WASHINGTON -- The FBI's best informant has played a role in dozens of terrorism cases over the past several years and provided endless intelligence on extremists across the United States. The informant is young, rich, well-connected, easily distracted and really into reality television.
The informant's name? Twitter.
The social network is an "extraordinarily effective way to sell shoes, or vacations, or terrorism," and it puts propaganda in the pocket of kids and those with troubled minds, FBI Director James Comey said recently. "It's buzz, buzz, buzz, buzz, buzz. It's the constant feed ... the devil on your shoulder all day long, saying, 'Kill, kill, kill.'"
FBI agents have cited suspects' tweets in a slew of recent terrorism cases. Federal prosecutors have charged several Twitter users who allegedly support the Islamic State with lying to federal agents about their Twitter activity. In other cases, the FBI has pointed to Twitter activity -- including retweets -- as probable cause for terrorism charges. In one case, a 17-year-old pleaded guilty to providing "material support" to a designated foreign terrorist organization by tweeting out links.
Law enforcement officials are ramping up their monitoring of Twitter. The company received 2,879 information requests from federal, state and local law enforcement authorities within the U.S. in 2014 -- a 66 percent increase from the 1,735 it received in 2013, according to its transparency report. Overall, there was a 72 percent jump in the number of accounts affected by such requests in the second half of 2014. The requests could be seeking additional user information, IP addresses and even the content of direct messages sent through the network.
Twitter's report does not specify how many requests came from the federal government in particular. But it's notable that FBI agents investigating terrorism are likely based in some of the locations with the highest number of Twitter requests in the second half of 2014. There were 195 requests made in Virginia, 170 requests out of New York state, and 125 requests that originated in the nation's capital.
Among the recent terrorism cases that pointed to Twitter, the feds brought criminal charges against Ali Shukri Amin, a 17-year-old from Virginia who operated the Twitter account @AmreekiWitness, simply for sending certain tweets. The government -- which in press releases alternatively referred to Amin as a "Manassas Man" and a "Virginia Teen" -- focused on Amin's tweets about ways to use Bitcoin to financially support the Islamic State, also known as ISIL and ISIS. Amin has pleaded guilty and, in a statement of facts, agreed that he had operated the Twitter account, which "boasted over 4,000 followers," as a "pro-ISIL platform during the course of over 7,000 'tweets.'"
After the teen pleaded guilty in June, Dana Boente, the top federal prosecutor in the Eastern District of Virginia, said the case "demonstrated that those who use social media as a tool to provide support and resources to ISIL will be identified and prosecuted with no less vigilance than those who travel to take up arms with ISIL."
Hamza Ahmed, 19, was indicted earlier this year for lying to federal agents about his travel plans and about how well he knew someone who had traveled to Syria. While Ahmed said he knew the person only "vaguely" from high school, the FBI pointed to a series of tweets between the pair in which Ahmed said, "Lol my bro I love you."
Bilal Abood, 37, was arrested in May and charged with making a false statement to the FBI, in part about his Twitter activity. A review of his computer revealed that he "had been on the internet viewing ISIS atrocities such as beheadings and using his twitter account to tweet and retweet information" on Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State, and had reportedly used his Twitter account to "pledge obedience" to Baghdadi, according to the indictment. Abood allegedly denied pledging obedience. An affidavit from an FBI agent said that particular post "was retweeted by others."
Arafat Nagi, a 44-year-old from Lackawanna, New York, arrested last week, made statements to federal law enforcement that were "inconsistent with his statements on the Twitter account that has been linked to him," according to an affidavit from an FBI agent. One tweet from April 2014, the agent wrote, demonstrates that Nagi was "promoting ISIL and their cause on Twitter." Agents also did an extensive review of Nagi's Twitter account, noting that 140 of the 278 Twitter handles he followed "featured profile pictures of ISIL flags, photos of al-Baghdadi or Osama bin Laden, photos of weapons or of individuals in military fatigues, photos of recent beheadings or other images which could reasonably be described as violent or terrorism-related in nature." Of Nagi's own 412 followers, the FBI said, approximately 187 "showed images that could reasonably be described as violent or terrorism-related in nature."
