Countering Individual Jihad: Perspectives on Nidal Hasan and Colleen LaRose

By: Dr. Peter K. Forster

In December 2011, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told an interviewer that the risk of attacks by so-called "lone wolves," individuals with no apparent ties to known extremist networks or conspiracies, is on the rise, and is an indication that the global terrorist threat has shifted.1 Secretary Napolitano's statement is a sobering assessment of the violent Islamist threat to the United States. While her definition characterizes a particular kind of perpetrator, however, in today's networked world the individual is not as isolated, and is perhaps more dangerous, than previously assumed. To deal with these changes, new counter-measures need to be adopted.

The internet has been widely recognized as a multi-faceted tool for terrorist groups for quite some time, but recent digital innovations such as social media networks have improved the virtual connectivity of the individual, not simply to an organization but to the entire terrorism process.2 Exemplified by the Unabomber, the stereotypical "lone wolf " is a person who acts alone without orders or even connections to an organization.3 These independent terrorists are still a danger, but access to the internet has given rise to others who consciously seek motivation and training online, or are systematically identified and cultivated by online facilitators, such as spiritual advisers, recruiters, or "link-men," to pursue violent jihad.4 These individual jihadists are not as isolated as we assume the "lone wolf " to be. Digital forensics show that their online activities, such as email communications, on-line searches for information on potential targets, and even online ideological statements, create "digital exhaust" that erodes the individual jihadist's anonymity.5

The debate regarding the internet's effectiveness in inciting an individual's progression from "indoctrination" to "jihadization," (i.e., violent Islamist extremism) continues.6 This article contributes to this debate by examining the individual jihad, in which the individual embraces a violent Salafist ideology in his or her personal world, but is ultimately incited to actual violence through virtual interactions. It examines this phenomenon's impact through two U.S.-centric cases that provide evidence that on-line "jihadization" can occur when inspired or systematically managed by an online facilitator. The first explores how virtual interactions contributed to Nidal Hasan's decision to attack fellow soldiers at Fort Hood in November 2009. The second shows how internet communications were used to identify, vet, and ultimately impel Colleen LaRose to recruit individuals, solicit funds for a terrorist organization, and plan an attack.

A decade after the attacks of September 11, 2001, extreme Islamist terrorism reflects the maturation of al Qaeda's ability to inspire through ideology even as the core organization deteriorates. It is the manifestation of an ideological spread, and an individual be incited to act, without any face-to-face interactions. This process is accomplished through a progressive exploitation of the internet and associated technologies as powerful tools for communication, information sharing, and information analytics.

Against this background, the following questions provide a context for examining the individual jihadist who has a global reach and global connections through digital media:

  • How are terrorists using the internet to incite individuals to violence?
  • When does radical belief constitute terrorism and a security issue in an online environment?
  • How might counterterrorist experts combat the individual jihad?

This article challenges some of the traditional perspectives on the role of the internet in motivating terrorism. As proposed here, it may be possible to prove intent to commit terrorism without waiting for a physical act of violence, by assessing the "digital exhaust" from online activities. After discussing the two case studies of Hasan and LaRose, the article suggests some potential counter-strategies available through forensic analysis.

Technology Extends the Jihad

The "multiplicity and interconnectedness of threats and actors," including the fact that small groups have greater access to lethal technologies, is considered by U.S. officials to be the most serious danger to U.S. national security.7 This reality is not lost on the terrorists. Technology has played a role in both al Qaeda's growth and its devolution. Al Qaeda's Afghanistanbased core, responsible for planning and executing terror attacks from 1998 to 2002, embraced technology both as a media platform and a planning tool. The 9/11 Commission Report describes Muhammad Atta emailing flight schools to ask the cost of training, and using the internet to conduct financial transactions and find housing while planning the 9/11 attacks.8 After al Qaeda was driven from its Afghan safe haven in 2002, the internet's importance to jihadists increased. Between 2003 and 2007, al Qaeda's central media group grew its operations from six to 97 annual productions, which were disseminated primarily via the internet.9 Internet jihadists such Younis Tsouli (a.k.a. Irahibi007) and Malika al Aroud used the online environment to recruit, propagandize, train for, and conduct cyber-attacks.10 By 2008, al Qaeda's core recognized that the internet reduced the time and costs of operational communications while increasing the scope of informationsharing among geographically disbursed groups.11 The jihadists had shifted from being consumers of information to "networked participants." This process has continued and will intensify as operational competency migrates to associated movements.12

