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News, documents and analysis on violent extremism

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Jihadist Who Wasn't

When the FBI arrested Joseph Brice of Clarkston, Wash., on explosives charges last month, it seemed like a familiar story. An American citizen drawn into jihadist talk online, a reader of Al Qaeda's English language magazine "Inspire," seeking to carry out acts of terrorism on U.S. soil.

But it wasn't quite so simple. Investigators now believe that Brice was not inspired by Inspire. In fact, it appears he isn't a Muslim at all.

When the FBI interviewed Brice after his arrest, "he denied being a Muslim and said that he didn't go to a mosque," said David Gomez, Assistant Special Agent-in-Charge for Counterterrorism at the Seattle Office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Although Brice represented himself as a Muslim with extremist beliefs online, the approach was designed to find an audience for his explosives expertise.

Brice, 20, first came to the attention of authorities in April 2010, when a homemade bomb he had designed exploded prematurely, resulting in severe injuries to his legs. The device was sophisticated in design, but a flaw in the detonator caused it to go off before Brice could reach a safe distance.

Brice wasn't charged at the time. For most people, such an experience might lead to second thoughts about bombmaking as a hobby. Brice got back on the horse and allegedly began discussing bombs online.

Investigators rate his bomb-making skills as extremely high, despite the accident. (Even legendary explosives genious Ramzi Yousef nearly blinded himself during a misfire.)

At one point, Brice frequented white supremacist Web sites, according to Gomerz. But by late 2010, he was posting videos on YouTube under the name StrengthofAllah, along with comments that appeared to show an orientation toward anti-Semitism and a radical interpretation of Islam.

Brice progressed to exploring jihadist forums, where he began to reach out to other users. In some of those conversations, Brice claimed he had converted to Islam after his injury.

Eventually, he offered his explosives expertise to someone he believed was associated with an Islamic terrorist movement. In reality, he was talking to an undercover FBI agent.

After the death of Osama bin Laden, Brice's overtures were deemed too dangerous to continue, and he was arrested May 9 on charges related to the IED that nearly cost him his legs. This week, federal prosecutors added a charge of material support for terrorism, based on his offer of assistance to the undercover agent. The charge does not require contact with a named terrorist organization.

From a law enforcement perspective, Brice's actual religion was not an issue, "because it's immaterial to the filing of the charges," Gomez said. "The facts are the facts, he did what he did. Motivation doesn't really come into play. It's not a crime in which we have to show motive."

Gomez, who worked for five years as an FBI profiler, believes Brice fits the mold of a serial bomber.

"He's not thinking about committing a crime. He's thinking this is what really gets me excited, this is what really stimulates me," Gomez said.

Nevertheless, the case agent who interviewed Brice said he did show signs of anti-Semitic and anti-government beliefs, although no evidence has emerged that would link him to a domestic terrorist network.

Brice's online foray into the world of Muslim extremism likely came in pursuit of an audience for his work, Gomez said, as well as the possibility of financial gain (at one point he discussed using explosives in a bank robbery with an online associate).

"The Internet now is unique," Gomez said. "It allows people to assume multiple identities, to get up on board and to do any number of criminal activities, from child sexual exploitation to presenting yourself as a bomb-making expert and wanting to sell your expertise. ... You can be anything you want to be sitting in front of a computer screen."

Overlap among diverse extremist movements is nothing new, but such links have historically been weak and infrequent, and based on common goals rather than the pretense of common interests.

With the advent of online forums, extremists have an unprecedented ability to find like-minded people and cluster in exclusive communities. But a counterweight to such community exclusivity is the universality of information, particularly expertise in explosives and other violent tactics.

Al Qaeda and its affiliated movements are especially aggressive about pushing out non-ideological tactical information, including English-language texts on improvised explosive techniques and detailed how-to videos. Brice also used AQAP's Inspire magazine to hone his impersonation of a jihadist terrorist.

Such forum shopping may be particularly relevant to the Pacific Northwest. Gomez and his fellow counterterrorism agents in Washington have been busy breaking a diverse assortment of domestic terrorism cases in recent months.

In January, a backpack bomb was found in Spokane on the route of a Martin Luther King Day parade. The FBI arrested Kevin Harpham, of Colville, Wash., a former member of the white supremacist National Alliance, although Gomez said Harpham is belived to have acted alone.

Earlier this month, Briana Waters pleaded guilty in Tacoma to arson and explosives charges in a 10-year-old case of eco-terrorism at the University of Washington, cutting a plea deal to cooperate in ongoing investigations of the Animal Liberation Front and Earth Liberation Front.

And on Thursday, FBI agents arrested two Muslim men in Seattle who are accused of planning a gun attack on a military enlistees' processing office.

Gomez said the Seattle area is also home to a significant anarchist movement, as well as both historical and modern white supremacist movements, such as the Northwest Migration, which envisions the Pacific Northwest as the site for a future white separatist homeland.

People in Washington and Seattle are "extremely tolerant of a number of divergent views," Gomez said. "People feel comfortable up here talking about all their radical politics," resulting in greater visibility and possibly creating an environment more conducive to action. While the terrorist networks observed in Seattle have branches all over the country, he said, they tend to operate more covertly in places like Baltimore or Washington.

For much more about the history of American jihadism and its current incarnation, check out J.M. Berger's new book, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, on sale everywhere.

Jihad Joe was reviewed in the Sunday New York Times Book Review.

Journalists interested in discussing American jihadists and terrorists can contact Berger here.

For reviews and additional information about the book, click here.

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INTELWIRE is a web site edited by J.M. Berger. a researcher, analyst and consultant covering extremism, with a special focus on extremist activities in the U.S. and extremist use of social media. He is a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution, Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, and author of the critically acclaimed Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, the only definitive history of the U.S. jihadist movement, and co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror with Jessica Stern.


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