15 Years of Terror

From 9/11 to today’s crowd-sourced violence, trace how terrorists’ strategies have evolved. Airing September 7, 2016 at 9 pm on PBS Aired September 7, 2016 on PBS

Program Description

On September 11, 2001, an unimaginable horror unfolded that devastated a nation and the world. Fifteen years later, we are still gripped by terror, but it has transformed. The attacks have been coming fast and furious—to Boston, Paris, Brussels, San Bernardino, Orlando, Nice—but they are no longer commanded by a central entity. This is terrorism in the age of the Internet: crowd-sourced violence.

In this special report, NOVA traces the evolution of terror strategies from the World Trade Center to today. How have radical organizations grown to make use of modern propaganda and social media tools in order to cultivate an army of self-radicalized killers? What is going on inside the minds of this new breed of terrorist? What new techniques and technologies can help law enforcement cope with this elusive threat? And how can psychology and technology be leveraged to end this dreadful cycle of terror?



15 Years of Terror

PBS Airdate: September 7, 2016

NARRATOR: 9/11-plus-15: The footprints of the fallen towers are now a haunting memorial to what and who was lost here. The waterfalls flow, and so do the tears. The children who come here have lived their entire lives under the shadow of terrorism. What has become normal now was unheard of then.

JOHN CARLIN (Assistant Attorney General, National Security): We're in an incredibly complicated time right now, when it comes to terrorist threats. And what we've seen really is a fundamental shift in strategy.

NARRATOR: Al Qaeda had aimed at this target before, but in 1993, we didn't awaken from our slumber. After 9/11, there was no ignoring the need for urgent action.

JOHN CARLIN: We developed an apparatus, and it became really good at figuring out what they were trying to do and disrupting it before they could succeed.

NARRATOR: We put boots on the ground, drones in the air and systematically killed the ringleaders. We tightened security at airports and employed new technologies. Al Qaeda is drastically weakened, but terrorism as a strategy is still with us, benefitting from new technology, as well.

J.M. BERGER (The George Washington University Program on Extremism): The internet and social media, specifically, are really, kind of, game changers for extremism. They offer extremists advantages that they don't offer mainstream people.

NARRATOR: The Islamic State perfected the pitch online: professionally-produced videos of warrior heroes living in utopia, all aimed at recruiting new members.

HUMERA KHAN (Expert, Countering Violent Extremism): If you include all its branches, ISIS has more than 40 media companies, and each of them has a different specialization, and so the volume that is put out is huge.

JOHN CARLIN: By crowdsourcing terrorism, they just called upon people throughout the world to, one, join them as foreign terrorist fighters in Iraq and Syria, and two, if they couldn't join them over there, "kill where you live."

NARRATOR: We saw the deadly consequences of this new internet-fueled, self-radicalized terrorism in Boston, San Bernardino, Orlando and Nice.

PETER BERGEN (Author, United States of Jihad): It is a fact that many of the cases that we've seen in the United States simply would not have happened in the pre-social-media era, because, at the end, the material just wasn't that accessible.

NARRATOR: It's no longer just a war of bullets, drones and bombs. Technology has created a new battlefield online. Are there new technologies to intervene before vulnerable people answer the call of extremism? Can science take us into the mind of a terrorist? 15 Years of Terror, right now, on NOVA.

Fifteen years after 9/11, we face a new threat: self-radicalized terrorists, empowered by social media. The war on terror was tailor-made to defeat Al Qaeda, but troops, drones and tighter borders offer no defense against the Internet. It is awash in the violence and venom produced and propagated by terrorists.

You can trace the roots, at least in part, to a place you'd least expect: Daphne, Alabama, a city of 20,000 that sits across the bay from Mobile. It's everything you would expect from the American Bible Belt, but it was also home to an unlikely infamous resident, Omar Hammami, an American who took up arms with Islamic terrorists and took their propaganda war into a whole new realm.

What can his story tell us about how social networking fuels terrorism? The clues are there, in his own words: a self-published autobiography.

OMAR HAMMAMI (Terrorist): (Read by an actor) I was brought up like most of the privileged children in America. My mother was a typical southern protestant girl, which attracted my father's conservative background. An Arab from Syria marries a little southern belle from Alabama! This is a very strange combination.

MITCHELL SILBER (Former Director, New York Police Department Intelligence Analysis): He's the product of a mixed marriage: a father who is Muslim and a mother who is a Christian, a father who was an engineer and grew up, essentially, in an open, tolerant household.

OMAR HAMMAMI: (Read by an actor) I was "saved" and baptized in the Perdido Baptist Church. My mother used to take me and my sister. I was the best student in Bible school. I didn't like getting less than perfect grades, from a young age.

My father was not a religious man in those days. He did not pray or go to the mosque. My mom used to tell us that we have to keep our religion secret from our father.

NARRATOR: That inner conflict he described in his book was just that. Outwardly, he was smart, popular and easygoing. He didn't seem to take himself too seriously.

OMAR HAMMAMI'S FATHER: He was very intelligent. He's always happy. He's an all-American boy. He likes sports. He liked music.

OMAR HAMMAMI: (Read by an actor) By seventh grade, I was the class vice-president. By eighth grade, I think I was the most popular guy in school. The main reason was that I was funny.

It was the summer of my eighth grade year, when I went to Syria. My cousins were very happy to see me, but they didn't know who I was exactly. They must have heard that my mother was teaching us Christianity, so they started to try to teach me how to pray. It was around that time that I prayed all five prayers without missing any of them. I felt so good that day that I promised to always pray my prayers on time.