Osama bin Laden was pre-occupied with attacking the United States, perhaps to the detriment of considering regional targets and other strategies.13 His diminished relevance over the past few years and subsequent death, however, led to a resurrection of the individual jihad. A primary advocate of this strategy is Abu Musab al-Suri, a strategic-minded, innovative, and ideologically grounded al Qaeda leader, who either escaped or was released from a Syrian jail in February 2012. Prior to his capture in November 2005, al-Suri openly disagreed with bin Laden's "America first" strategy in favor of the individual jihad, the foundation of which is found in his treatise, The Global Islamic Resistance Call. His arguments have recently been re-printed in the online magazine Inspire, produced by the group al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). In these articles, al-Suri extolled the value of the individual jihad as a reasonable response to Islam's "humiliation."14 He declared that military success would result from spontaneous operations that confuse local and international intelligence, while such actions would also provide operational security for the larger organization by ensuring that the disruption of one cell does not influence another.15 The individual jihad is, as he described it, geographically independent. As reflected in the 2005 London bombings, which he masterminded, al-Suri encouraged individuals to resist assimilation and participate in jihad where they are.16 He also advocated centering the jihad in Yemen.17 His strategy was further endorsed by Anwar al-Awlaki, the now-deceased American-born imam and AQAP leader, who called upon Muslims in the West to either leave and live among Muslims, or stay behind and follow the violent example of Nidal Hasan, the individual jihad's poster child.18

The online environment is reducing geographic distance, improving security, and accelerating the individual jihad. By leveraging connectivity, the virtual environment globalizes local issues and creates a broad self-selecting echo chamber in which a community forms around shared ideas, indoctrinates itself, and blurs the incremental movement from radicalization to violent jihad. The echo chamber serves the individual jihad well. It allows individuals to bond virtually to the ideology and religious perspectives of extremists, a key part of the training process that usually occurs in the training camps, but it does not create the human bond of direct contact.19 Furthermore, attacks such as Abdulhakim Muhammad's on an Arkansas army recruiting center in 2009, or Mohamed Merah's killing of three school children and three French paratroopers in Toulouse in March 2012, epitomize the individual jihad's effectiveness, particularly when juxtaposed against the failures of centrally planned plots.

The internet's anonymity and accessibility also change the operational paradigm by providing opportunities for online vetting, training, and operational direction. Increasingly, Facebook and Twitter serve to re-post material and share content more quickly, thus expanding the capability of the individual jihad.20 The internet keeps the constituency in constant contact with the material and each other, while frustrating attempts by law enforcement and intelligence agencies to disrupt access. Leveraging online networks is accelerating the linkages between the successors of long-established groups with organizational structure (i.e., command and control, and a training apparatus), and a new collection of self-radicalized individuals.21 While both "lone wolves" and individual jihadists can be characterized as self-recruited, leaderless thrill seekers connected via cyberspace,22 the latter participate in an interactive online environment with a facilitator, rather than on their own.

The Individual Jihad: Two Cases

The individual jihad has many faces and unique operational tendencies. The ability of law enforcement and intelligent analysts to recognize a "lone wolf " is hindered by a lack of information about the perpetrator, his motives, and objectives. As noted by U.S. Senator Joseph Lieberman, a "lone wolf 's" available profile typically is limited, attacks are planned without guidance, and the lack of co-conspirators makes it less likely that intelligence analysts and law enforcement will be able to identify a plot or the plotter prior to the attack.23 The cases of Colleen LaRose (a.k.a. Jihad Jane) and Nidal Hasan, by contrast, represent individuals who are connected and recognizable. These cases provide insight into the individual jihad process in the United States, and represent a threat that is contrary to both the conventional wisdom of the "lone wolf " and the assumption that face-to-face contact is needed to incite effective jihadization. Each perpetrator had ongoing interactions with an online facilitator, although the roles of those individuals differed. In the Hasan case, Anwar al-Awlaki's spiritual guidance compelled Hasan to become a jihadi foot soldier. LaRose interacted with a handler who developed her as a "manager."24 While both facilitators sought to channel their charges' desires to participate in violent jihad, the handler in the LaRose case took a more active role in vetting his recruit and then operationalizing a plot. Together these cases illustrate a variety of virtual interactions, and suggest inferences between the online interactions and ultimately violent action. Furthermore, a review of the indictments and court transcripts help define the legal threshold online interactions must cross to establish terrorist intent.

