization

by | Nov 5, 2017 | Detroit Free Press, Comment | 0 comments

What makes a terrorist? Can anyone really say?

There are generalities about poverty, but well-to-do men have gone on killing sprees.

There are accusations about being raised in certain countries, but terrorists pledge fealty to groups halfway around the world.

Religious fervor is cited as a motivator, but not every terrorist is motivated by faith.

And while the “angry loner” is a common movie profile, we regularly see terrorists who have wives and young children. It doesn’t seem to stop them.

There is one motivator, however, that is increasingly common in today’s breed of terrorist: influence through the Internet.

Stories are now emerging about Sayfullo Saipov, the Uzbek immigrant who last week, using a rented truck, mowed down innocent pedestrians in New York City, killing eight and wounding many more.

I took interest in this CNN piece detail: “Authorities say they found a trove of videos and pictures related to ISIS on Saipov’s phone: 90 videos full of propaganda, beheadings, instructions on explosives and about 3,800 images, including the ISIS flag and images of the ISIS leader.”

Here, folks, is your new terrorist incubator.

In the palm of your hand.

Propaganda at your fingertips

We all remember, in the aftermath of 9/11, the stories of terrorist training camps in Pakistan or Afghanistan. Grainy images of men in masks, holding rifles, shooting at targets, usually in a desert or mountain setting, suggesting it took a four-hour, blindfolded ride to get there.

Today, all you need is your iPhone password. Ninety videos? Who keeps 90 videos of anything on his device? But 90 videos of beheadings and propaganda, viewed Lord knows how many times in the comfort of an apartment, or on a train, or during coffee breaks? Well. Think about the gradual influence that has on a person.

Think about the call to action he regularly viewed, urging him to destroy the society he lived in, telling him it was justified, that America had it coming.

Saipov arrived here through legal means, had his proper paperwork, drove a truck for a living, got married, and had kids. And not once before last week were his fingerprints on a terrorist act. He was suddenly radicalized without ever visiting a training camp, without ever taking a blindfolded ride, and in a few short minutes he wreaked the worst havoc on our nation’s largest city since 9/11.

This is a guy who, according to reports, comes from a well-to-do-family, went to a respected university in Uzbekistan, dressed in fancy clothes (an unpopular trait with fervent Muslims) and at least when he first got to America, wasn’t particularly attentive to Islam.

Something changed. He’s a bona fide murderer now. And the scariest part isn’t what he did. The scariest part is how easily he may have been influenced to do it.

Battleground is home soil

Authorities say Saipov’s truck attack was an almost step-by-step enactment of ISIS instructions in a manual called “Just Terror Tactics”, which ISIS published last year. The videos on his phone included ISIS calls for inflicting as much harm as possible on the U.S.

Saipov himself has reportedly been speaking proudly of what he did as he recovers from his gunshot wound by police, even asking if he could display ISIS flags in his hospital room. Brazen. Unflinching. Unrepentant. And created, at least in part, by the Internet. Right here. In Florida. In Ohio. In New Jersey. All places where he lived.

With the computer as an activation agent, what are we supposed to do? How do we swat that overwhelming power? Is the answer to squeeze Internet access here, as they do in China? Make all sites have to go through a federal test? Monitor it all day and all night? Track people’s site searches?

That hardly seems plausible. We are a nation forged by the ignition of free expression, even if we are now being singed by it. How do we close access without closing liberty?

And yet that same liberty has been turned on its dark side — freedom for a beheading video to inspire you, freedom to download an instruction manual to murder, freedom for the devil himself to whisper in your ear.

It is no longer some rare space where only weirdos hang out. It is front and center in our battle against terror growth. And it may be our greatest challenge. Because it is not in some hidden jungle or sweaty desert. It’s right here on the home soil, plugged into our outlets.

Contact Mitch Albom: Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Friday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom. 


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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