FBI asks Americans to help ID masked Islamic State jihadi. Good idea?

The FBI crowdsourced a terrorist manhunt once before – the Boston bombing – with mixed results. But the public can be a powerful tool in helping to identify the North American-accented jihadi in an Islamic State video.

A masked man speaking in what is believed to be a North American accent in an Islamic State video is pictured in this still frame. The FBI said Tuesday it was seeking information on the man's identity.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation is building on a nascent law-enforcement trend it helped start by asking the public to help identify an American-accented, black-masked militant who appears in one of Islamic State’s grisly propaganda films.

In an “ISIL tips” form on its website, the FBI is trying to crowdsource leads on the American jihadi, as well as seeking tips on other American residents who might be planning to travel abroad to join the terror group or recruiting others to do so.

“We need the public's assistance in identifying U.S. persons going to fight overseas with terrorist groups or who are returning home from fighting overseas,” said Michael Steinbach, assistant director of the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division, in a statement.

In asking for the public's help, the FBI is putting a twist on the tip hotlines of the past, leveraging the Internet to get citizen sleuths to share photos or other potentially relevant information. It's a trend that has accelerated since the FBI asked for help in identifying two Boston Marathon bombing suspects in April 2013. The overwhelming response and subsequent identification of Dzhokhar and Tamelan Tsarnaev was seen as a resounding success.

But the crowdsourced Boston investigation also led to citizens not just providing photos but also conducting their own "investigations" online, and in many cases falsely implicating other people. The goal is to find a balance between encouraging citizens to participate and fueling fear-driven online witch hunts.

"There were two very different processes occurring which proved to have drastically different outcomes: crowdsourced intelligence gathering – a massive success – and crowdsourced crime solving – an abysmal failure," writes Tarun Wadhwa in Forbes. "The FBI only ever asked for the first, but both happened simultaneously. They each offer important glimpses into major issues surrounding the future of law enforcement, justice, and surveillance."

In the current case, the FBI released a photo of a black-masked militant who appears in a slickly produced 55-minute propaganda video titled “Flames of War,” which uses slow-motion action sequences and heroic imagery to appeal to a video-game generation of alienated young men, experts say. The agency said the man alternated seamlessly between Arabic and English spoken with a “North American” accent.

“We’re hoping that someone might recognize this individual and provide us with key pieces of information,” Mr. Steinbach added. “No piece of information is too small.”

Since the Boston bombing, police departments in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara County have adopted a technology called LEEDIR, which allows them to solicit and sort through crowdsourced evidence during a crisis. Determining when crowdsourcing helps and when it is counterproductive is still a work in progress, Martin Dias, an expert on information sharing, told Phys.org.

"Those efforts that appear successful at the moment have tended to be centered around a particular crisis incident – such as a specific attack or missing person," said Mr. Dias, a professor at the D'Amore McKim School of Business at Northeastern University in Boston. "But as more crowdsourcing public safety mobile applications are developed, adoption and use is likely to increase." 

Last month, the FBI and other authorities announced they had discovered the identity of “Jihadi John,” the British-accented militant who is shown beheading several Western journalists and aid workers in Islamic State terror videos.

Previously, the FBI had established a tips hotline in Minneapolis this year as it sought to raise public awareness about any travelers to or from the Middle East who were engaging in armed combat.

About a dozen Americans are known to be fighting with the Islamic State, the FBI said.

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