Nidal Hasan

U.S. Army Major Nidal Hasan opened fire at the Soldier Readiness Center in Fort Hood, Texas on November 5, 2009, killing 13 and wounding 32 before being wounded himself and captured. The following brief synopsis of events leading up to the shooting focuses on the importance of Hasan's online interactions with al-Awlaki as the catalyst to his jihadization. Although Hasan harbored radical ideas prior to renewing communications with al-Awlaki in 2008, the online communications are possibly significant in his decision to take action.

Hasan first met al-Awlaki in 2001, while the latter was the imam at the Dar al-Hijrah Mosque in Falls Church, Virginia, where Hasan worshiped.25 The cleric reportedly presided at Hasan's mother's funeral around that time.26 The death of his mother and his connection to al-Awlaki were possible catalysts to Hasan's radicalization.27 Hasan became increasingly vocal in expressing his Islamist beliefs, and his radicalization apparently reached a "crescendo" in 2007-2008, when he is believed to have published a pamphlet entitled "Martyrdom in Islam versus Suicide Bombing;" after that, however, his public displays dissipated.28 In December 2008, after a seven-year hiatus, he renewed e-mail contact with al-Awlaki, and over the next ten months communicated with him eighteen times. At one point, al-Awlaki sent Hasan a copy of "44 Ways of Supporting Jihad," which urges Muslims to defend Islam through violence.29 Hasan responded by asking if he were allowed to kill fellow soldiers.30

While reports indicate that al-Awlaki did not order Hasan to take action, when understood within the context of al-Awlaki's ability to inspire individuals to violent action, his counsel was likely influential.31 Al-Awlaki had inspirational and operational contacts with a range of terrorists, including Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian who tried to blow-up a U.S.- bound flight from Amsterdam on December 25, 2009, and Faisal Shahzad, who tried to set off a homemade car bomb in New York's Times Square in May 2010. Furthermore, al-Awlaki proudly claimed Hasan as "one of his students." 32 Finally, a February 2011 report by U.S. Senators Joseph Lieberman and Susan Collins clearly indicates that failure by the FBI and the Defense Criminal Investigation Service to flag Hasan's numerous communications with al-Awlaki, through which one plausibly could infer the radicalizing nature of the relationship, was instrumental in their inability to recognize him as a threat.33

At a minimum, Hasan's interactions with al-Awlaki were an accelerant to jihadization, but how this fact is addressed at trial illustrates a significant obstacle to successfully countering the individual jihad. In the Hasan case, the FBI focused on the occurrence (or previous non-occurrence) of a terrorist act, rather than the individual's apparent intent to commit violence, and thereby neglected the counterterrorism process of inferring capability and intent.34 The prosecution might use the virtual connections with al-Awlaki to demonstrate intent to commit terrorism, but these probably will be considered secondary to the murder evidence. Thus, the commission of a clearly prosecutable crime is the basis of the Hasan case. His online interactions, however, provide evidence that he posed a security risk prior to the attack.

Colleen LaRose

On February 1, 2011, Colleeen LaRose, a Pennsylvania woman, pleaded guilty to 34 accounts of material support to terrorism. Often dismissed for its amateurism and lack of operational security, the LaRose case has received less scrutiny than Hasan's. Her case demonstrates that Islamist extremists are using the internet to identify and develop potential recruits in the United States. Furthermore, it increases our understanding of the internet's role in the individual jihadist movement, from inciting an individual to go from aspirational to operational activities, to enabling a handler to vet prospective recruits online and evaluate with some assurance whether they will take action. Counterterrorism experts are using data from the case to establish different criteria for how online interactions pose a prosecutable security threat. A self-proclaimed fan of Anwar al-Awlaki, LaRose, using the pseudonym Jihad Jane, posted a YouTube video in June 2008 expressing her "desperate" desire to help suffering Muslims.35 This was sufficient information for Islamist extremists, trawling the internet for potential recruits, to initiate an online evaluation of her. For eleven months beginning in December 2008, LaRose communicated online with a variety of people who vetted her, supported her operationally, and ultimately directed her avowed commitment to jihad toward violent action.

