The FBI has identified a new trend where violent extremists are using social media to recruit teens.
“They can reach into the pocket of a young American and have them in their pocket on their phone all day long, and continue to just poison them with all of these ideas,” said FBI Community Relations Unit Chief Paul Bresson with the Office of Public Affairs. “The radicalization has occurred in silence. There's no way for anyone to know that, so I think our best line of defense is to arm these young people with the knowledge of the threat that's out there.”
In February, they launched a new online campaign called "Don’t Be A Puppet." The game-like website is tailored to teens between the ages of 13 and 18. The FBI says that age group may be more vulnerable or looking to find their purpose in life
“What [violent extremists] try to do is convince them that either there's corruption in the Western world or there's corruption in their government that you're disenchanted in life because your government doesn't watch out for you and the only way to respond to that and to affect change is through violence,” Bresson said.
Through the website teens learn to identify warning signs, recognize extremist propaganda, and after completing different quizzes and challenges the puppet is freed of one of its strings.
“We're looking at both the threat from domestic and foreign groups. Certainly, when you look at the case in Charleston, South Carolina of Dylan Roof who was radicalized to enter a church and initiate violence there, of course you saw the tragedy in Orlando and in San Bernardino and other places. So, these are exactly the types of cases we're looking to try and get out there on the front end of to try and see if there's anything we can do to educate the people who are obviously misguided and execute these attacks,” Bresson said.
Attacks like the Boston Marathon bombing where two young men, who grew up in the United States, turned to violence.
“What we're trying to do is prevent acts of terrorism, we're trying to prevent violence here in the United States, whether it's at a shopping mall, or at a school, or at a church or anywhere else,” said Bresson.
They’ve also enlisted the help of Erika Brannock, a Towson preschool teacher and 2013 Boston Marathon bombing survivor. Brannock’s survival story is one of several posted on the site.
“They had said they wanted to get survivor stories, and really tell how these events impact the people affected by it, so it really made me go okay, I want to be a part of this,” said Brannock.
Brannock has introduced the online tool to several local high schools.
Three years after the incident, she's still healing and is back to teaching, and she hopes this new lesson is something that will be life-saving.
“I'm proud of my progress. But it does get hard, I do get frustrated, and I do wish sometimes that I still did have my leg but I've always said I'm thankful for the worst day of my life because it made me a better person,” said Brannock.
The FBI doesn’t collect data on how many people or schools have used the course. They said it’s strictly a resource for any teachers, parents, and kids.
There was some pushback to the campaign. Several civil rights groups were concerned the tool promoted stereotyping. The FBI said they're actively meeting with those groups and are open to hearing their concerns.