J.M. BERGER: The trip to Syria really was his religious awakening.

NARRATOR: J.M. Berger is a former journalist and now an author and fellow at The George Washington University Program on Extremism.

J.M. BERGER: He had been a popular kid, confident kid, who came back from this trip with a religion that, in Alabama, was strange to his classmates. And I think that that made him feel isolated, and it may have encouraged him to think of himself as special, as a way to offset the rejection.

OMAR HAMMAMI: (Read by an actor): When I came back from my vacation, I had become a very different person, but I was placed back into my old environment. It was like a struggle of two worlds. The drugs, the girls, the friends, the T.V., and everything hit me with a big slap. Due to the blessings of Allah, I managed to hold on to my prayers.

PETER BERGEN: He converted from being a Baptist to being a highly-observant Muslim, which, as you could imagine, in rural Alabama was not a typical decision and also brought a lot of kind of disdain from his high school classmates.

OMAR HAMMAMI: (Read by an actor) It was an upward battle, but I had some new friends from the mosque that used to give me support on the weekends. I began to feel that I was being flung into an ocean and asked not to get wet.

NARRATOR: Finding extremists, like Omar, as they test the waters of radicalization, is a huge challenge for law enforcement and intelligence agencies. In law enforcement circles, they call it countering violent extremism, or C.V.E.

This room is designed to make it easier. This is the room 9/11 built: the Operations Center at the National Counterterrorism Center, just outside Washington, D.C.

NICHOLAS RASMUSSEN (Director, National Counterterrorism Center): On a 24/7 basis, we have officers here, working in shifts, who are consuming, reading, analyzing and assessing every bit of available information that there is, to try to figure out what terrorist threats are aimed at the United States.

NARRATOR: Nick Rasmussen is the director here. This is where they try to connect the dots. The nature of the work has changed dramatically in recent years: more lone wolves and encrypted communication; fewer face-to-face meetings and phone calls.

The Internet as a source of inspiration and planning.

NICK RASMUSSEN: Increasingly, what connecting the dots means to me is dealing with the huge, huge volume of publicly available or open source or unclassified information that's out there that may have terrorism relevance. And the work we're doing now, with our partners in the intelligence community, often doesn't involve really, really sensitive intelligence. It involves looking at Twitter or looking at some other social media platform and trying to figure out who that individual behind that screen name, behind that handle might actually be and whether that poses a threat to the United States.

NARRATOR: The "term of art" in the world of espionage is SOCMINT: social media intelligence, open source spying.

JEFF WEYERS (Senior Intelligence Analyst, iBRABO): Anybody can track a war online, can track a terrorist group online, can develop informants and contacts online.

NARRATOR: Police officer and terrorism analyst Jeff Weyers is expert at gleaning intelligence from social media. His "operations center" is in his home.

JEFF WEYERS: I can do more open-source intelligence work from my living room than any analyst could've ever done, even, 20 years ago.

NARRATOR: The data is hiding in plain view. All it takes is patience, persistence and a little bit of technical knowhow to find it. For instance, it's an open secret that many Islamic state fighters do not disable the geographic tracking capability built into their mobile phones.

The technology makes it possible for anyone to track a terrorist.

JEFF WEYERS: If he broadcasts from Raqqa, and then I again see him in Turkey, and then I again see him moving into Europe, well, this is a way that we can potentially interdict with somebody that is maybe looking to do an attack.

NARRATOR: That, combined with some selfies, might provide plenty of intelligence needed for targeting.

JEFF WEYERS: So, if you are looking for a drone attack and you're seeing where they're going for morning coffee, Twitter could tell you.

NARRATOR: When it comes to terror, the problem isn't a lack of data; it is separating the wheat from the chaff.

JEFF WEYERS: If you look at the Orlando shooting or the recent cases in Germany and France, just because the government has all this data, doesn't mean they have the capacity to analyze all that data, right, and so how do you then go and make a determination as to whether that person poses a threat to the public.

NARRATOR: With so many electronic breadcrumbs scattered out in the open, couldn't it be possible for a computer scientist to harness the right combination of software and hardware to see where they lead…

TOM CRUISE (As Chief John Anderton in Minority Report/Film Clip): All right, Howard Marks, where are you?

NARRATOR: …and make pre-crime arrests, as depicted in the 2002 movie Minority Report?

TOM CRUISE (As Chief John Anderton in Minority Report/Film Clip): I'm placing you under arrest for the future murder of Sarah Marks and Donald Dubin that was to take place today, April 22nd, at 0800 hours.

NARRATOR: Science fiction now, but maybe not forever. At the University of Maryland, Computer Scientist V.S. Subrahmanian is applying a big data approach to fighting terrorism. He is trying to put more objective analysis into decisions about which terrorists to target.

V.S. SUBRAHMANIAN (University of Maryland): I'm a scientist, and when somebody says, "We degraded Al-Qaeda by taking person X out," you know, if I can't measure it, I don't believe it.

NARRATOR: He and his team focused on the Islamic terror organization Lashkar-e-Taiba, the group responsible for the 2008 attacks on Mumbai: about a dozen coordinated shootings and bombings, lasting four days, that killed more than 160 people.

V.S. SUBRAHMANIAN: So, what you see here is the terrorist network corresponding to the terrorist group, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and each node that you see here corresponds to an individual.

