Internet provides link of global unrest to Western Pennsylvania

Conference examines online extremism

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Pakistan is not that far from Pittsburgh, Evan Kohlmann plans to tell a conference on cybersecurity in Oakland today.

Mr. Kohlmann, co-founder and senior partner with Flashpoint Global Partners of New York and a terrorism analyst for NBC News, will illustrate that using the case of Emerson Begolly, now 23, of tiny Mayport, Armstrong County.

Mr. Begolly became a prominent voice on radical Islamic websites even as he was building an arsenal, until FBI agents approached him in January 2011. They said he reached for a gun and then bit them, and he has pleaded guilty to carrying a gun in relation to a crime of violence. Sentencing is set for Nov. 14.

"He was stockpiling weapons," Mr. Kohlmann said. "He was engaging in weapons training. ... And he was in direct communication with terrorist organizations including the Pakistani Taliban."

That's just one example of how global unrest can reach Western Pennsylvania via the Internet. Early this year, emailed threats from near and far roiled the University of Pittsburgh.

And in September, PNC Financial Services Group was one of numerous American firms targeted for electronic attack by a group calling itself Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Cyber Fighters.

Whether you are a parent, student or CEO, if you think that the world's tumult is remote and of little concern, you may be unpleasantly surprised, Mr. Kohlmann said. Tech-savvy terrorists "have destroyed companies. They have wrecked computer systems, including some controlled by the U.S. government. They have recruited suicide bombers."

Mr. Kohlmann's talk on the use of social media by terrorist groups is part of the Western Pennsylvania 2012 Cybersecurity Conference, set to start at Pitt's University Club at 8:30 a.m. The panel discussions will focus on contemporary cyberthreats, innovative ways to address cybercrime, and ways industry and law enforcement can share information, according to U.S. Attorney David J. Hickton's office.

You can't follow terrorists on Twitter or friend them on Facebook. Their social networks are tougher to crack.

"Many of these social networks are password protected," Mr. Kohlmann said. "It is very difficult to get a username and password for these networks unless you know somebody already in the network."

There's no sense trying to take the sites down, he said, because they would pop up elsewhere. Flashpoint has found ways into the networks, he added, and eliminating them would be a bit like "shooting down our own spy satellite."

Parents should be spying, too, he said. Mr. Begolly's drift into jihadi networks serves as a warning. Initially a fan of Chechen fighters against Russian rule, he drifted deeper into jihadi rhetoric, and toward action, according to court documents.

By mid-2010, he was writing on the extremist Ansar al-Mujahideen forum about plans to shoot up schools or blow up train lines, federal prosecutors have said. He is accused of sharing a link to detailed instructions for setting up a bomb lab -- an act that led to the FBI's effort to interview him and its search of his father's farm.

"If for some reason [kids] don't like their current, real-life existence, and they become determined to create this avatar on the Internet, and then make their real life match this avatar," Mr. Kohlmann warned, "eventually they can do it. "If parents see this, if friends see this, it is something you have to bring to the attention of law enforcement."

Less insidious, but increasingly costly, are domestic and international attacks on institutions by people or groups who are not terrorists, but try to advance causes through disruption. Now even small businesses and nonprofit institutions have to be vigilant, too, Mr. Kohlmann said.

Pitt, for example, endured months of bomb threats for which Scottish nationalist Adam Stuart Busby has been charged.

In April and May, Ohio men Alexander Waterland and Brett Hudson threatened to release data from Pitt and several other colleges, according to federal criminal charges.

Both claimed to be members of Anonymous, a global activist hacker network. Mr. Hudson pleaded guilty to conspiracy Oct. 17, and Mr. Waterland is scheduled to plead Nov. 15.

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Rich Lord: or 412-263-1542.


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