In December 2008, LaRose received a response to her June post from a male in South Asia (co-conspirator #1 according to court records) who engaged her in an online conversation about their shared desire to wage jihad, and proposed that she consider becoming a shaheed, or Islamic martyr.36 In January 2009, a Western European resident (co-conspirator #2) emailed LaRose that he desired to become a martyr and although unsuccessful, he would continue to try. LaRose responded that she also desired martyrdom. In a February 2009 communication, LaRose confided to CC#1 that her physical appearance allowed her "to blend in with many people," a factor that could help her online contact achieve his jihadi goal. The revelation about her physical appearance created sufficient interest to warrant additional attention from her correspondents, and in March a third individual (co-conspirator #3) interjected himself into the conversation. He assumed the role of handling LaRose by developing an incremental process in which he would be responsible for evaluating the recruit's commitment to acting, and for operationalizing an attack. Information revealed later in the indictment indicates those initial communications between LaRose and the first two men were apparently random exchanges between "like-minded" individuals; CC#3, however, asks LaRose to tell him about CC#2, evidence of how terrorists seek to exploit social networks to identify other potential recruits. CC#3 initially established minimal bona fides for himself by telling LaRose that he was familiar with explosives. Concurrently, he suggested LaRose use the internet to "invite" another unidentified male fighter to join CC#3 for training in "the South Asian country."37 He then reiterated that LaRose's nationality allowed her freedom of movement, and asked LaRose to marry him so he could travel to Europe. LaRose agreed to marry him and made inquiries of the Swedish embassy about obtaining residency. At this point, CC#3 played a bit of a psychological game and allowed two weeks to pass after the marriage agreement before he contacted her again. This allowed her time to conduct the residency inquiries, but it is quite plausible that it also was a test of her reliability, to see whether she would go to the police or had a true psychological commitment to the cause. On March 22, 2009, CC#3 directed LaRose to go to Sweden to kill the cartoonist Lars Vilks.38 LaRose agreed immediately.

Upon accepting the mission, LaRose assumed an operational role as a fundraiser and global recruiter. She posted online solicitations for funds to support terrorism, and electronically distributed a carefully worded questionnaire that aimed to determine whether other Western women harbored an interest in jihad.39 Between December 2008 and March 2009, LaRose also had online discussions with Ali Damache, an Algerian man residing in Ireland who had expressed interest in martyrdom.40 Damache helped develop the questionnaire that LaRose distributed. In August 2009, LaRose started an online dialogue with Jamie Paulin-Ramirez, a Colorado woman, ultimately convincing her to travel Ireland to participate in jihad.41 When she reached Ireland with her young son, Paulin-Ramirez married Damache, a man she had never before met face-to-face. Simultaneously, LaRose gathered intelligence on Vilks, including joining his online community. She ultimately told her handler that it was "an honor and great pleasure to die or kill" for him.42 Nevertheless, there is no evidence that she ever travelled further than Ireland, where she was supposed to marry "co-conspirator #3."43 She was arrested upon her return, unmarried, from Ireland in October 2009.

The Significance of the Online Jihadist

The effectiveness of online recruitment and the process of engagement in these two cases are chilling. LaRose's public pronouncements made her easily identifiable as a potential shaheed recruit, but the potential usefulness of her physical appearance changed the dynamics. LaRose underwent a virtual vetting process, in which she performed a series of tasks to prove her commitment and willingness to act. As she completed each task, the handler became more confident in her. This process resembles a traditional face-to-face vetting process that focuses on psychological processes to determine commitment and aid indoctrination.44 Furthermore, the process was completed relatively quickly. Within nine months from the initial contact, LaRose was travelling to Europe to execute the operation.

The case of "Jihad Jane" portrays the individual jihadists as part of a virtual network of participants with global reach and global connections. LaRose was incited to jihadization through online engagements and without any face-to-face contact. It was her poor personal and operational security, particularly a number of provocative online comments, that apparently alerted a private group known as Youtube Smackdown to track her posts and eventually tip off the FBI.45 The public nature of her discussions permitted extensive internet tracking that adds to our understanding of the online world's role in the individual jihad. According to Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Arbittier Williams, the electronic evidence gathered from LaRose's online interactions with co-conspirators would be sufficient to prove she traveled to Europe to locate Vilks, and that she attempted to raise funds for terrorists and recruit trainees in Europe and Asia.46 While conspiracy to kill in a foreign country and travelling to Ireland in support of violent jihad may have been the catalysts for authorities to arrest her, the majority of the 34 "overt acts" noted in her indictment dealt with her online recruiting and fund solicitation activities.47

