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Why it's so hard to pinpoint domestic terror recruits

Are the so-called "keyboard jihadists" in the US exerting clear warning signs of violent extremism, or are they simply a cry for help?
An Islamic State flag hangs amid electric wires over a street in Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp, near the port-city of Sidon, southern Lebanon, Jan. 19, 2016. (Photo by Ali Hashisho/Reuters)
An Islamic State flag hangs amid electric wires over a street in Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp, near the port-city of Sidon, southern Lebanon, Jan. 19, 2016. 

Heather Coffman developed her plan in mere months: She would leave behind her 7-year-old son, run away from the Virginia home she shared with her parents and travel to Syria with her online boyfriend. They would then fight for ISIS and die as martyrs.

They chatted most every day during their brief courtship in 2014 and soon planned to elope. And slowly, Coffman's opinions of ISIS grew more extreme. Among the pro-terror propaganda she posted online, Coffman bragged of her family’s concern (“lol”) that she was having a negative influence on her little sister.

“My dad is a little angry because I got her into all this jihad stuff,” Coffman, now 29, wrote under one of the at least 10 different Facebook profiles she created, an affidavit later revealed.

This online relationship soon dissolved, her engagement called off.

But then she moved on to befriend another believer in the ISIS cause, claiming she had legitimate connections with the terror group’s facilitators. If her new acquaintance wanted to travel to Syria and fight for ISIS, she promised to help.

What Coffman didn't know at the time was that her new companion was actually an undercover FBI agent. When confronted by federal authorities, Coffman denied knowing others who supported ISIS or what she had confided to her friend.

Her lies alone were enough for terror-related charges to stick. She pleaded guilty last February to making a false statement to federal officials and was sentenced to four years behind bars.

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Coffman is one of a relatively small number of so-called “keyboard jihadists” in the US who are early-stage ISIS sympathizers but have yet to actually break any laws. Their actions raise a conundrum for policy makers: Are these activities online clear warning signs of violent extremism, or should they be treated as a cry for help?

The issue also raises a larger question about combating this new era of global terrorism driven largely by online recruitment. The recent attacks in Europe show how foreign-trained fighters may take advantage of their citizenship status and travel freely throughout the West — and it leads policy experts to caution that readiness and prevention not only require focus on external threats, but also extremist activity within American borders.

'There is not a hotline to call'

Coffman's family sensed something was wrong before the federal officials were onto her. They pleaded for mercy. Some hand-wrote letters to the judge who sentenced Coffman, painting a picture of a sensitive, if a bit lonely, person who easily teared up with empathy for others and loved taking her young son to school every day.

“Perhaps if I had been able to know more, I could have taken steps to prevent it somehow,” her mother, Lisa Coffman, wrote.

Families 'are left with hoping things will change or calling the FBI on a loved one.''

But few options exist for families like the Coffmans who fear their loved ones have been led astray. Sophisticated terror networks abroad have grown increasingly adept at leveraging social media to recruit individuals easily lured by a cause. It's a vast system, often shrouded online, that poses a near-impossibility for communities to combat alone.

“It’s ad hoc. The takeaway is that there is not a hotline to call, there is no tool-kit for families,” said Seamus Hughes, deputy director of the program on extremism at George Washington University. “They are left with hoping things will change or calling the FBI on a loved one.”

The Obama administration has begun implementing pilot programs, known as Countering Violent Extremism initiatives, which are designed to help pinpoint people who may be lured by the message of terror groups. The idea is to intervene before law enforcement would need to take action.

It's a strategy that a number of European countries have already adopted to provide resources for Muslim-heavy communities. But some experts believe the US is at least five years behind in getting these programs rolling. 

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In some senses, the new programs seek to replace an outdated system of targeting and tracking potential terror suspects. Matthew Levitt, a former counter-terrorism intelligence analyst with the FBI, points out that law enforcement took on the role of addressing red flags on the homegrown terrorism front, when it might be better served to operate as a part of social work.

