Extremism & Terrorism » ADL Blogs
September 22, 2016

ISIS Supporters Capitalize on Attacks with New Hashtag Campaign

ISIS supporters are attempting to capitalize on the September 17 and 18 attacks in the U.S. – bombs placed in locations in New York and New Jersey and a stabbing in a Minnesota mall – with a new hashtag campaign on social media. The campaign began on September 20 but has yet to achieve levels of participation seen in previous ISIS hashtag campaigns.

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The campaign, which uses an Arabic-language hashtag that translates to “In the heart of their land,” includes statements and images warning the U.S. and other Western countries of future attacks on their soil. Some of the statements also urge ISIS supporters to commit these attacks. The campaign’s hashtag phrase comes from a June 2014 speech by ISIS’s former spokesman, Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, stating, “the smallest action you do in the heart of their land is dearer…than the largest action by us.” Adnani was reportedly killed in an airstrike in August.

Like previous ISIS hashtag campaigns, the new campaign attempts to actively engage ISIS supporters online by encouraging them to repost statements and images related to the campaign. These online engagement tactics foster a sense of community, and encourage supporters to get involved in the extremist cause. The current campaign also bears similarities to past ISIS hashtag campaigns in its attempts to “piggyback” on trending hashtags, inserting ISIS propaganda into other conversations and increasing the campaign’s visibility. Some posts for this campaign have featured popular hashtags including #Brangelina, #TerenceCrutcher and #UNGA.

Unlike previous ISIS hashtag campaigns, however, participation in this campaign has been very limited on Facebook and Twitter, which points to the impact of efforts by those platforms to shut down pro-terror accounts. Many of the accounts posting and Tweeting on the campaign’s behalf appear to have been created recently, and specifically for the purpose of the campaign. A majority of them were created in the last couple of days, and many have fewer than 50 followers.

It is noteworthy, as well, that the campaign is being conducted primarily in Arabic, rather than in English (although a number of the images include English text).  Previous campaigns featured multiple languages in attempts to recruit an international audience of supporters — and further intimidate non-supporters worldwide.

The threats themselves are also not unified, indicating an absence of coordinated effort. They include threats against the U.S., Brussels, France, and LGBT communities.

The following are examples of images used in the campaign:

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September 21, 2016

Practical Weaponry Inspired by Foreign Terrorist Organizations

Bombs in New York and New Jersey on September 17th and 18th and an unrelated stabbing attack on September 17th in Minnesota serve as reminders of the domestic threat posed by individuals motivated by Islamic extremism. These attacks come amid propaganda from groups including ISIS and Al Qaeda increasingly encouraging Westerners to commit attacks with any means at their disposal.

A pressure cooker bomb found in New York City on September 17

A pressure cooker bomb found in New York City on September 17

The bombs placed in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood were made with pressure cookers, similar to those used in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. Since 2002, there have been at least nine alleged plots in the United States involving pressure cooker bombs, including this weekend’s. Only one other plot, the Boston Marathon bombing, resulted in an explosion. Some plans only involved sending or requesting direction for making the bombs, but did not lead to any actual construction.

The majority of these cases took place in 2015 and 2016, and three of the nine plots were in New York City.

  • September 2016: Two pressure cooker bombs were left in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, allegedly by New Jersey resident Ahmad Khan Rahami. One exploded, injuring 29; the second was tampered with and rendered inert.
  • July 2016: Arizona resident Mahin Khan allegedly plotted to attack an air force recruitment center in support of ISIS. Court documents indicate that he asked a member of a foreign terrorist organization for rifles and instructions for building pressure cooker bombs.
  • September 2015: Florida resident Joshua Ryne Goldberg allegedly sent instructions for building pressure cooker bombs to an individual who Goldberg believed would attempt to bomb a 9/11 memorial ceremony in Kansas City.
  • July 2015: Massachusetts resident Alexander Ciccolo allegedly plotted to plant pressure cooker bombs at a local university in support of ISIS.
  • June 2015: New York residents Munther Omar Saleh and Fareed Mumuni allegedly plotted to detonate pressure cooker bombs in New York City in support of ISIS.
  • April 2015: New York residents Asia Siddiqui and Noelle Velentzas were arrested for allegedly plotting an attack in New York. Although no targets were specified, the pair had allegedly acquired materials and instructions for building pressure cooker bombs. They had reportedly claimed allegiance to ISIS and had been in touch with known Al Qaeda members.
  • June 2013: Massachusetts residents Dzokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev detonated pressure cooker bombs at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing 3 individuals and injuring about 264.
  • July 2011: Texas resident Naser Jason Abdo was arrested for plotting to use a pressure cooker bomb to attack a local restaurant popular with soldiers and their families in support of Al Qaeda.
  • May 2002: Florida resident Imran Mandhai plotted to use pressure cooker bombs to bomb several possible targets in South Florida, including Jewish-owned businesses, the Israeli Consulate in Miami, Jewish community centers, electrical power stations and the National Guard Armory. Mandhai pled guilty to conspiring to carry out a terrorist plot in 2006.
Ahmad Khan Rahami, suspect behind the New York and New Jersey