NARRATOR: They compiled 21 years of data on the group and its actions. All of it is analyzed by some sophisticated software that he calls STONE, for "Shaping Terrorist Organization Network Efficacy." It's a schematic of a terrorist network identifying individuals' subgroups and affiliations. The software assigns a number to measure the lethality of the terror organization. The higher the number, the more dangerous the group is.

So what would happen if you targeted the leadership?

V.S. SUBRAHMANIAN: Let's take a look at the leader of the group here, number one. If you right-click on him, we will see some information about him.

NARRATOR: He is Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, a man with $10-million bounty on his head.

V.S. SUBRAHMANIAN: Let's pretend we are in the role of an analyst, and we're considering the consequences of targeting him and removing him from the network.

NARRATOR: Here's what surprising: the software predicts, if you take out the boss, the lethality of the group actually goes up.

V.S. SUBRAHMANIAN: You may be faced with a situation where the new leader is either much more aggressive about carrying out operations or much better liked or much more confident in carrying out his operations.

NARRATOR: The software makes it possible to run scenarios to figure out who to target. So, what would happen if Saeed's three top deputies were all taken out? The number goes way down. Lashkar-e-Taiba becomes much less of a threat.

V.S. SUBRAHMANIAN: You can have a much more efficient counterterrorism operation that significantly weakens a group by targeting just the right people.

NARRATOR: So can the same software predict an attack?

Sort of.

V.S. SUBRAHMANIAN: We could have predicted the Mumbai attacks. However, we could not have predicted exactly where they would have occurred. So we can say things like, "We expect these kinds of targets to be hit in the next one, two, three, four months," but we cannot say, "This specific target will be hit in the next one, two, three, four months."

If I could reach, in the terrorism world, the level of sophistication in predicting hurricanes today, I will be very happy. So we're not there yet.

NARRATOR: In 2001, Omar Hammami had enrolled in college in Mobile, and a storm was gathering inside him. Isolated and out of place on campus, the radicalism seeded in Syria grew. He was ripe for an external event to trigger something more sinister.

OMAR HAMMAMI: (Read by an actor) I was in university when September 11th happened. I came to class one day, and this non-practicing "Muslim" told me to check C.N.N., where I saw a plane going into the towers.

I was mixed between the "hatred of terrorism" and my real hatred for America, the disbelievers and their oppression of the Muslims. But 9/11 itself didn't "radicalize" me, as they say. I took things a bit more intellectually than that.

NARRATOR: But that changed when U.S. troops marched into Baghdad.

OMAR HAMMAMI: (Read by an actor) By the time the Iraq war started, I could not find any way for us to say that it is anything less than obligatory to fight the Americans there.

One day, I just couldn't take the futility of it all any longer. I went to the dean's office, and I withdrew my name from the university. Eventually, I became so averse to America that I wanted to leave.

MITCHELL SILBER: Subsequently, he left university and went up to Toronto, where he started to explore literature and theology and started to adopt a Salafi ideology.

J.M. BERGER: Salafists believe that there's a mythical, pure form of Islam that they can restore. It's very puritanical. And Salafi jihadists, Al Qaeda and ISIS and movements like that, believe that, not only does this mythical pure form of Islam exist, but that they need to achieve it through violence. They need to fight to institute that form of Islam.

NARRATOR: When Omar arrived in Toronto, in the fall of 2004, he entered the radical phase of his metamorphosis. He was trying extremism on for size and it seemed to fit. Omar married a newly arrived Somali immigrant, 19-year-old Sadiyo Mohamed Abdille. In short order, they were expecting a baby, but Omar was in no mood to settle down.

MITCHELL SILBER: He wanted to travel overseas, to a land that was sufficiently Islamic.

NARRATOR: Less than a year after arriving in Toronto, he decided he wanted to move to Egypt. Sadiyo reluctantly agreed.

They arrived in Alexandria in June of 2005.

OMAR HAMMAMI: (Read by an actor) When I got there, I realized it was a terrible place. I looked at the face of my wife, and she was devastated. But I still didn't care.

NARRATOR: Not long after they arrived Omar's wife Sadiyo gave birth to a baby girl, Taymiyyah. Omar had planned to study at a local university, but it didn't pan out. He spent his days at Internet cafés reading and posting on jihadi forums.

OMAR HAMMAMI: (Read by an actor) I was surfing the net one day and I found someone who sounded like an American. About an hour later, I met one of my best friends and closest brothers: Abu Muhammad al-Amriki, Daniel Maldonado.

NARRATOR: Daniel Maldonado, an American from New Hampshire, was a high school dropout who converted to Salafi Islam in 2000. The two men became fast friends.

J.M. BERGER: They're in the same city, but they met online. I think it's important to understand that the power of these networks in making connections really helps extremist groups.

OMAR HAMMAMI: (Read by an actor) Abu Muhammad managed to give me guidance about which books are necessary to read about jihad.

Any remaining doubts had been removed. I had become a jihadi.

NARRATOR: Omar had learned an important lesson in the value of the internet to promote and facilitate extremism. It is a lesson he clearly took to heart.

He and Maldonado decided to go to Somalia to fight with the Islamic terror group known as Al-Shabaab. They departed for the battlefield in 2006. Omar left his wife and daughter behind.

Does this fit into the profile of a typical terrorist? Is there such a thing?

ARIE KRUGLANSKI (University of Maryland): It does not work that way, there is no one profile of the terrorist.

NARRATOR: But psychologist Arie Kruglanski believes they share an important trait. They are looking for certainty, for clear-cut answers in a chaotic world. The psychological term is "Cognitive Closure."