The differences between Hasan and LaRose contribute to our understanding of the breadth of individual jihadi strategies and tactics. Both reflect the desire by jihadist groups to recruit Americans, and the importance of the internet in this process. While al-Awlaki's message prompted LaRose to become more vocal in her radicalization, the imam's direct contact with Hasan inspired Hasan to self-directed action. Rather than relying on LaRose to take action on her own, her handler vetted her and provided specific direction towards supporting the jihad. Another lesson is found in the range of potential goals of online recruitment and action. Judging from the post-attack statements regarding Hasan, the execution of the attack was the culmination of his service to the individual jihad. He was meant to be a shaheed, a foot-soldier in the struggle. LaRose's recruitment of others who could travel in the West without detection, her solicitation of funds, and her broadening social network suggest her handler's goal was to develop a virtual cell leader. LaRose's lack of anonymity eroded her value to the jihadi network, but the lessons learned from her case will not be lost on her handler and others. Future recruitment and vetting can be expected to target less public individuals, who can assume the management roles of a network node facilitator, and perhaps cell leader, without creating as much digital exhaust. In sum, the online environment will continue to be a recruitment venue for the individual jihad; recruitment objectives will vary; and through an online vetting process, various decisions will be made regarding the individual's role in jihad. These cases indicate how the online environment is evolving, and will continue to influence and accelerate the radicalization and jihadization processes. Virtual networks, the internet, and associated media allow information to be shared quickly and permit active participation that enhances learning, cooperation, and innovation, thus enabling small groups and even individuals to accomplish big things. A recent White House meeting with local law enforcement identified three homegrown-terrorist warning signs: joining a group that advocates violence, receiving support from a network that plans violence, and seeking out a charismatic leader.48 Today, these connections may occur entirely in the virtual environment, reducing the isolation associated with the "lone wolf."


Identifying and implementing effective counter-strategies against the individual jihad is a complex problem that requires cooperation, patience, and perhaps some luck. Innovative thinking, using technology as an investigative tool, and combating networks with networks are the strategies advocated by FBI Director Robert Mueller.49 While the terrorists continue to exploit internet technologies to perform many tasks, the same technologies offer new avenues for law enforcement and intelligence services to track and identify terrorists. The virtual environment provides opportunities for collecting data, identifying linkages, tracking activities, and recognizing patterns. For example, by analyzing Colleen LaRose's online linkages, local law enforcement rolled up Ireland's first known jihad cell and arrested a co-conspirator in Maryland in May 2012.50 Facebook and Twitter are repositories of voluntary information that may be collected and sorted to yield a searchable database from which less apparent linkages and warnings may be derived.51 Existing open-source tools in the hands of individuals with a modicum of Excel skills and situational awareness of an event can extract commonalities and patterns from Twitter posts. Crowdsourcing, the evaluation of voluntary public information from groups, and participatory sensing, directed information collection or an informant 2.0 of sorts, also are valuable forensic methods. Increasingly, analytic techniques are making better sense from real-time online information and categorizing behavioral patterns through the analysis of digital exhaust. Still, it remains difficult to build a criminal case around intent derived from internet communications.

The U.S. PATRIOT Act, passed in the wake of 9/11, expanded geographic authorization for FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) warrants, and the U.S. attorney general's office has provided some legal guidelines for their use. Confronting the individual jihad requires a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy that includes legal reforms, partnerships that facilitate intelligence gathering and sharing, community outreach, and education. Efforts at legal reforms that would criminalize the intent to do bad things through the analysis of online communications raise ethical and legal issues, and have had varying results. Mexico brought charges of terrorism against two individuals who used Twitter and Facebook to spread rumors about a school attack in Veracruz that resulted in real chaos.52 Although the state prosecutors argued that the perpetrators' virtual statements were equivalent to real ones, the case was dismissed. During riots in the United Kingdom in 2011, a number of people were arrested by British police and charged with inciting others to riot through Facebook and on Blackberries.53 In the aftermath of the riots, British Prime Minister David Cameron advocated a law that would allow the government to shut down internet access to people the government considered a threat. While the legal threshold of intent seemed to shift with the successful prosecution of some of those arrested, their convictions still required the prosecution to link physical actions to their online activities. These verdicts reflect a likely result in the Hasan case, in which his physical actions, not his online activities, will be the basis of conviction.

The LaRose case, however, reflects a further evolution in the legal approach to online activity. The case against her was based in large part on 34 counts of providing material support to terrorists, primarily related to her online behavior.54 As previously cited, U.S. Attorney Williams charged that her online fundraising and recruiting for a terrorist organization were prosecutable actions under the "material support" statue, equal to her intent to attack Vilks.55 Her guilty plea, however, left it unclear whether a jury would have convicted her on all, or any, of those counts.