Keonna Thomas, a 30-year-old from Philadelphia who went by @YoungLioness on Twitter, was charged in April with attempting to provide material support for the Islamic State. In an affidavit in support of probable cause, an FBI agent pointed to tweets that Thomas "re-posted on Twitter" supporting the militant group.
Comey, the FBI director, maintains that Americans still have protection against the government going after them for simple speech because the feds know they'll have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a suspect purposefully engaged in illegal conduct.
"Knowing it was wrong, you provided material support for a terrorist organization or some other offense," Comey said, explaining how the FBI sees these suspects in response to Huffington Post questions during a meeting with reporters last month. "That is the bulwark against prosecuting someone for having an idea or having an interest. You have to manifest a criminal intent to further the aims prohibited by the statute."
Asked if reposting materials alone would cross the line, Comey said the answer would be different based on the individual circumstances.
"It would depend upon what your mental state is in doing it," the FBI director said. "I can imagine an academic sharing something with someone as part of research would have a very different mental intent than someone who is sharing that in order to try and get others to join an organization or engage in an act of violence. So it's hard to answer in the abstract like that."
But Comey said it was "pretty darn clear" where the line was.
"The government is required to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you acted with a criminal intent to violate the statute. That is how we know people don't stumble, fall into, accidentally end up with a criminal violation," Comey said. "We're required to prove you knew what you were doing, you knew it was wrong, and you did it anyway. That's why I'm a big, big believer that that's a very important burden on the government."
That may sound cautious in theory, but Lee Rowland wants to be sure the government isn't sweeping too broadly in practice. The senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union's Speech, Privacy & Technology Project said that pure speech, even unpopular speech, should be protected.
"The First Amendment prohibits the government from making it a crime to engage in speech, including hearing or agreeing with controversial or unpopular ideas," Rowland said. "So if someone is being charged with a crime simply for retweeting the content of a terrorist group, that would violate the First Amendment, full stop."
"Of course there's also the question of intent there: repeating speech is not automatically an endorsement. … There are viral anti-terrorism activists who have reposted or retweeted speech or images by ISIS, for example, to highlight the group's cruelty," said Rowland. "So a RT alone is certainly not an endorsement and in many situations may be a criticism of the original speaker, and that's particularly true with terrorism, because I believe many people may believe terrorism is self-evidently immoral."
Robert Chesney, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin, said he suspects the government may, in fact, resist bringing cases that are purely about social media activity.
"If you're the prosecutor, it's all well and good to say we're going to prosecute, as material support, a retweet or what have you, but nobody wants to go into court with that as the entire basis -- or even the grand jury with that as the whole basis," Chesney said. "Any good investigator would say, all right, now we have a person of interest. Let's make sure we get that person in contact with the cooperating witness or confidential informant. Then we'll get them talking much more substantively and we'll flesh this out."
Chesney compared deciding when to intervene with a person tweeting extremist views to the "old 'Minority Report' problem," a reference to the short story and movie in which people got busted pre-crime.
"The positive way to spin that story is that they're not going after people just for dumb retweets, that they get in there and they find out through a cooperator what the person is really focused on, how serious they are. And if it turns out to be something big, the case is brought on that basis," Chesney said. "The negative way to describe it is that it's entrapment, that these are people who do these dumb things and then they get led down the treacherous path."
He suggested prosecutions based on tweets might be viewed differently depending on whether the ultimate target is what Americans see as a "domestic" cause -- say, an ultra-conservative anti-government group or a radical environmental organization -- or a "foreign" cause -- like Islamic terrorism.
It's "clearly true," Chesney said, that people will be more concerned about law enforcement efforts "that are perceived as involving homegrown or domestic institutions or individuals, versus that which is perceived as 'the other' or foreign." Charging someone for social media activity alone might not be as politically viable in the former situation.
"RTs do not equal endorsements, I think should go without saying," Chesney said.
"But it gets interesting if you're retweeting really nasty beheading videos and stuff," he added. "Really, that's not endorsement? What does it mean to retweet something?"
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story mistakenly stated that Nagi is from Texas. He is from New York.