ARIE KRUGLANSKI: The need for cognitive closure is the need for certainty, the need to be confident about a topic, the need to know for sure.

NARRATOR: Kruglanski and his team have authored reams of research on the Sri Lankan terror group known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the Tamil Tigers.

The group invented the suicide belt and pioneered the use of women in those attacks. Kruglanski's team has interviewed thousands of these former terrorists, conducting one of the few longitudinal studies of the terrorist mindset. He discovered a clear link between feelings of self-worth and the desire to join a group.

ARIE KRUGLANSKI: You feel that you're humiliated, you're insignificant and you do not matter. That predisposes people to listen to ideologies that tell you, "I'll tell you how you're going to matter. You're going to matter…" And this is in the case of ISIS and radicalization, "You're going to matter by joining the fight."

NARRATOR: In other words, when people are struggling, they are more vulnerable to "group think."

Kruglanski has tested this theory with a simple experiment, which he replicated for us. Our subjects: four University of Maryland undergraduates.

They all played a simple videogame called the Duck Hunt. The game was set to be impossibly hard for two of them and incredibly easy for the other two.

They were told a score of 100 or more predicts all kinds of success in life.

MARINA CHERNIKOVA: Scores lower than a hundred strongly predict failure. So, you're going to be playing that game today.

NARRATOR: Ben Weinberg had it easy: he was knocking ducks out of the sky right and left and waltzed to the hundred-point threshold. Afterward, he took a brief survey and had a quick debrief with graduate student Marina Chernikova.

BEN WEINBERG (Duck Hunt Experiment Participant): It felt good when I got it on the first try. It was a little more frustrating when I took a few clicks to get the duck.

NARRATOR: But when it was Mara Lins' turn in the hot seat, there were no sitting ducks, not even close.

MARA LINS (Duck Hunt Experiment Participant): It was really hard. I felt really frustrated, because the duck was just going so fast, I couldn't ever really click on it that well, and the scores just kept going more down. It made me really uncomfortable, actually.

NARRATOR: The survey included two dozen questions designed to assess people's need for support from a group.

ARIE KRUGLANSKI: This person seems to be scoring very high on interdependence. Do you know what condition was he in?

MARINA CHERNIKOVA: Yes, this one was in the failure condition.

ARIE KRUGLANSKI: What we find, time and time again, is that if you're successful, you feel relatively independent of your group. You can hack it on your own. But when you feel humiliated and weakened, that's the circumstances that lead you to undertake sacrifices on behalf of the group, in order to feel rewarded by the group by a sense of heroism and significance.

NARRATOR: So what about lone-wolf terrorists? Those who are self-radicalized online?

ARIE KRUGLANSKI: Yes, the group is there virtually. The group does not need to be physically present and salient, and they can imagine that the group will approve of their deeds, and they can pick up a knife, a machete or a vehicle and go out and kill people.

NARRATOR: In 2006, Omar Hammami arrived in Mogadishu, Somalia, where he joined a very deadly group of terrorists; the al Qaeda affiliate Al-Shabaab, Islamic terrorists waging an insurgency against government forces. Al-Shabaab was well known for aggressively recruiting Americans. Omar Hammami was quickly welcomed into their ranks.

OMAR HAMMAMI: (Read by an actor) That night, leaving for Al-Shabaab was the night I was given my A.K.M. (which I still have). I felt like I had just been given an atomic bomb that might blow at any second.

NARRATOR: The leadership of the terrorist organization quickly tapped into Omar's unique mix of charisma, computer skills and fluency in English and Arabic. He made his debut as a terrorist in October 2007, in an Al Jazeera news report—his new nom de guerre? Abu Mansoor Al-Amriki.

OMAR HAMMAMI (Al-Jazeera Film Clip): All Muslims of America, take into consideration the example of Somalia. After 15 years of chaos and oppressive rule by the American-backed warlords, your brothers stood up and established peace and justice in this land.

OMAR HAMMAMI'S FATHER: When I first saw the interview, I knew that was the end of life as we know it. We will never be the same again. It's devastating for both of us. He's our only son. We only have one son. Now, we have none.

NARRATOR: In 2009, Al-Shabaab released a widely distributed propaganda video, in English, featuring an ambush in Somalia. Starring Omar, it was tailored to recruit Americans.

OMAR HAMMAMI (Al-Shabaab Film Clip): We're waiting for the enemy to come. We heard that the numbers are close to a thousand or more. So, what we're planning to do is put them in an ambush, try to blow up as many of their vehicles as we can, and kill smiles widely—as many of them as we can, and take everything they've got. Inshallah.

J.M. BERGER: When the Ambush at Bardale video came out, he became a bit of media sensation.

NARRATOR: It featured a rap, written and performed by Omar.

OMAR HAMMAMI (singing in AMBUSH AT BARDALE, Film Clip): Bomb by bomb, blast by blast,

only gonna bring back the glorious past.

Word by word, Bush said it true,

you with him or you're with the Muslim group

J.M. BERGER: Al-Shabaab was very impressed with the traction these rap videos got.

OMAR HAMMAMI (Ambush at Bardale, Film Clip): The only reason we're staying here, away from the city, away from ice, candy bars, all these other things, is because we're waiting to meet with the enemy.

J.M. BERGER: At the time, I thought of him as kind of a novelty act, with the rap video and his sometimes awkward attempts to sort of morph into more of, a kind of, a scholarly role.

