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Former FBI Agent On How Online Chatrooms And Forums Are Used For Organizing Terror

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Retired San Diego FBI agent Darrel Foxworth talks to KPBS report Priya Sridhar about the busted terror plot in LA and the recent shooting at a Synagogue in Poway, and how suspects in both cases were using online chat rooms to organize.

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Speaker 1: 00:00 Saturday's deadly shooting at a Poway synagogue. Similar recent tragedies and threats resulting in arrest have placed hate crimes and the spotlight, once again, district attorney summer stuffing says some violent crimes standout

Speaker 2: 00:13 as prosecutors, we deal with violence on a daily basis, but when the target of violence is an entire religion, race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation, the victim pool becomes very large.

Speaker 1: 00:30 In another case, the Department of Justice arrested a former US army soldier who was planning to detonate homemade bombs at a white nationalist rally in Long Beach. This weekend. Investigators say the Internet is commonly used to spread hate messages and engage with likeminded extremist. Darryl Foxworth, a retired FBI special agent spoke with KPBS reporter Prius Schreder about the commonalities between the synagogue shooting and the arrest in Long Beach. Here's that interview.

Speaker 3: 00:58 It seems like both of these two suspects were using chat rooms to talk to other extremists. Are Law enforcement monitoring these chat rooms?

Speaker 4: 01:08 Well, you know, first, let me say, when you look at both of these cases, they appear to have some similarities. The first thing is that it appears that they are both homegrown violent extremists. And what we're talking about, we're talking about individuals who are self radicalized through the Internet. And now how this, how does that occur? Uh, through a number of ways. I mean, they go on the Internet, they identify chat rooms, social media sites, things of that nature. And they start ingesting this, digesting this internally, and then they find some reason to identify with these groups and take violent actions, uh, against others. So first thing you're looking at is that these violent extremists that are basically home grown based here in the United States. And that's the major threat that we're seeing today. When you talk about terrorism, uh, last year the director of the FBI spoke and he said that they had 5,000 terrorism cases open.

Speaker 4: 02:01 Of those 5,000, 1000 had to do with domestic terrorism and homegrown violent extremists. So this is a very, very serious problem. And the problem with these cases when you're talking about these individuals is that they're very hard to detect because you have these people that are, uh, operating oftentimes alone. There's not a lot of sophistication. They can commit these acts with a knife, a gun of vehicles. So there's not very sophisticated when it comes to the way that they go about executing these. Plus, the other thing is that there's less dots to connect. You're not dealing with an organization, you're not dealing with a lot of co conspirators. So there's less communications to intercept or people to go out and identify and interview, conduct search warrants on. So these individuals, they're being self radicalized, they're taking this information and off the Internet. And then the problem that you have is you don't know when they're going to go out and commit that violent act. And that's what really causes problems for law enforcement.

Speaker 3: 03:00 And so even though the suspects aren't necessarily being tied to an organized group, they are using chat rooms and in many cases, these chat rooms seemed to be very popular with that kind of ideology. Is there a list of those kinds of chat rooms that, you know, federal agents are sort of surveying?

Speaker 4: 03:20 Uh, you know, I can't speak to if they're surveying any particular one, but, uh, are they aware of, you know, chat rooms, social media sites that are utilize? Yes. And uh, if there's, uh, a legal basis, Dan's law enforcement where they're talking about federal, state, local, if there's a legal basis and they have lawful authority to go in and monitor, you know, certain communications in connection with a, with an investigation, then that's something that they consider. And that's something that, that they would do.

Speaker 3: 03:50 I know I was about to ask you about that. I mean, what can be done if people are actually making threats online? Is it actually a crime or could people just claim that, hey, this is freedom of speech and how do you know when a threat that's made online is actually a credible threat?

Speaker 4: 04:04 Well, that, that's a very good question. And yes, we always have to be aware of the civil liberties and we have to be, we have to be aware, uh, freedom of speech. Sometimes we don't like what you know, people are saying. But the thing is that may be covered on a pregame speech where it crosses the line is when he started talking about doing specific actions with that going out and doing something that's usually where you, you see that or they're about to do something. So, you know, while we do have that freedom of speech, you know, that speech can cross into criminal activity.

Speaker 3: 04:37 We heard reports in this situation that happened in Poway that the suspect could have potentially been using coded language and some of the chat rooms that he was using. What are some of the other challenges that law enforcement face when they're dealing with people talking in chat rooms or on the Internet and what changes need to be made in the future so that we don't continue to see these kinds of things happening?

Speaker 4: 04:59 Well, like when you, when you talk about the, you know, using coded, you know, messaging coded language, it's one thing to use coded language. I mean, you can decipher that. Um, you know, oftentimes, you know, we, there's intelligence, uh, uh, analysts that are able to be able to assist the investigators with knowing what the vernacular coded words, things of that nature. The challenge comes with the technology piece when you start using different technology to prevent or try to prevent law enforcement from intercepting that communication. So it's all about the, the partnerships, the information sharing and the technology. So the intelligence and information part of that, when you talk about the coded language, you know, you can defeat that. That can be, that can be done with, uh, with, with cooperating individuals through, through other means in information gathering. So you can kind of, you know, decrypt what that information is. Uh, the challenge is on a technology part, when you start using a peer to peer in some of these other, uh, private Mesa communicates. So law enforcement always has to stay abreast of that and makes sure that you have the technology so that you can intercept and decode. The messages are in the communication.

Speaker 1: 06:13 That was KPBS reporter Prius Sri, through speaking with Daryl Foxworth, a retired FBI special agent.

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KPBS Midday Edition

KPBS Midday Edition is a daily talk show hosted by Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon, keeping San Diegans in the know on everything from politics to the arts.