The fact that the case was heard on the basis of the digital evidence seems to indicate that judges will have greater latitude in the United States to try terrorism cases based on online intent. The results of two other cases, one involving Tarek Mahanna, who was convicted of providing material support to terrorists include "translating and distributing" materials meant to inspire others to participate in jihad, and the other involving Jesse Curtis Morton, the leader of Revolution Muslim, convicted of using the internet to solicit murder and encourage violent extremism, also are evidence of a shifting paradigm.56 Along with the broadening of the definition of cyber-terrorism, these cases establish a firmer precedent for prosecution based on establishing intent by examining online statements and activities. These cases, as well as the LaRose case, also contribute to the debate surrounding First Amendment protection of freedom of speech, in light of an emerging perspective that words and information that promote terrorism are dangerous. Both France and the United Kingdom have criminalized "advocacy" and "glorification" of terrorism.57 In the United States, some have advocated lowering the threshold for prosecution by implementing a "clear and present danger" standard originally recommended in 1919.58 Another approach is to amend the "material support" statute to encompass advocacy as a punishable offense. While such approaches would offer new legal tools for combating the individual jihad, they pose serious constitutional questions, particularly regarding the First Amendment. For example, when is advocacy of an opposing point of view something other than part of a legitimate democratic process guaranteed by law? As Sahar Aziz noted, the First Amendment is owned by everyone and is not discriminatory.59 Echoing Aziz, First Amendment supporters in the United Kingdom and United States warn that forays into this area risk starting down a slippery slope that could jeopardize civil rights, and embrace government censorship of the internet and eavesdropping on personal communications. In its 2011 "National Strategy for Counterterrorism," the White House stated, "The United States alone cannot eliminate every terrorist or terrorist organization … Therefore, we must join with key partners and allies to share the burdens of common security."60 Inter-government, intra-government, and public-private partnerships are indispensible to countering terrorism, as both the Hasan and LaRose cases illustrate. Greater access to Hasan's earlier communications with al-Awlaki might have allowed the FBI to better understand his virtual relationship with al-Awlaki and understand the threat he posed. LaRose's extremist tendencies were initially recognized by a participant in the Middle East Performing Arts online forum. Having information and being able to effectively prosecute an individual based on that information, however, are two different things.


Eli Pariser warned, "A world constructed from the familiar is a world in which there's nothing to learn."61 The internet is globalizing local issues and expanding the multi-ethnic composition of groups and causes. The online jihadi echo chamber is creating a fertile ground for indoctrination into extreme ideologies and operationalization of extremist plots. The cases of Nidal Hasan and Colleen LaRose demonstrate that individuals radicalized via the internet in their personal space can be incited to violent action through the same medium. While Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano's concern about the rising risk of "lone wolf " terrorism is well placed, it is also important to recall Sun Tzu's famous admonishment, "Know your enemy and know yourself, and you need not fear the result of a hundred battles."62 While not disregarding the "lone wolf " phenomenon, it also is important to recognize that a presumed "lone wolf " may actually be linked to recruiters, inspirationalists, and planners in a virtual environment—in essence, creating virtual terrorist cells. When compared to the isolation of the solely self-directed person, individuals who have maintained continuous internet interactions establish influential relationships, and can become willing to take violent action. While the effectiveness of online recruitment and indoctrination is understood, the debate continues over whether advocating extremism or participating in activities online constitute illicit actions. There is an emerging threshold, however, across which online interactions and activities are being considered a sufficient security risk to catalyze intervention. A basis from which to pursue legal prosecution of an individual based upon intent rather than strictly action is gradually emerging. The cases of Nidal Hasan and Colleen LaRose provide evidence of this changing paradigm.

About the Author(s): Dr. Peter K. Forster is a senior lecturer, member of the graduate faculty, and the executive director of Online Education in the College of Information Sciences and Technology at Penn State University. His primary areas of interest are terrorism/counterterrorism, risk and crisis management, international relations, and national security. He is a member of the NATO/ OSCE Partnership for Peace Consortium Combating Terrorism Working Group, and has been involved with Penn State's Homeland Security program since its inception. He is the co-author of books on NATO's military burdensharing and intervention, including most recently, with Stephen J. Cimbala, Multinational Military Intervention (Ashgate, 2010).


1. Janet Napolitano, "Napolitano: Lone Wolf Terror Threat," CBS News, December 2, 2011: threat-growing; accessed January 31, 2012.

2. Gabriel Weimann, Terror on the Internet: The New Arena, the New Challenges (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Institute of Peace Press, 2006), 109.