OMAR HAMMAMI (in Ambush at Bardale, Film Clip): One of the things we seek for in this life of ours is to die as a martyr. So, the fact that we got two martyrs is nothing more than a victory, in and of itself. So, if you can encourage more of your children and more of your neighbors and anyone around you to, to send people like him to this jihad, it would be a great asset for us.

PETER BERGEN: Omar Hammami was somebody who, that Shabaab put front and center to try and recruit people into the group, because he spoke English.

OMAR HAMMAMI (singing in Ambush at Bardale, Film Clip): Night by night, day by day, Mujahidin spreading all over the place…

(Read by an actor) The real fear that the Americans feel when they see an American in Somalia talking about jihad, is not how skillful he is at sneaking back across the borders with nuclear weapons. The Americans fear that their cultural barrier has been broken and now jihad has become a normal career choice for any youthful American Muslim.

PETER BERGEN: Shabaab lured up to, about, 40 Americans to come and fight with them. And they had a whole foreign fighter kind of crew from people around the Muslim world. It was kind of an early precursor of what ISIS did.

NARRATOR: The recruitment and propaganda push by terrorist organizations online has put a lot of pressure on the big social networking companies, but how should they crack down?

It wasn't long ago that these companies took a laissez-faire approach to terrorist content. They claimed they didn't want to hinder freedom of speech.

But that started to change in 2013. During a terrifying assault at a shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, attackers with Al-Shabaab live-tweeted for hours, as they shot more than 175 people, killing 67.

JEFF WEYERS: That was the first time where Twitter was actively removing the content that they were posting. And the reason for that is they were actively tweeting their attack online, and it was the first time we really saw that. ISIS completely blew that out of the water. They took that concept and magnified it by a million.

NARRATOR: Today, Twitter claims it aggressively takes down accounts linked to terror, 360,000 of them since the middle of 2015, but repeat offenders simply open new accounts, time and again.

JEFF WEYERS: And now they start to talk about reverting back to Facebook, so they're talking about reopening their Facebook accounts, and here's a link to go to it.

NARRATOR: Facebook is the largest social networking platform on the planet. It says it has a zero-tolerance policy for extremists, but it must contend with a tsunami of content. Facebook has more than 1-billion users actively posting every day.

The company says about one half-of-one-percent of flagged items are linked to terrorism, but that is still a lot of material.

Monika Bickert is Facebook's Head of Global Policy Management.

MONIKA BICKERT (Head of Global Policy Management, Facebook): We use photo-matching technology to identify when somebody is trying to upload to Facebook an image that we've already removed for violating our policies. Of course, the image may or may not violate our policies when it's uploaded again, because it could be somebody who is sharing the terrorist image as part of the news story or to condemn violence. So, we use automation to flag content that we will then have our teams review.

NARRATOR: But are there more advanced ways to stop the extremist messages from spreading? Is there a better technological solution?

HANY FARID (Dartmouth College): We have the technology to disrupt, not eliminate, but to disrupt the global transmission of extremism-related content.

NARRATOR: Hany Farid is a computer scientist at Dartmouth College. His challenge is significant: how to identify and stop the spread of images made by, of, and for terrorists on the internet. The sheer volume of the problem is daunting.

HANY FARID: So, a video is just a bunch of images stacked together. A short video, a few minutes, you're talking about thousands of images you have to analyze. And you have to do this fast, and you have to do it accurately. And it's a spectacularly difficult problem because really, somebody turned on the fire hose of data, and you are just trying to keep up with this massive number of pixels coming in.

NARRATOR: Billions of uploads a day, each of them with millions of pixels: can a computer program possibly be capable of sorting through it all and find the images that inspire new recruits, insight new violence and horrify us all?

HANY FARID: So here is the actual raw frame that you're seeing. Processing one frame at a time, within a frame, we actually analyze multiple blocks within it. The yellow crosshairs that you're seeing are enumerating the various blocks of the video that we're analyzing.

This yellow histogram is a distribution of the measurements that we're making from each individual block, and then that gets translated into an actual digital signature, which I visualize here with a stem plot.

NARRATOR: He got the idea 10 years ago. The internet had become a platform for child pornographers. The technology is called "robust hashing."

HANY FARID: All that is—is a very simple idea—is that from an image or a video or an audio recording, you extract a distinct signature.

NARRATOR: As the images move through the Internet, the signatures never change, no matter how many times the images are modified.

HANY FARID: So, if there's just one image in an upload of yours that has child pornography, the account can be frozen. The contents of that account can be assessed and new content can be discovered.

People don't trade one or two images. They trade hundreds and thousands of images. And you can, very organically, grow the space of known content.

NARRATOR: It worked. The commercial product that he helped create is called PhotoDNA. It has greatly reduced child pornography on the big social networking sites.

HANY FARID: Today, PhotoDNA is deployed on almost every major internet company, both here and abroad. It is, by my understanding, eliminating upwards of 4,000,000 child pornography images a year from being redistributed.

NARRATOR: Farid is advocating a similar approach to terrorism, but will the social networking platforms go along?

MONIKA BICKERT: Our mission is to connect people, so we do want people to be able to share content that may be even be controversial, if it is important to them and it's something that they want to communicate. However, we also know that people won't share anything about themselves, if they're not in a safe place. We don't allow beheading videos. We also don't allow any terror group to maintain a presence on our site, for any reason.

NARRATOR: But persistent terrorists find a way, and extremist content is readily available. Social networking companies say they have a hard time drawing the line when it comes to defining extremism.