Ahmad Khan Rahami, suspect behind the New York and New Jersey bombs

The bomb that exploded before a marine charity run in Seaside Park, New Jersey, as well as bombs found in Elizabeth, New Jersey on September 17 and 18 were all pipe bombs allegedly left by Ahmad Khan Rahami.

Since 2002, there have been at least 5 domestic plots motivated by Islamic extremism involving consideration or building of pipe bombs, including the September 17 attacks:

  • September 2016: A pipe bomb allegedly left by New Jersey resident Ahmad Khan Rahami exploded at the location of a marine charity run in Seaside Park, New Jersey. There were no casualties. A bag of unexploded pipe bombs, also allegedly belonging to Rahami, was found in Elizabeth, New Jersey.
  • January 2015: Ohio resident Christopher Lee Cornell allegedly plotted to use a pipe bomb to bomb the U.S. Capitol building. He then allegedly planned to shoot government officials in support of ISIS.
  • November 2011: Jose Pimentel allegedly plotted to use pipe bombs to bomb various targets around the U.S. in support of Al Qaeda. He pled guilty to attempted criminal possession of a weapon in the first degree as a crime of terrorism in 2014.
  • August 2004: New York residents Shahwar Matin Siraj and James Elshafay plotted to use pipe bombs to bomb a New York City subway in support of Al Qaeda.

Direction for building both pressure cooker bombs and pipe bombs are in the first issue of Inspire, the English-language propaganda magazine released by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. That issue was released in the summer of 2010; subsequent issues have referenced and occasionally repeated the directions, as well as provided directions for other types of bombs.

Although their choice of weapon was unspecified, Florida residents Raees and Sheheryzar Alam Qazi, arrested in 2012 for plotting an attack against U.S. gas stations, had allegedly plotted to build a bomb based on the directions in the first issue of Inspire.

In total, there have been at least 71 domestic Islamic extremist plots involving bombs or grenades since 2002, including 37 since 2010. In many cases, the type of bomb is not specified.

There have been at least 52 domestic Islamic extremist plots involving guns since 2002, including 27 since 2010. ISIS and Al Qaeda have both suggested that it is easy to acquire guns in the U.S. and have encouraged their followers to do so. There is some overlap between the gun and bomb plot numbers, as some plots involved both types of weapons.

Dahir Ahmed Adan, perpetrator of the stabbings in Minnesota

Dahir Ahmed Adan, perpetrator of the stabbings in Minnesota

The stabbings in Minnesota this weekend point to another, newer form of domestic Islamic extremist plot involving knives. Although there are no clear plots involving knife or stabbing attacks prior to 2015, there were two such plots in 2015 and 2 in 2016:

  • September 2016: Minnesota resident Dahir Ahmed Adan allegedly stabbed 10 people in a Minnesota mall. Although investigations into his motivation are ongoing, Adan allegedly asked at least one person if he was Muslim during the attack and ISIS has claimed responsibility for the attack.
  • August 2016: Michigan resident Sebastian Gregorson was arrested for illegally acquiring an arsenal of weapons that included knives, guns and grenades. Court documents indicate that Gregorson plotted to carry out an attack on a building in support of ISIS.
  • December 2015: New York resident Emmanuel Lutchman allegedly plotted to stab patrons at a Rochester, New York bar with a machete or dagger in support of ISIS.
  • June 2015: Usaama Rahim and David Wright of Massachusetts allegedly plotted to behead Boston area police officers in support of ISIS.