3. Edwin Bakker and Beatrice de Graaf, "Preventing Lone Wolf Terrorism: Some CT Approaches Addressed," Perspectives on Terrorism vol. 5 (2011): 43:; accessed March 13, 2012. The Unabomber, eventually identified as Ted Kaczynski, evaded capture for years while carrying out a terror campaign against people he held responsible for environmental damage. He lived as a recluse in the state of Montana, from where he sent out mail bombs that killed three and injured 23.

4. Mitchell D. Silber, The Al Qaeda Factor: Plots Against the West (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012), 4. See also Maura Conway, "From al- Zarqawi to al-Awlaki:The Emergence and Development of an Online Radical Milieu," in this issue.

5. "Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World," NIC 2008-003, National Intelligence Council, Washington D.C., November 2008:; accessed on 5 September 2012; and, "Where Tomorrow Will Take Us: The New Environment for Intelligence," Center for the Study of Intelligence, Washington D.C. 2009.

6. Mitchell D. Silber and Arvin Bhatt, "Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat," New York City Police Department, 2007:; accessed March 13, 2012.

7. James R. Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, "Statement for the Record on the Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community for the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence," House of Representatives, Washington, D.C., February 10, 2011, 2.

8. "Al Qaeda Aims at the American Homeland," National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, 2004, 162-190:; accessed September 5, 2012.

9. Bill Braniff and Assaf Moghadom, "Towards Global Jihadism: Al-Qaeda's Strategic, Ideological, and Structural Adaptations since 9/11," Perspectives on Terrorism vol. 5, no. 2 (2011):; accessed March 1, 2012.

10. "Al Qaeda's Top Cyber Terrorist," Defensetech (January 26, 2008):; accessed February 4, 2012.

11. Weimann, Terror on the Internet, 115–116.

12. Mark Stout, Jessica M. Huckabey, John R. Schindler, and Jim Lacey, The Terrorist Perspectives Project: Strategic and Operational Views of Al Qaida and Associated Movement (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 2008).

13. Greg Miller, "Bin Laden Document Trove Reveals Strain on al-Qaeda," The Washington Post, July 1, 2011:; accessed March 1, 2012.

14. Abu Musab Al-Suri, "The Jihad Experiences: The Open Fronts and Individual Initiative," Inspire (Fall 2010): 17-19;; accessed on October 18, 2012.

15 Ibid., 17.

16. Ibid., 32.

17. Author interview with U.S. Department of Defense personnel, who asked to remain anonymous, Washington, D.C., April 2012.

18. "Al-Awlaki in Previously Unreleased Video Message to Muslims in the West: ‘You Have Two Choices… Leave and Live Among Muslims, or …Stay Behind and Follow the Example of Nidal Hassan and Others,'" MEMRI, December 20, 2011:; accessed December 20, 2011. 1

19. Adam Lankford, Human Killing Machines: Systematic Indoctrination in Iran, Nazi Germany, Al Qaeda, and Abu Ghraib (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2009), 69.

20. "The invasion of Facebook: Al Qaeda calls for a ‘cyberjihad' to plan attacks on the West," Mail Online, July 13, 2011:; accessed December 20, 2011.

21. "Global Trends 2025."

22. Marc Sageman, "The Next Generation of Terrorism," Foreign Policy (February 19, 2008):; accessed on December 20, 2011.

23. Joseph Lieberman and Susan Collins, "A Ticking Time Bomb: Counterterrorism Lessons from the U.S. Government's Failure to Prevent the Fort Hood Attack," Special Report for the United States Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs, Washington, D.C., February 2011, 19:; accessed December 20, 2011.

24. Lankford, Human Killing Machines, 74–75.

25. "Profile Anwar al-Awlaki," ADL ( November 2011): htm; accessed December 20, 2011.

26. Richard Esposito, Rehab El-Buri, and Brian Ross, "From Yemen, Anwar Awlaki Helped Inspire Fort Dix, Toronto Plots," ABC News, Nov. 11, 2009: UEZuC2ii8zE; accessed September 4, 2012.

27. Clint Watts, "Major Nidal Hasan and the Fort Hood Tragedy: Implications for the U.S. Armed Forces," Foreign Policy Research Institute (June 2011): forthood.html#ref1; accessed February 4, 2012.

