An American-Syrian dual citizen, who is on the FBI's Most Wanted Terrorists list and has been on the lam since 2006, may in fact be one of the players behind the Islamic State's extremely savvy social media campaign.
According to ABC News, a senior law enforcement official said that Ahmad Abousamra, a Northeastern University graduate, is thought to have joined the Islamic State (formerly known as ISIS) and is seemingly using his computer skills to help propagate the group's message on social media.
Abousamra and other associates reportedly relocated to the Middle East in 2004 with the aim of fighting US soldiers. Two of his companions allegedly operated within al Qaeda of Iraq's (AQI) media team, while Abousamra apparently made two unsuccessful attempts to receive terrorist training. AQI later evolved into ISIS, then the Islamic State.
One of the men, Tarek Mehanna, was arrested after returning to the US. The FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force interviewed Abousamra in America in 2006, but he skipped town afterwards and fled to Syria.
In his absence, the FBI subsequently charged Abousamra with nine counts related to providing material support to terrorists, and posted him to the Most Wanted Terrorists list in 2013.
"Abousamra was indicted after taking multiple trips to Pakistan and Yemen, where he allegedly attempted to obtain military training for the purpose of killing American soldiers overseas," the FBI said in a statement at the time.
A reward of $50,000 has been posted by the bureau for information leading to the capture of the 33-year-old who graduated from a Catholic high school in Massachusetts and has a computer technology related college degree.
"In this case, Abousamra advocates violent extremism and boldly promotes violence against United States citizens and military personnel," said in the December 2013 statement.
The Boston Division of the FBI said they were not commenting on the ABC News report. Kieran Ramsey, the assistant special agent in charge, told VICE News they encouraged people to look at Abousamra's original indictment on "pretty serious charges" and draw their own inferences from his background in relation to the current reporting.
"He has always been a continued focus of ours," Ramsey said, noting that the ABC reports would not affect their aggressive pursuit of Abousamra, but that they hope people will come forward with information about the fugitive. "We're hoping somebody out there somewhere has some contacts in Syria, or wherever location and want to help the public at large."
Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, a fellow at the Middle East Forum who has closely followed Syria's militant groups on social media, told VICE News that it wouldn't be surprising if people from the West are somehow involved in the Islamic State's social media endeavors — which have ranged from YouTube videos to centralized social media campaigns, and even the occasional meme.
"The social media operations of the Islamic State have been keen to widely disseminate their message on a global scale," he said. According to Al-Tamimi, the social media campaign, and specifically the English-language messages, highlight the militant group's efforts to appeal to foreigners and the West specifically, as well as the global nature of their goals that "one day the world will be united under the banner of the Islamic State."
US officials have even acknowledged the complexity of the Islamic State, with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel saying on Wednesday that: "They're as sophisticated as anybody out there in how they frame and how they use modern technology."
Similarly, experts have analyzed the capabilities for terror these campaigns can have.
"ISIS understands very well that in order for an act of terrorism to be effective, it needs to actually terrorize people," Peter Neumann, Director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization, told ABC News. "The act of communication that follows the act of violence is almost as important as the act of violence itself."
However, according to Al-Tamimi, while the beheading of two American journalists in the last two weeks would be viewed under a separate scope, he is doubtful that "from the very outset their [social media operations] were designed with the idea of posing terrorist threats to the West."
According to him, when they emphasize their material in a way that appeals to foreigners, whether in language or quality, it's designed to gain more recruits and increase popular support. This is also evidenced by the number of provincial and localized Twitter accounts that operate under the ISIS media "office" umbrella, but disseminate more area-specific news and information.
While Ramsey said the Islamic State's social media campaign hasn't necessarily affected the FBI investigation into Abousamra, he added that, when identifying threats, his office is certainly going to use "whatever platform they use, whether traditional media or social media, in whatever way we can help identify, locate and disrupt individuals." He noted this was a focus not just of his office, but of the US government and other countries around the world.
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