U.S. - Cameron Dambrosio, a high school student, was arrested last week after posting online videos that show him rapping an original song that police say contained "disturbing verbiage" and reportedly mentioned the White House and the Boston Marathon bombing. He is charged with communicating terrorist threats, a state felony, and faces a potential 20 years in prison. Bail is set at $1 million.
Whether the arrest proves to be a victory in America's fight against domestic terrorism or whether Cameron made an unfortunate artistic choice in the aftermath of the Boston bombing will become clear as the wheels of justice advance.
What is apparent now, however, is that law enforcement agencies are tightening their focus on the social media behavior of US teenagers – not just because young people often fit the profile of those who are vulnerable to radicalization, but also because the public appears to be more accepting of monitoring and surveillance aimed at preventing attacks, even at the risk of government overreach.
Teenagers are generally blissfully unaware that law enforcement agencies are creating cyber units to track and investigate developing ways that criminals, or would-be criminals, research, socialize, and plot nefarious actions, from child molestation to domestic terrorism.
The Boston Marathon bombing suspects, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, fit this profile: Each maintained a YouTube page and Twitter feed that promoted the teachings of a radical Muslim cleric, alongside innocuous postings about music and sports. For law enforcement officials, filtering what does and does not constitute a threat is a delicate balancing act that, since the April 15 bombing, may be tilting to the side of additional caution over individuals' free speech.
Three people were killed and at least 260 injured in the two bomb blasts near the Boston Marathon finish line on April 15. Since then, questions have been raised about how authorities missed signals, especially after alerts from Russian intelligence, that one of the bombing suspects had become radicalized. Tamerlan Tsarnaev, killed after a gunfight with police, had been under surveillance by Russia for six months when he traveled there in 2011 and 2012, besides his activity on social media.
The public wants to know, after the fact, why an attack was not stopped. Most Americans are prepared to maintain a sophisticated watch on this without government overreach, but most Americans also feel if these things can be stopped before they begin, they want to see that happen.
Some authorities say that zooming in on unusual behavior online fits squarely with how police have conducted random searches on the street.
Using a zero tolerance approach to track domestic terrorists online is the only reasonable way to analyze online threats these days, especially after the Boston Marathon bombing and news that the suspects had subsequently planned to target Times Square in Manhattan. The way law enforcement agencies approach online activity that appears sinister is this: If you’re not a terrorist, if you’re not a threat, prove it.
That method can result in arrests of teenagers whose online activity may be more aptly characterized as stupid pranks.
In February, two U.S. high school girls were arrested and charged with 10 counts of terrorism each after they allegedly e-mailed threats to students and faculty to see if they could get away with it.
In January, yet another high school student was charged with domestic terrorism after he allegedly threatened to shoot fellow employees at the Subway shop where he worked. He told police it was a joke.
Then there is the case of a Chicago-area teenager arrested last year after trying to join, over the Internet, a Syrian militant group linked to Al Qaeda. Last week, a federal judge allowed him home confinement while awaiting trial.
Militant and hate groups are known to use the Internet to lure teenagers "to gain their sympathy" through video games, music, or rhetoric that plays to themes of alienation. Connecting with terrorists would have been impossible in the past, but today, anyone with a grudge or curiosity, or both, and an Internet connection can open that dialogue. Foolishly, the teens perceive that they are operating anonymously and within a safe environment.
These groups are catering and looking for these individuals. They create the right environment for experimentation for kids who may have a proclivity of being disgruntled toward the US government.
Easy access to online media, plus the urge to rebel, is a combustible mix that should make parents vigilant. Teenagers should be better informed about the outcomes of what they post, tweet, or upload online.