Social media platforms are the best (unwitting) honeypots. The FBI continues to prowl public posts on Twitter, Facebook, etc. for “suspicious” material. Whatever triggers the FBI’s counterterrorism spidey senses is followed shortly thereafter with subpoenas for user info. This is then followed up by DOJ press releases announcing the successful capture of another dangerous individual.
An Akron, Ohio, man was arrested today on federal charges that he solicited the murder of members of the U.S. military.
Terrence J. McNeil, 25, appeared in U.S. District Court in the Northern District of Ohio after being charged with one count of solicitation of a crime of violence.
The charge was announced by Assistant Attorney General John P. Carlin, U.S. Attorney Steven M. Dettelbach of the Northern District of Ohio and Special Agent in Charge Stephen D. Anthony of the FBI’s Cleveland Division.
“According to the allegations in the complaint, Terrence McNeil solicited the murder of members of our military by disseminating ISIL’s violent rhetoric, circulating detailed U.S. military personnel information, and explicitly calling for the killing of American service members in their homes and communities,” said Assistant Attorney General Carlin. “ISIL and its followers continue to use social media in an attempt to incite violence around the world, including in the United States. The National Security Division’s highest priority is counterterrorism and we will use all of our tools to disrupt threats and acts of violence against our military members and their families.”
And just one day after Veteran’s Day, as the press release points out. (That would be the arrest, not the post. The reblogging occurred on September 24th. Optics, people.) The complaint details McNeil’s social media interactions and postings — under multiple accounts. Tucked in amongst the banalities of everyday social media life are McNeil’s more inflammatory posts (and reposts). The FBI already had him under surveillance by the time he posted the thing that bothered the agency the most.
As Ryan J. Reilly of Huffington Post points out, it wasn’t even original user-generated content that led to McNeil’s arrest.
A man from Akron, Ohio, who has supported the Islamic State online was arrested by federal authorities Thursday and charged because he allegedly “reblogged” a GIF on Tumblr that called for attacks on members of the U.S. military.
The GIF, under the banner “Islamic State Hacking Division,” reportedly loops through “several dozen photographs, purportedly of U.S. military personnel, along with their respective name, address and military branch,” according to a Justice Department press release.
“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,” the GIF reportedly stated. McNeil allegedly reblogged the GIF on Sept. 24.
Is a “reblog” the same thing as uttering the threat yourself? This nuance is likely to be lost during the upcoming prosecution. Certainly, it will be argued that “reposts are not endorsements,” to paraphrase the Twitter profile stock phrase slightly.
What’s in the affidavit shows McNeil apparently had an affinity for ISIS. Whether or not it would have led to anything but spirited reblogging is impossible to determine. At one point, another Tumblr user asked whether his pro-ISIS postings represented the “real” him. His answer?
Somewhat about 60%, if it was 100% I would be in jail
McNeil obviously miscalculated this ratio.
The FBI’s affidavit contains little more than a thorough recounting of McNeil’s ISIS/Islam-related social media posts. There’s nothing in there that suggests McNeil was anything more than someone who made a bunch of ill-advised posts about ISIS and Islam. Reposting someone else’s threats isn’t really the same thing as rolling your own. But it’s apparently enough to result in criminal charges.
The FBI may yet uncover evidence of something more malicious lurking under McNeil’s “talks big on Tumblr” exterior. An expansive search warrant attached to the affidavit not only grants the FBI permission to perform forensic examinations of every electronic device in McNeil’s possession, but to seize nearly everything else in his possession, including papers, documents, bank records, receipts, weapons, ammo, photos, airplane tickets, “tactical head coverings,” and, because this isthe way the government does things:
United States Currency in excess of $500.00, precious metals and gems, gold coins, jewelry and financial instruments, including stocks and bonds, deeds of trust, sales contracts, vehicle instruments and artwork.
It looks like McNeil will be getting a public defender, since $500 doesn’t buy much lawyering — not in a case involving alleged threats to kill military personnel. The government hasn’t secured a conviction and nowhere in its affidavit does it even suggest McNeil’s money came from any other source than his job at a local hospital. But it’s going to take it anyway.
As Reilly points out, FBI director James Comey hasn’t exactly made it clear what sort of reposting/retweeting will more likely result in federal charges. This was his answer in response to questions after the FBI arrested a Virginia teen for retweeting pro-ISIS tweets. Comey believes the line between benign and nefarious is “pretty darn clear.” It isn’t, but it’s the government that has the privilege of making the initial determination. The rest will be sorted out in court… unless, of course, the DOJ is able to coax obviously impressionable and not overly-bright young men into plea agreements, in which case, no further determinations will be made.