Investigators scouring the online accounts of two proven terrorists have uncovered Facebook messages in support of jihad dating as far back as 2012.
Investigators have found private messages promoting terrorist groups sent to friends and family in Pakistan from Tashfeen Malik, who along with her husband shot 14 people in San Bernardino, Calif., before ultimately dying in a gun battle with police. The Federal Bureau of Investigation is now coming to terms with how to investigate social media to stop terrorists before they act.
Law enforcement has been cautious about trawling social media during terrorist investigations because of privacy, but they began developing procedures to search individual social media accounts after the San Bernardino shooting, although they have not released specific details for fear of compromising the investigations.
The FBI uncovered evidence suggesting Ms. Malik and her husband, Syed Rizwan Farook, had been radicalized long before the shooting, but law enforcement had previously said that the couple managed to stay under counterterrorism investigators' radar by not espousing those views online. In the past, the FBI has been able to identify individuals plotting to join the Islamic State militant group in Syria by monitoring online chat rooms and public social media postings. The question of delving into private messages, however, has remained thornier.
Legislators considered harnessing the power of social media to fight terrorism even before the Dec. 2 shooting. In July, The Christian Science Monitor reported on a Senate bill to require social media companies to inform law enforcement when users promoted terrorism on private online accounts:
However, tech industry officials said the requirements in Senate legislation are too extensive and could impose harsh penalties if they miss a post. They also said that law enforcement officials may be flooded by tips in a way that would make it harder to home in on useful information.... Increasing efforts by the government to monitor social media sites for extremist activity come as terror groups take advantage of the Internet for their messaging and recruiting efforts.
Officials estimate a few thousand social media accounts can spawn 200,000 pro-Islamic State tweets in a single day, as The Monitor's Warren Richey has previously reported. They are concerned Islamic State terrorist leaders could broadcast a call to arms via social media and ignite violent attacks from their supporters worldwide.
This discovery of the pro-jihad Facebook messages years before Malik even received her visa to enter the United States show law enforcement missed hints of radicalization on social media, which is why the FBI is now creating paths to monitor potential radicals' online presence more closely.
This report contains information from Reuters.