Columbia, SC (WLTX) - With nearly one-thousand active terror investigations in the country, including cases here in South Carolina, the FBI says extremists are recruiting teens from the Midlands online.
“I can tell you that it’s probably our most concerning threat,” says Christopher Derrickson, with the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Columbia. “It’s kind of what keeps you up at night. Because there’s no template to it. It’s very hard to predict. There’s no particular face or individual that meets the criteria of somebody that might be radicalized online and then one week later is plotting an attack.”
From thousands of miles away, extremists reach out to young Americans online through propaganda video, chatrooms, video games, and social media.
Derrickson could not elaborate on the number of times the FBI has had to intervene, but he says the threat has gone up significantly over the past two years.
“We’ve had situations in South Carolina involving teens where we’ve had to liaison with our local community, our local law enforcement officers, to interdict on their level before situations rose to that level or were just about to occur,” he says.
The most recent case out of South Carolina involves a York teen who was released from jail in May after police say he was recruited by ISIS and planned to attack a North Carolina military base.
“Fortunately that’s not something that we see on a frequent basis, but it’s our ultimate fear,” says Derrickson.
Derrickson says the number of cases involving teenagers in our state is relatively small compared to other states with larger populations and bigger cities, and often the teenager is stopped before action is taken.
“It can start with anything as small as ‘hey, begin visiting a certain website and become familiar to our group’s ideology and our goals and our objectives. Go to this website, learn more about us.’ And depending on the reactivity and the response of the teen, they may begin to see opportunities as an extremist to target and request that these individuals take certain actions,” Derrickson says. “The next thing you know, the extremist may feel comfortable requesting the teen take photos of an infrastructure, or begin to recruit or speak to other teens that are of likeminded mentalities.”
Extremists are known to target teenagers who are vulnerable, desperate, and easily influenced. Robert Valois, a professor at the University of South Carolina, says it’s the perfect storm since the adolescent brain doesn’t finish developing until as late as 25-years-old for males.
“It’s the perfect time to recruit someone who is vacillating and not quite sure of who they are and how they fit into the world,” says Valois. “The last part of the adolescent brain to finish are the frontal lobes. And the frontal lobes deal with things – hello, decision making, problem solving, impulse control.”
Valois says when young people don’t fit in, they get angry and desperate.
“When you’ve got no hope, and you’ve got nothing to lose, you’re a dangerous hombre,” says Valois. “The next thing you know, you’re tired of this and you think ‘Why not? I got nothing. I don’t think I’m going to make it beyond age 24. Let’s go for an adventure and see how long it takes me.’ And then that gets exacerbated when you get into it for the right cause, and for the religion, and for whatever kind of sick, twisted things they infiltrate in to the minds of our young men with.”
Derrickson says extremists gain the trust of teens, telling them that they can provide meaning in life and a sense of belonging.
“They try to identify that ‘hey, you know no one is taking care of you, the U.S. government, your society is not behind you, your family has abandoned you,” he says.
In most cases, the FBI says parents are checked out.
“If the kids don’t get that old fashioned TLC, like you really need, you know, things can happen,” says Valois, who also notes the changing American culture and lack of quality time with family as contributing factors.
Derrickson, who is also a father, says patriotism isn’t as prominent as it used to be at home and in schools.
“There’s a disconnect, that exists there between our younger folks and our teens with the principals that have made this country as strong as it is now and has been in the past,” says Derrickson. “We need to make efforts to reverse that. Because it’s a significant issue. It’s a problem, it’s a trend that’s not diminishing, it’s increasing.”