HANY FARID: What we have is a problem of will. They do not want to be put at the nexus of criminal organizations, extremist organizations, and law enforcement and national security. They feel like they don't have a responsibility there.

NARRATOR: It was March of 2012, long before the social networking companies cracked down on terror. Somewhere in Somalia, Omar Hammami was once again using the internet to reach a global audience, this time, posting a plea, on YouTube, for his life.

OMAR HAMMAMI: (From YouTube, Urgent Message/Hammami, speaks in Arabic)

NARRATOR: Speaking first in Arabic and then in English, it is plainly evident to the world…

OMAR HAMMAMI: (From YouTube, Urgent Message/Hammami) To whomever it may reach from the Muslims…

NARRATOR: …he has worn out his welcome with the leadership of Al-Shabaab.

OMAR HAMMAMI: (From YouTube, Urgent Message/Hammami) I record this message today, because I feel that my life may be endangered by Al-Shabaab due to some differences that occurred between us regarding matters of the sharia and matters of strategy.

J.M. BERGER: That was an extremely unusual break. Prior to that, jihadi disputes tended to be carefully managed behind the scenes. So, this was a big deal when he showed up and made the statement Al-Shabaab was trying to kill him.

In order to promote that video, he had signed up for a number of social media platforms.

NARRATOR: He also had a book to promote.

OMAR HAMMAMI: (Read by an actor) Due to the unpredictable nature of the environment in the lands of jihad, I decided now is as good a time as any to release the first part of my autobiography. Although nothing special, I thought my addition to the jihadi library could at least provide some benefit.

NARRATOR: He took to Twitter like no terrorist had before; interacting with a wide range of analysts, reporters and terrorism experts.

HUMERA KHAN: He did change the flavor of the environment of Twitter and the accessibility of Twitter for people. He engaged with a lot of people. He was trying to talk.

PETER BERGEN: We didn't see terrorists tweeting in this manner before. He was writing in English and had reasonably good sense of humor. And, he's tweeting about jihad, and he's an accessible guy, and it's easy to follow him.

J.M. BERGER: He would show up, and he was talking, and he was talking, and I was like, "Well, I should just keep talking."

NARRATOR: At first, J.M. Berger approached Omar with journalistic intent.

J.M. BERGER: At first, I was trying to pump him for information about what was going on with him and Al-Shabaab, and it was, sort of, utilitarian.

NARRATOR: He began his dialogue with Omar in May 2012, first via email and then moving to Twitter, long before any crackdown on tweeting terrorists.

They debated the rationale for targeting civilians, how religious scholars justify jihad, and the morality of drone strikes.

J.M. BERGER: It just, kind of, turned, after a while, into a regular conversation, like I have with lots of other people, my colleagues that I have online, except that he is not a colleague.

MILES O'BRIEN (Reporter / Interviewer): Kind of an extraordinary regular conversation, I'd say.

J.M. BERGER: It was strange. It was surreal.

NARRATOR: And, at times, humorous. At one point Omar jokingly asked Berger if he ever considered switching sides.

J.M. BERGER: (In Tweet) "I'd miss the music, bikinis and bacon too much."

OMAR HAMMAMI: (In Tweet) "I c ur bikinis and raise u 4 wives in this life, 72 in next!"

J.M. BERGER: When Omar emerged onto social media, he was not the first jihadist to get on Twitter, but it was something that hadn't really been done by somebody who is in a warzone representing.

NARRATOR: A terrorist on the frontlines of jihad, speaking, debating, cajoling, even joking; an AK-47 in one hand, a global megaphone in the other.

PETER BERGEN: I think he was a harbinger. ISIS didn't come into existence until 2014, and they took that model, and they kind of amplified it significantly.

NARRATOR: Omar was now on the run, taunting the leadership of Al-Shabaab via Twitter, even as he tried to evade them in the forest.

OMAR HAMMAMI: (Read by an actor) Shabaab has changed strategy, from choosing the best legitimate targets to hitting whatever target they can and then legitimizing it later.

NARRATOR: In March, 2013, the U.S. government put a $5,000,000 bounty on Omar Hammami's head. Al-Shabaab assassins came for him a month later.

J.M. BERGER: Because he was creating a huge amount of publicity and bad press for Al-Shabaab, Al-Shabaab had to respond.

OMAR HAMMAMI: (In Tweet) "just been shot in neck by Shabaab assassin, not critical yet."

J.M. BERGER: (In Tweet) "Seriously? You shot?"

OMAR HAMMAMI: (In Tweet) "Yeah. Sux."

HUMERA KHAN: He live-tweeted an assassination attempt.

J.M. BERGER: He uploaded a couple of pictures of his injury. He had been grazed. It wasn't a serious injury.

(In Tweet) "…if you want to get out of this, I'd do whatever I could to get you a liveable deal."

OMAR HAMMAMI: (In Tweet) "u know i'm not on it. i appreciate compassion tho"

J.M. BERGER: I think he would have gotten out of Somalia, maybe he could have, but he did feel like this was a fight that he had a part in and that he should stick with it.

HUMERA KHAN: He said, "If I come back, I'll be in jail for the rest of my life. So why would I come back?"

J.M. BERGER: It was kind of amazing that Omar managed to hold out as long as he did. And once he made that break, he was eventually going to die.

OMAR HAMMAMI: (Voice of America Interview/Radio Clip): The reason why I'm in the forest, right now, is because I'm one of the few people in Somalia who stood out against the Shabaab blowing up innocent civilians.

