The Federal Bureau of Investigation says one of its top counter-terrorism priorities is stopping ISIS from using social media to recruit young Americans.
Denver7 Investigates turned to federal experts to get an inside look at the tactics terrorists are using online to recruit.
“It’s an aggressive threat,” said Colorado U.S. Attorney John Walsh. “It’s an aggressive threat because it can reach into any home in the United States.”
ISIS has had success tailoring its message to a Western, English-speaking audience, FBI supervisory special agent Adam Krob told Denver7 Investigates.
“Where does this land on the FBI’s priority list?” asked Denver7 Investigates reporter Tony Kovaleski.
“Right at the very top,” Krob responded. “Since probably early 2014, we've had about 80 people or so that we've interdicted traveling over to the Syria and Iraq area to join the jihad.”
Four of those people who nearly joined ISIS were teenagers from Colorado. In 2014, agents arrested 19-year-old Shannon Conley at Denver International Airport. Prosecutors said she was trying to go to Syria, planning to marry an ISIS fighter she met online and communicated with on Skype. The FBI said its agents were aware of Conley’s communications long before she tried to board that plane.
"She traveled and tried to make her way into Syria despite all of the warnings and the advice from us and others that the path she was headed down was wrong,” Krob said.
Conley is now serving a four-year sentence in federal prison.
Later that same year, authorities intervened to bring home three Denver teenagers who boarded a plane bound for Turkey. The father one of the teens, who asked to remain anonymous, said the girls planned to cross the border to Syria after being recruited for more than a year by ISIS. The father said recruiters tricked the girls with false promises.
“[They said] we're going to give you a house, you're gonna get married. You're going to get to have nice kids, have a nice life .., and it's a noble cause. But all that's wrong,” the father told Denver7 Investigates. “There is no safe place there. People are all on the run. There's always fighting going on somewhere. There's no houses, there's no nice life. There are just a bunch of terrorists. And for these females to get there, they're just going to get raped or get killed."
Recruiters often find their potential recruits on sites like Twitter and Ask.FM, then convince them to move to more encrypted sites, according to experts.
Denver7 Investigates uncovered an AskFM transcript that appears to show a conversation between a young teenager in America and a potential ISIS recruiter.
The recruiter appeared to ask questions about marriage and pay the young woman compliments about her beauty. The conversation alternated between questions about her Muslim faith, personal questions and compliments.
Authorities say recruiters often appeal to the emotions of the young people they are speaking with, trying to instill in them a sense of belonging. They also try to learn about conflicts between the potential recruit and their family, friends, classmates and community, and exploit those conflicts to make the person feel disconnected from society.
“It's akin to what pedophiles do when they're grooming kids online,” Krob said.
The father whose daughter attempted to travel to the Middle East spoke about one red flag he did not pay much attention to before his daughter traveled: behavioral changes. He said his daughter is a big music fan, but suddenly stopped listening to music altogether, citing her faith. He ultimately learned ISIS recruiters convinced her the music was against her faith. The teenager is now preparing to go to college, and listening to music again.
Authorities say it’s important for parents to be vigilant about their child’s online activity. Although a tremendous amount of resources are being devoted to stopping online recruiting, it remains an uphill climb for the FBI.
“It's not something that's going away anytime soon,” Krob said. “We're facing a really big challenge with the fact terrorist organizations and other bad actors are using these platforms to spread their message.”