An Ohio man accused of using social media to promote violence against U.S. service members opened at least eight anonymous online accounts in quick succession to make threats, even as Twitter kept suspending them and federal agents raced to find him, court documents say.
The unusual case illustrates the deadly whack-a-mole contest confronting international counterterrorism officials and U.S. technology companies as they hunt and disable accounts used to recruit and radicalize prospective supporters of terror groups, especially ISIS.
It also shows how frustrating such efforts can be: Terrence McNeil, the Ohio suspect, was accused of taunting authorities each time he was forced to open new accounts. "Back at it," one message said. "Not going to stop me," another said.
McNeil, 25, of Akron, was charged by federal prosecutors with soliciting the killings of U.S. service members over social media, including Tumblr, Facebook and Twitter. He appeared Thursday in federal court in Ohio on a charge of solicitation of a crime of violence. His attorney, Nathan Ray, did not immediately return a message seeking comment.
The case was believed to represent the U.S. government's first effort to prosecute an individual for such a role. Previous cases have accused defendants of providing material support to terror groups, such as money or expertise, or planning to travel overseas to join their cause.
Twitter has been most heavily used by the Islamic State to crowdsource radicalization and recruitment. It has a separate department that deals with violations of its rules and terms of service, including abusive behavior such as violent threats and promoting terrorism. By some accounts, ISIS followers have sent tens of thousands of tweets per day, opening new Twitter accounts quickly and repeatedly after they're suspended. A Twitter representative declined to comment.
The escalating role of social media has prompted a White House initiative to counter extremists that includes forging partnerships with YouTube, Silicon Valley and Hollywood.
"Ten to 15 years ago the assessment of the intelligence community was, to get radicalized to join one of these terrorist groups that you would need to have a person-to-person connection," John Carlin, the Obama administration's top national security attorney, said at a recent think-tank event. "Now we're seeing it occur in some instances entirely online ... often using U.S.-made technology."
"They switched from doing that call to go overseas, to calling on individuals to commit attacks where they live," he continued. "And saying no passport required. No travel required. Kill who you can locally."
According to a criminal complaint, McNeil used his Tumblr account Sept. 24 to republish an animated graphics file with the banner "Islamic State Hacking Division" followed by "Target: United States Military" and "Leak: Addresses of 100 US Military Personnel."
The series of photographs said, "We have made it easy for you by giving you addresses, all you need to do is take the final step, so what are you waiting for? Kill them in their own lands, behead them in their own homes, stab them to death as they walk their streets thinking that they are safe..."
McNeil allegedly tweeted July 27: "Just thinking about getting martyred puts a smile on my face."
The Justice Department is bringing the latest case under a new legal theory, accusing a defendant of using social media to incite others to violence. The complaint included dozens of examples of postings that McNeil was accused of writing, but the incident that drove the prosecution was the allegation that he republished the material with the names of the soldiers. The government said McNeil's actions went beyond constitutionally protected speech.