NARRATOR: September 3, 2013, Omar granted a telephone interview with the Voice of America.

HARUN MARUF (Voice of America): (Voice of America Interview/Radio Clip) Are you a terrorist?

OMAR HAMMAMI: (Voice of America Interview/Radio Clip) Yeah, I, I, I'm definitely a terrorist. But I'm not a member of Al Qaeda or a member of Shabaab. I do believe in following my religion, even if that requires me to use explosives or use an AK-47.

HARUN MARUF (Voice of America): (Voice of America Interview/Radio Clip) What about coming back to your family, here in the United States?

OMAR HAMMAMI: (Voice of America Interview/Radio Clip): That's definitely not an option, unless it's in a body bag.

NARRATOR: Nine days later Omar Hammami was killed in an ambush.

J.M. BERGER: The meaning of Omar's life ended up being conflicted, at best, and kind of empty, at worst. He literally gave his life for it, this jihadist movement, and yet, his story is really just a cautionary tale about why you shouldn't join these groups.

His death was a boon for counterterrorism efforts and countering violent extremism efforts. He gave us a narrative to use to counter this recruitment pitch.

NARRATOR: Omar Hammami seemed intent on his path toward violent extremism, but could a person so determined be thwarted along the way? Does terrorism respond to an intervention?

The idea is gaining new traction in the west. In Toronto, Mubin Shaikh is a leading advocate of what's known as "de-radicalization."

He has walked the walk and walked it all back.

MUBIN SHAIKH (Counterterrorism Expert): I think we've long acknowledged that we cannot kill an ideology. We can kill a whole lot of people who subscribe to the ideology. If you are going to have a battle of ideas, better ideas win, that's proven.

NARRATOR: He is living proof. He is the son of conservative Islamic parents who emigrated from India. As a teenager, he embraced secular Western culture. It led to a rift that eventually propelled him toward extremism. Ironically, six years later, 9/11 made him rethink it all.

PETER BERGEN: Mubin, I think, is an interesting example of somebody who went all the way down their path and then came back and now, is attempting to dissuade other people from doing the same thing. He understands the process by which others have gone down on this path, and I think that's very powerful. He can talk about this in a way that no one else can.

NARRATOR: He went to Syria to study the Quran, to understand where he had been and where he was going. And he met the right imam at the right time.

MUBIN SHAIKH: We started talking, and he realized that I was this western kid, looking the way that I look, big beard, long robe, and for whatever reason, decided, "Hey, I'm going to work on this guy." I spent a lot of time with him and he led me through the Quran, man, verse by verse by verse.

NARRATOR: Mubin Shaikh soon saw the Quran in a whole new light.

MUBIN SHAIKH: I always give this example of Chapter 9, Verse 5. You know, it says, "Kill the unbelievers wherever you find them." The Sheikh who taught me and said to me, "Do you normally start from verse five or do you start from verse one? Let's start from verse one." And then you get the context, "This is about the treaty that we had with the Pagans at that time." Oh, so it's a very specific context. Then verse four, the one right before five says, "This does not apply to those polytheists who did not break the treaty and did not fight you because you're Muslims."

By the end of the two years, I realized, "Man, I had it wrong all along." Now I'm empowered with this new understanding that I have. And the guy told me, he says, "Go back. Go back and teach it to people, and keep your people safe. This is not our way. Show them the way."

NARRATOR: Which is what he did. A father of five, he has devoted his life to the idea that what he learned can be taught to others.

MUBIN SHAIKH: You have to show them what they're doing is actually not Islam, at all. It's this other thing that they've created, thinking that it's Islam, thinking that it's a solution, but, in fact, it's the problem.

NARRATOR: As the world searches for answers to extremism, more and more people are listening to messages like Mubin's, asking whether what helped him can be implemented on a more widespread basis.

In the United States, the idea is new, but it's now being tested in the heartland.

Minneapolis: the metro area is home to the largest Somali-American community in the U.S.; 25,000 live here. Many came in the mid-90s when their home country was torn by Civil War. In this refuge, far from their homeland, they found relative peace and prosperity, a peace that was recently shattered.

JEFF PEGUES (C.B.S. News/Film Clip): These are the type of terrorism-related arrests we are seeing more often in the U.S.

NARRATOR: Nine young men, all in their teens or early 20s, were arrested. They planned to make their way into Syria to fight for ISIS.

JEFF PEGUES (C.B.S. News/Film Clip): …dozens of whom have traveled, or attempted to travel, overseas.

NARRATOR: The case of these young men is one chapter in a long sad story, here in Minnesota. The exodus began in 2007, as young Somalis were called, by the likes of Omar Hammami, to join the ranks of Al-Shabaab in the country of their ethnic origin.

OMAR HAMMAMI (in Ambush at Bardale, Film Clip): We need more like him, so if you could encourage more of your children and more of your neighbors…

NARRATOR: But these nine young men were called to Syria by ISIS.

JOHN TUNHEIM (Chief U.S. District Judge, District of Minnesota): Minnesota has the greatest number of terrorism prosecutions of any of the federal districts in the United States.

NARRATOR: Chief Judge John Tunheim believes it's time for a new approach, but this is uncharted territory.

JOHN TUNHEIM: There is no national protocol, no evaluation tool that we are able to find. So that's why we decided we would take the lead on trying to develop tools so that we can provide that kind of assistance to judges, and ultimately, hopefully, to the Bureau of Prisons.