28. Lieberman and Collins, "A Ticking Time Bomb," 35.

29. Ibid.

30. ADL, "Profile Anwar al-Awlaki."

31. David Johnston, and Scott Shane, "U.S. Knew of Suspect's Ties to Radical Cleric," The New York Times, November 9, 2009:; accessed December 21, 2011; and Catherine Herridge, "American cleric used more than 60 e-mail accounts to contact followers including Hasan," Fox News, June 15, 2012:; accessed June 16, 2012.

32. "Awlaki's latest rant," Investigative Project on Terrorism, May 24, 2010:; accessed February 4, 2012.

33. Lieberman, and Collins, A Ticking Time Bomb, 38–39.

34. Ibid., 39.

35. "United States of America v. Colleen R. LaRose," U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, March 4, 2010, 3:; accessed September 5, 2012.

36. The information in this paragraph comes from ibid., 3–5, 8.

37. Ibid. 4.

38. Vilks was targeted for death by extremists because of some cartoons he had drawn in 2007 depicting the prophet Mohammed as a dog.

39. "United States of America v. Colleen R. LaRose," 5–6.

40. Ibid., 3.

41. "United States of America v. Colleen R. LaRose, Jamie Paulin Ramirez," Case 2:10-cr-00123-PBT Doc. 31, Superseding Indictment, U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, April 1, 2010, 6–7.

42. "United States of America v. Colleen R. LaRose," 8 (see note 35 above).

43. Dale Maryclaire, "MD teenager pleads guilty in terror case in Pa." Associated Press, May 4, 2012: cid=related-links:TOP; accessed June 1, 2012.

44. Lankford, Human Killing Machines, 69.

45. "I turned in Colleen ‘Jihad Jane' LaRose to the FBI," The Jawa Report, March 11, 2010:; accessed September 9, 2012.

46. Peter Hall, "‘Jihad Jane' pleads guilty in terrorism case," The Morning Call, February 1, 2011: plea-20110201_1_jihad-jane-jamie-paulinramirez-guilty-plea; accessed September 11, 2012.

47. See "United States of America v. Colleen R. LaRose, Jamie Paulin Ramirez," (see note 41 above).

48. "Police chiefs meet at White House to discuss fight against homegrown terror," Associated Press, January 18, 2012: meet_at_white_ho.html; accessed September 5, 2012.

49. Robert S. Mueller III, speech given at the RSA Cyber Security Conference, San Francisco, California, March 1, 2012: accessed September 10, 2012.

50. Maryclaire "Md. teenager pleads guilty."

51. See "Artisanal Intelligence and Information Triage," by Aaron Weisburd, and "Mining Twitter Data from the Arab Spring," by Rob Schroeder, Sean Everton, and Russell Shepherd in this issue, for more about the uses of voluntary information derived from social media.

52. "Mexico: Death by Social Media," ISN ETH Zurich (September 28, 2011); accessed on October 19, 2012.

53. Josh Halliday, "David Cameron considers banning suspected rioters from social media," The Guardian, August 11, 2011:; accessed February 4, 2012.

54. "United States of America v. Colleen R. LaRose," 3 (see note 35 above).

55. Hall, " ‘Jihad Jane' pleads guilty."

56. "United States of America v. Tarek Mehanna," Cr. No.09- 10017-GAO, Government's Proffer and Memorandum in Support of Detention, U.S. District Court Massachusetts, November 5, 2009, 10; and "Leader of Revolution Muslim Sentenced to 138 Months for Using Internet to Solicit Murder, Encourage Violent Extremism," FBI Press Release, Washington, D.C., June 22, 2012: http://22.FBI/gov/washingtondc/press-release/2012/ Leader of Revolution Muslim Sentenced to 138 months for Using Internet to Solicit Murder, Encourage Violent Extremism/; accessed June 22, 2012.

57. Gary Schmitt, "Terrorism and the First Amendment," The Weekly Standard, January 23, 2012:; accessed on September 11, 2012.

58. This was the case of Schenck v. United States; see ibid.

59. Sahar F. Aziz, "Homegrown Terrorism" The American Muslim, June 12, 2012: http://theamericanmuslim. org/tam.php/features/articles/speech-at-dukeuniversity; accessed September 11, 2012.

60. "National Strategy for Counter-terrorism," The White House, Washington, D.C., June 28, 2011:; accessed September 5, 2012.

61. "Invisible sieve: Hidden, specially for you," The Economist, June 30, 2011:; accessed September 5, 2012. 62 Sun Tzu, The Art of War, trans. Lionel Giles (New York: Barnes & Noble: 2003), 17. Vol. 2, No. 4 | CTX 39

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