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Feds keep close eye on Twitter in Twin Cities terror recruiting fight

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Twitter account pf Mujahid Miski
Twitter account of Mujahid Miski, also known as Mohamed Abdullahi Hassan.
Twitter screen shot

Hours after his friend Abdirizak Warsame was arrested on charges of conspiracy to aid ISIS, Khaalid Adam Abdulkadir took to Twitter and allegedly began threatening to kill FBI agents.

Before Abdulkadir had the chance to delete what he'd posted on Dec. 9, the FBI was on it. Agents had been tipped off by an informant and obtained screenshots of the tweets, according to the criminal complaint detailing charges against him.

It was the latest evidence of how intensely federal law enforcement officials are using Twitter to track and monitor potential recruits and their associates in the Twin Cities who might be thinking of joining extremists groups or making threats against officials. 

In charging documents, prosecutors have cited the Twitter traffic of alleged ISIS recruits and provided snippets of private conversations between the suspects and fighters with extremists groups. 

Tweet from Hanad Mohallim
Khaalid Adam Abdulkadir "favorited" a tweet from Hanad Mohallim, a former Minnesota resident who was killed in Syria months later while fighting for ISIS.
Via Twitter

Federal authorities, for instance, knew that Abdulkadir had "favorited" a January 2014 tweet from Hanad Mohallim, a former Minnesota resident who was killed in Syria months later while fighting for ISIS. The tweet read, in part, "You die the way you lived and you are raised up from the grave the way you died."

In April when the FBI arrested six men on the same day, Mahamed Said also allegedly used his Twitter account to threaten to "kill for those guys if they don't free my brothers."

From January to June, Twitter received 63 information requests from local, state and federal law enforcement authorities in Minnesota, a 50 percent increase from the 42 information requests it received in 2014, according to the company's transparency report.

"I think the youth can't differentiate what's right from what's wrong," said Ibrahim Mohamud, an information technology senior at the University of Minnesota who has been following media coverage of the ISIS cases. "Emotions without proper judgment can lead to unnecessary arrests."

Mohamud said he's shocked that Abdulkadir would threaten the FBI knowing that another man, Said, had already been arrested in April for tweeting identical threats. 

The Somali community is still grappling with ways to deal with the recruitment issue and some are in denial and don't understand the seriousness of the charges the man are facing, he said. 

"They are trying to solve the problem, they don't know how to solve it and they don't know what to do," Mohamud said. "They don't know where to start and there is, of course, a lot of mistrust. It needs a lot of working together. It needs a lot of realizing there's a problem that needs to be solved."

The FBI is mindful of citizens' First Amendment rights even if what people say is controversial or unpopular and decisions about who to track on social media are made on a case-by-case basis, said Minneapolis FBI spokesperson Kyle Loven.

"For the FBI to become involved in situation involving social media, there has to be what we term in law enforcement, 'predication,'" Loven said. "There has to be something which will allow us leeway to further investigate the person or persons from a vintage point of something other than their freedom of expressions."

In the criminal complaint against Abdulkadir, federal law enforcement officials say they obtained from Twitter private messages between Abdulkadir and Mohamed Abdullahi Hassan, a former al-Shabab fighter known as Mujahid Miski. In those January messages, Abdulkadir allegedly sought advice from Miski on how to go to Syria to join ISIS.

"Brother I'm trying to make moves and I have no connection so what's the deal brother?" Abdulkadir allegedly asked Miski, who recently surrendered to Somali government forces.

The echo chamber of social media is luring some young Americans to fall for ISIS propaganda, but it's more than that, said Seamus Hughes, deputy director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University.

"You have real world relationship, so social media isn't necessarily the driver with those radicalization," he said. "It's more just a mode of communication."

Contacts with known and suspected jihadists overseas, like Miski, would raise a red flag, he added.

The culture of social media may also make it hard for parents to know what their children are doing on social media until it's too late.

"The youth may be recruited through social media," Deqa Hussen — Warsame's mother — said in a town hall meeting in October. "But if you are not vigilant, you won't know what's going on."

She told the mothers to report suspected activities to the FBI.

"As a Somali mother, I would like to work with the FBI," Hussen said. "If I knew something, I will bring to the justice and say this is what's going on."

The latest arrest of Warsame will widen the trust gap between the law enforcement and the Somali community, said Jamal Abdulahi, a blogger and analyst who wrote about the arrests of the ISIS suspects.

"What people that I talked in the community are asking is: If the FBI is arresting people that are cooperating with them and working with them, they obviously cannot be trusted," he said.

Mohamud encouraged young people to be careful of what they say on social media or offline because that could be used against them in court.

"Basically that's one of the teachings that even Islam teaches us that you will be held accountable for what you say," he said. "And I think the youth just need to really understand that concept."