NARRATOR: Right now, U.S. federal prisons do not have any de-radicalization programs, but the judge is pushing for them to start.

For now, he is trying to determine which of these young men could be de-radicalized. To find out, he turned to this man, in Stuttgart, Germany.

DANIEL KOEHLER (German Institute on Radicalization and De-radicalization Studies): It's like peeling an onion. Layer by layer, you try to work yourself to the core and offer something that gets more and more attractive to that person, to compete with a narrative of groups like ISIL or Al Qaeda.

NARRATOR: Daniel Koehler has de-radicalized neo-Nazis for years. And he says the approach is much the same. But the enticement to religious extremism is very compelling.

ARIE KRUGLANSKI: It's the opportunity to become a hero, to become a martyr, to serve a cause greater than your own.

NARRATOR: Psychologist Arie Kruglanski believes it is very difficult to offer an alternative to that, but he has data that shows de-radicalization works.

In Sri Lanka, he studied the Tamil Tigers at different times during their first year home, after a long civil war. Some were exposed to a full de-radicalization program; others were not.

ARIE KRUGLANSKI: We found a significant decline in violence in the experimental group that received the treatment, as compared to the control group that received only minimal treatment.

Human minds, human psyches are malleable. They are pliable. In the same way as a person gets radicalized, it changes them from a mainstream kind of person to a fringe kind of person. They can be brought back, and also, they can be re-radicalized.

NARRATOR: This is risky business. A failed de-radicalization attempt can make things even worse.

DANIEL KOEHLER: If you fail to convince someone that that certain ideology or that narrative is inherently wrong, you will inoculate that person against these arguments. That person will leave the room as much more radicalized and much more convinced that he or she is actually right about the beliefs, about their viewpoints, and they can go on and radicalize others and spread that message. That would be one risk.

NARRATOR: Indeed, prisons in Europe have become jihadi universities, and Judge Tunheim wants to make sure that doesn't happen here. Still, setting up a de-radicalization program is neither cheap nor easy, and there are many possible approaches. But there is no doubt in Mubin Shaikh's mind that these efforts can work, if they are done right.

MUBIN SHAIKH: It's closer to more art-form than it is science. A lot of it is interpersonal communication. It's, a lot of it is like mediation principles, talking to people, understanding where they come from; principles of social work apply to this. So, it draws from a multiple disciplines, but at the end of the day, it comes down to the person that's delivering it.

NARRATOR: Unfortunately, this potential solution moves a lot slower than the wildfire it aims to douse. De-radicalizing an individual takes time. Do we have it?

MUBIN SHAIKH: There's so many young people who are being lost to this. What are we waiting for? Stop waiting, we don't have the luxury of time.

Broadcast Credits

Miles O’Brien
Brian Truglio
Michael H. Amundson
Dan McCabe
Cameron Hickey
Chris Schmidt
Suzi Tobias
Will Toubman
Caleb Hellerman
Meredyth Lamm
Fedor D. Kossakovski
Elias Mallette
Ned Porter
Ekin Akalin
Michael Frederick
Jason Longo
Ezra Wolfinger
Scott Anger
Austin deBesche
Lothar Heinrich
Brian Horrell
David Bigelow
Christopher Anderson
Joey Mullin
J.M. Berger
Tedi Rabold
AL Jazeera America
AP Television News
Associated Press
CONUS Archive
Getty Images
Islamistes en Prison, les prophètes de l’ombre,
Copyright Kalisté Productions 2016, director JC Doria
Sundas Abdullah
Manny Atwal
Yusuf Badat
Mircea Biga
Henry Dyck
Ayan Farah
Abdullah Finlandi
Kelly Gallant
Farzad Ghotbi
Shafik and Debra Hammami
Muhammad Robert Heft
John Horgan
Seamus Hughes
Jaylani Hussein
Barbara Lewis
Emma Llansó
Donovan Locke
Kevin Lowry
Erin Miller
Farhiyo Mohamed
Philip Mudd
Ohoto Productions
Bob and Judy Perl
Christian Picciolini
Anthony Sgro
Richard Stengel
U.S. Department of Defense
Jessica Stern
Stevan Weine
yU + co.
Walter Werzowa
John Luker
Musikvergnuegen, Inc.
Ray Loring
Rob Morsberger
The Caption Center
Spencer Gentry
Jennifer Welsh
Eileen Campion
Eddie Ward
Diane Toomey
Caitlin Saks
Linda Callahan
Sarah Erlandson
Janice Flood
Susan Rosen
Kristine Allington
Tim De Chant
Lauren Aguirre
Lauren Miller
Ariam McCrary
Brittany Flynn
Kevin Young
Michael H. Amundson
Nathan Gunner
Elizabeth Benjes
David Condon
Pamela Rosenstein
Laurie Cahalane
Evan Hadingham
Melanie Wallace
Julia Cort
Alan Ritsko
Paula S. Apsell

A NOVA production by Miles O’Brien Productions, LLC, for WGBH Boston.

© 2016 WGBH Educational Foundation

All rights reserved

This program was produced by WGBH, which is solely responsible for its content.

Original funding for this program was provided by Cancer Treatment Centers of America, the David H. Koch Fund for Science, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.


Image credit (map of terror attacks)
Milan R. Vuckovich http://www.milanvuckovic.com/15-Years-of-Terror

Preview | 00:30

Full Program | 53:37

Full program available for streaming through

Watch Online
Full program available