Knives were also a common accessory among individuals who supported ISIS in 2015, even if their plans did not involve knife attacks. Fareed Mumuni and Munther Omar Saleh of New York, who allegedly plotted to bomb New York landmarks, and Usaama Rahim of Massachusetts all allegedly used knives in con­fronta­tions with law enforce­ment offi­cials who were mon­i­tor­ing or attempt­ing to ques­tion them. Amir Said Abdul Rah­man Al-Ghazi, an Ohio resident arrested in June 2015, had also allegedly pur­chased a knife but did not use it. Court documents suggest that he bought it for use in propaganda videos that he wanted to film. And court documents indicate that Jabil Ibn Ameer Aziz, a Pennsylvania resident arrested in December 2015 who reportedly hoped to travel to join ISIS and recruited others to do so, was allegedly in possession of a “Go-Bag” packed with a modified kitchen knife, in addition to M4-style high-capacity magazines loaded with ammunition, as well as many  other items.

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September 20, 2016

When ISIS Claims Responsibility for Attacks in the U.S.

Dahir A. Adan, a 20-year-old who was born in Kenya and raised in the U.S., stabbed nine people at a shopping mall in St. Cloud, Minnesota, on September 17, 2016. Just as security officials announced that they would investigate the attack as an act of terrorism, the ISIS news agency “Amaq” reported that the attacker was a “soldier of the Islamic State.”

dahir-adan-photo

This is not the first time ISIS has claimed responsibility for an attack on U.S. soil without any corroborating evidence.

ISIS claims of responsibility for plots and attacks in the U.S. have varied from stating the attackers were “soldiers of the Islamic State,” to “supporters of the Caliphate,” to followers that heard the call of Sheikh Adnani, each claim suggesting a different level of affiliation with the organization. However, in most cases in which ISIS stated that one of its “soldiers” executed the attack, no operational links were to be found.

There is a significant difference between an unverified claim and an actual operational link between ISIS and attackers in the U.S. The former could actually damage ISIS’s credibility among potential recruits by raising questions about its global reach and authenticity.  An actual connection would be of much greater concern to U.S. law enforcement, signaling ISIS’s ability to direct attacks on U.S. soil.  While ISIS propaganda and recruitment efforts online include practical tips for carrying out attacks, direct and personal guidance often leads to better execution.

To date, there’s been only one attack in the U.S. which ISIS not only claimed responsibility for, but that law enforcement also identified a possible link; the May 2015 shooting at a “Muhammad Art Exhibit and Cartoon Contest” in Garland, Texas. Elton Simpson, one of the Garland shooters, appears to have been in contact with Junaid Hussein, a well-known ISIS operative who was believed to be communicating with a number of U.S. contacts. Hussein was killed in Syria in a U.S. airstrike in August 2015.

ISIS has claimed responsibility for a number of other attacks in the U.S., saying they were executed by “soldiers of the Caliphate,” but in those cases, U.S. law enforcements agencies have not found concrete evidence that the attackers were actually in contact with ISIS operatives abroad. For example:

  • After Omar Mateen’s June 2016 attack on an Orlando nightclub, ISIS claimed that Mateen was a “soldier of the Caliphate,” but the CIA later stated that it has not found any link between the attacker and ISIS.
  • Following the San Bernardino shootings, ISIS claimed responsibility through its news bulletin “Al-Bayan,” but stated the attackers were “supporters of the Islamic State,” suggesting that there may not have been any direct operational links.

In other attacks in the U.S., ISIS attempted to draw a connection between their propaganda and the violence. For example:

  • In the fifth edition of Dabiq, ISIS online magazine, which was published in November 2014, ISIS claimed that Zale Thompson’s attack in New York in which he attacked four policemen using a hatchet in October 2014, was a “direct result of the Sheikh Adnani’s call to action.”
  • In September, 2014, when Alton Nolen beheaded his former work colleague and attacked another in Oklahoma, ISIS claimed credit and boasted that ISIS propaganda had moved Nolen to action.

ISIS also referred to some lone attackers in the U.S. in their online publications as “Islamic State Knights” or carriers of the (Islamic State) banner:

  • Ussama Rahim planned with other accomplices to behead Boston-area police officers in June 2015. Rahim was referred by ISIS as an “Islamic State Knight” in issue 13 of Dabiq which was published in January 2016.
  • Faisal Mohammad, a university student, stabbed four people at the University of California, Merced, in November 2015. In issue 12 of Dabiq, which was published in November 2015, ISIS wrote that Mohammad “carried the banner and his dagger to spear the crusaders of America.”

Given ISIS’s mixed record in claiming direct responsibility for attacks in the U.S., the fact that ISIS referred to the attacker in Minnesota as one of its “soldiers” may indicate some operational connection.  But it is equally possible that no actual links exist between ISIS and Dahir A. Adan as no evidence has been revealed thus far indicating a direct link.

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