Adam Serwer considers the case of Nicholas Teausant, a 20-year-old California student recently arrested for “attempting to provide material support to a terrorist group”:
Teausant learned the perils of social media firsthand after he was arrested on terrorism charges last Monday. His use of social media is cited prominently in the FBI’s criminal complaint, which describes Teausant posting pictures under the name “bigolsmurf,” declaring his desire to “join Allah’s army” and seeking “The Mujahid’s Handbook,” identified by the FBI as a “how-to guide for becoming a lone wolf terrorist,” compiled from Al Qaeda’s Inspire magazine. On ask.fm, a Q-and-A social networking site, he allegedly told strangers of his desire to “go fight in Syria.” Based on the FBI affidavit, that desire is ultimately how he got caught – attempting to cross the Canadian border, allegedly believing he was about to join Al Qaeda affiliates fighting against Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. Instead, he had really just fallen into a trap set by an FBI informant and an undercover agent.
Serwer calls the Teausant case “the latest of hundreds of cases where the FBI relies on sting operations that snare suspects who hold radical views but questionable competence and often have no formal ties to terror groups”:
The strategy is both to catch potential aspiring terrorists and to sow distrust in extremist communities and prevent them from recruiting inside the U.S. According to a forthcoming study from the Center on National Security at the Fordham University School of law, about 30 percent – 110 defendants out of 380 – of terrorism defendants have been targeted through the use of a sting operation or informant since the 9/11/2001 terrorist attacks. “This is the preventive strategy, this is what it looks like,” says Karen Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security at the Fordham University School of Law. “Over time, the suspect’s acts turn out to be more and more remote from acts of violence themselves, and more like potential beginning steps in a direction that might or might not someday take the suspect in the direction of jihadi violence.”
Meanwhile, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross notes that Teausant – who also falsely claimed to be a National Guard Reservist – is “not alone among young Westerners who have joined the jihadist movement in generously sprinkling elements of the less-than-factual into their self-image”:
Why are there so many fibbers among the ranks of these converts? Several studies point to the possibility that identity crises – which can shake up belief systems and leave once-stable individuals feeling unmoored – may make people particularly vulnerable to extremist ideas. An identity crisis can be of the kind that might first prompt a jihadist-to-be to first try on several personas for size before settling on that of radical Islamist. As the NYPD’s study Radicalization in the West puts it, sometimes an “individual is looking for an identity and a cause,” and “finds them in extremist Islam.”
Indeed, for those lost souls without a strong sense of self, there are few identities as all-encompassing as that of Salafi radical, with its emphasis on complying with voluminous and often obscure rules. Teausant, for example, seemed to relish these tenets, explaining on his blog why he considers celebrating Valentine’s Day and dating to be prohibited by Islamic law. On Facebook, he pondered the perceived religious obligation to eat with one’s right hand: “So if we eat and drink with our right hand should we not push the button on a drinking fountain with our right also?”