PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – Parents try to steer kids away from pitfalls and guide them toward a positive circle of friends, never thinking that circle could include terrorists.
However, the FBI in Pittsburgh says terror groups are doing everything they can to recruit teens, even coming here to meet them and try to lure them in.
Most parents worry to some degree about their kids’ online interactions.
But a Pittsburgh-area teen agreed to talk to KDKA-TV with the hope that he may prevent others from doing what he did. He explained his interaction with terrorists online.
“A resource to make connections with people who would be able to help progress to something bigger,” the teen said.
The “something bigger,” according to the FBI, was a terror attack the teen was actively plotting, and he wasn’t doing it alone.
“The vast majority of what we see are people that are overseas contacting these young people online,” FBI Special Agent Robert Jones said.
He was just 13-years-old at the time, was a well-studied sympathizer to Sunni Muslims in the Middle East. He was immersing himself in the ideology around the clock.
“Some days I’d spend all day reading,” he said. “Pushing myself deeper into being radicalized. It was more so a religious thing, and then, the lines became crossed between religion and politics…Palestine, Somalia, Chechnya… Seeing people that I would have called innocent, that were being caught in between the conflict.”
As the teen’s sympathies grew stronger, he began to actively seek out radical extremists.
“By the time six months had passed, I was in regular contact with al Qeada, the Taliban, regular contact. They were offering support, material support,” he said.
The teen says the support being offered included money, transportation and weapons. It didn’t matter the teen wasn’t old enough to drive, own a gun or leave the country without a parent or guardian.
“I was willing to take what they could give me and use it for what I was willing to do,” he said.
KDKA’s Pam Surano: “So the end result was violence?”
Teen: “Yeah, that’s the ultimate end result.”
The FBI says social media sites make it easier to communicate with Jihadist groups who aren’t in remote, out of the way places, but are technologically savvy and make themselves accessible to young people.
“Very, very good at what they do. They are very good at manipulating some of the things that they know might be happening in a young person’s life to their cause,” Jones said.
The FBI says that’s exactly what happened with this teen, his misinterpretation of religious teachings caused him to become influenced by extremists overseas.
As he became radicalized, he was led down a path of violence.
“This ideology teaches you to hate, hate, hate,” he said. “It’s nothing that these groups propagate other than murder.”
The FBI says investigations today reveal most radicalization begins with online curiosity, which leads to online chats and can progress to actual contact with online recruiters.
And, that’s what agents say happened after a period of grooming through encrypted email. The terror recruiters set up a face-to-face meeting with the teen, here in Pittsburgh.
Even then, the recruited teen says he wasn’t afraid.
“My mind wasn’t in the right place to worry,” he said.
The teen says he didn’t care about the repercussions because his mind had become rewired to their way of thinking.
That all changed when the FBI came to his home.
Surano: “I would be terrified if you came to my door, how did you ever approach the family at that point?
Jones: “Coming in with an understanding that there may be reasons behind this and showing empathy is certainly something that helps.”
Agents well versed in how kids get in over their heads say the red flag checklist is familiar.
Red flags can include:
- Kids are spending too much time online
- They are isolating
- Not participating in activities
- Minimal interaction with family or friends
When someone called authorities that the teen’s behavior had changed and he was involved in suspicious activities, discussions were already underway between the teen and the terror group to blow up a building.
“It’s best to say something sooner rather than later, it’s in their best interest,” the teen said.
The FBI says this young man was caught in enough time and while he was young enough.
If adjudicated as an older teen, he would have likely had a longer sentence making him potentially more susceptible to further radicalization.
He was court ordered to undergo mental health counseling and spent a year in a juvenile detention facility.
He now plans on finishing high school.