“We don’t want to be the ‘Thought Police,” said Levitt, who now works with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “The reality is that this is not the space that the government should be operating in. There is a space for the community to operate in order to prevent people from being radicalized.”

Much of public and political discourse has instead focused attention to potential vulnerabilities at the US border. More than two-thirds of Republican voters have said they support proposals to temporarily block all non-American Muslims from entering the country. But blanket travel bans — while discriminating against the largest religious group in the world — don’t begin to address potential terror group sympathizers who already hold American citizenship.

'There is no typical profile. It really runs the gamut, which makes it very difficult to develop programs in response.''

The US has already seen an uptick in the number of people lured by terror groups. A record 56 people were arrested in 2015 alone, an all-time high of terror-related charges for any year since the 9/11 terror attacks.

While the pool of suspects is relatively small, there is one clear obstacle in preventing future attacks: There are few ways to identify potential threats.

Hughes’ program at George Washington University performed an extensive analysis of past terror-related arrests and retraced their steps in an attempt to understand what led these people astray. Why would someone like Heather Coffman, a vibrant young mother who was surrounded by family, suddenly be daydreaming about martyrdom and violent destruction?

What they found was that there were few tell-tale signs to use as a model. A full 86 percent of individuals tied to ISIS-related activities were male; the average age was 26-years-old. But their backgrounds and motivations ranged the spectrum. Some 40 percent had recently converted to Islam. Individuals were arrested across 21 states, each coming from wildly different racial, social and educational backgrounds, the study found.

“There is no typical profile,” Hughes said. “They tend to be younger, they tend to be male. But you also have both a 15-year-old and you have 47-year-old. It really runs the gamut, which makes it very difficult to develop programs in response.”

Some experts believe the lack of consistent qualities is comparable to the mysteries in profiling mass shooters. While assailants were overwhelmingly younger and male, few indicators are available to serve as a universal red flag to prevent future atrocities. One key distinction, however, is that while shooters tend to be loners, terror sympathizers tend to be lured by an extensive and sophisticated network designed to build up followers and propaganda from thousands of miles away.

A plan to de-radicalize

Abdullahi Yusuf quickly became the model figure for an experiment in Minneapolis to see whether potential ISIS recruits could be pulled from the edge of extremism. The 18-year-old was stopped by FBI agents in 2014 as he tried boarding a flight out of the Minneapolis airport with plans to reach Syria and join ISIS fighters. But rather than force Yusuf to face prison time for conspiring to provide material support for terrorism, a judge diverted him to live in a halfway house, part a new effort to de-radicalize young people and offer them a second chance. 

Similar pilot programs are setting up in Boston and Los Angeles, where slowly federal resources are being put into leveraging teachers and counselors to intervene before any crimes are committed. 

RELATED: Why are siblings common in ISIS operations?

David Schanzer, director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security at Duke University, says universal programs could be easily implemented nationwide by tapping the existing networks of local law enforcement agencies and building community trust rather than imposing federal surveillance on a case-by-case basis.

"We still have a lot of work to do. We don’t have a lot of depth in programming," Schanzer said. "While the police can’t be a substitute for this kind of network of the social service safety net, they can be a catalyst or a starting point and they can get the ball rolling."

It's still early to fully gauge the initiative's success. But there have been bumps along the way, even in Yusuf's case, which officials had been banking on as a success. He was later moved to prison for allegedly violating the terms of his release to the halfway house.

Adding to the problem are the complexities of relying on local police, teachers and members of the community to be the first line of defense against radicalization.

Faiza Patel, co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the NYU Brennan Center for Justice, warns that there is still much to learn before the programs can sufficiently weed-out potential bad actors. They first need to know what they're looking for.

“There are no credible factors that can predict who is a terrorist,” Patel said. “These programs are claiming that they are going to identify who the next terrorist is. But the science isn’t there.”