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Student Spotlight – Understanding How Terrorists use Cyberspace to Target American Youth

A conversation with Richard Brumfield, 2016 graduate

Headshot of Richard BrumfieldRichard Brumfield, Lead Insider Threat Analyst, did extensive research on the issue of cyber grown terrorism to complete his capstone in the MS in Cybersecurity – Computer Forensics program.

Recent horrific events in Brussels, Paris, Turkey, Bangladesh, Nice, Orlando, and Normandy, all carried out in the name of ISIS or ISIL, makes Richard’s research even more relevant in the fight to cut these terrorist operations off at the root.

Richard, can you start by giving me a little bit of your background?

I joined the United States Navy, and left for boot camp at 18. From there, I was trained as a cryptologist, and then I converted my job to law enforcement, particularly in the criminal investigation field. This shifted to anti-terrorism after 9/11.

I deployed to Guantanamo Bay, Iraq, UAE, Dubai, Fujairah, spent a lot of time in the desert dealing with detainees who were captured during high-value mission to acquire specific information for the military.

I knew, toward the end of my tenure with the military, that I didn't need to leave the service with just 20 years of anti-terrorism – I needed a degree. So I pursued my Bachelor's in Criminal Justice and Crime Scene Investigation and graduated with a 4.0 GPA. A few days after that, I started my Master's in Cybersecurity with a concentration in digital forensics at Utica.

Before graduating with your Master’s degree last May, you were diagnosed with PTSD. How were you able to handle that?

Just as I was starting my Capstone, I was diagnosed with PTSD - post-traumatic as a result of the different combat engagements I’d been in. It was a lot of mental anguish and education to grapple with that affliction.

So while I was being treated, I called [Professor] Cynthia Gonnella for my Capstone brainstorming session. "Well," I said, "I'm going to do my capstone on Cloud networking security vulnerabilities." and Cynthia, being the bright and beautiful mind that she had, said, "No, Richard, I don't think that really interests you. Is that something that's really near and dear to you, something that just really excites you?"

I said, "Absolutely not, but I just thought it would be a good paper to try to produce, maybe, some theory as to better secure cloud networks." She goes, "Well, if you do that it's going to be hard. This is going to be a painful process for you. What's something that's really near and dear to you?"

So we threw around some ideas, you know, child exploitation is a major one, and we threw around bio-metrics. I’d used biometrics during what we call VBSS which stands for Visit, Board, Search, and Seizure. It's one of my jobs in the military where we would board pirate vessels in the Gulf of Aden, on the outside of Africa, inspect them, take them down, and make them dump all their ammunition and weapons.

Then Cynthia suggested, "What do you think about how terrorist groups are recruiting people from the U.S.?"

I said, "I think that is a great idea." I said, "They are radical. I mean, you talk about people being recruited from the U.S., and you have the Fort Hood shooting, where Major Nidal Hasan, a decorated Army Board-certified psychiatrist, who was seduced or converted, by lack of a better term, by jihadists to turn weapons against his own fellow soldiers and kill 14 people in Fort Hood.

So we said, "If somebody can do that, how hard would it be to convince the youth," and, as I started researching it, I said, "Well, here's my idea for the Capstone research paper. Let's start out by looking at how radicalization of the youth is occurring online."

What did you find in your research?

As I started researching how online radicalization was affecting American youth, there was not a lot of information on it, not a lot at all. It was all on the adult side, and I said, "Well, it has to start somewhere."

You have people pushing material, within our borders, saying, "Hey, fight the government. Wage war. Strap on IED vests. Go blow up military recruiting stations."

That is actively starting a coup, a war, a militia, against the government of the United States, and that can potentially be classified as treason, as a U.S. citizen. So one recommendation would be to criminalize this jihadist rhetoric (videos, websites, etc.) and make it criminal for it to push past one person to anybody else. Second step is education. How do we keep it out of our youths' hands?

What is the radicalization like?

It is very much a grooming process that can be compared to the way a person who's exploiting a child, grooms a child for those activities. Now, of course, it's not sexual in nature, it's more combative in nature, but they're grooming the individual through online discussions, through online videos, and giving a terrorist's version, a terrorist's twist of the Quran, of Islam.

And every religion for ages has had twists depending on who's teaching it. In the Islamic religion you have, Sheiks and Imams, who are extremely knowledgeable of the Quran. They're usually older gentlemen, and people look to them to teach them the Quran just like the preacher in Protestant religions, or the Father, the Pope in the Catholic religion.

Now, if you have somebody who has a terrorist agenda and a terrorist twist on it with a negative view of the West, then they can put a terrorist's spin on that religion and, as they're teaching it to younger audiences, convince them that this is what the Quran says, when it's actually not, it's taken out of context and it's twisted to meet their agenda.

How is this affecting our youth?

What happens is ISIS targets kids who are mistreated, who have some form of emotional trauma, or are not socially accepted. It could be anything from overweight to being of lower socio-economic status. They look for teens, especially females, and start manipulating their minds, and they promise them the world.

The teenagers are online and so the terrorist groups search the net because it's the most easily accessible thing. They say, "Come support ISIS. We're fighting for the free state of Islam and we want you to come help us take care of our holy warriors, our jihadists, and you’ll get these riches and you're going to be part of a sisterhood, and it's a sense of family, and a sense of belonging," that appeals to these teenage females. They want to go join ISIS and become an ISIS bride.

Unfortunately what happens is, they usually fly them to Pakistan or Turkey, and put them in a very abusive environment. It's not at all what the teenager thought, but at that point, now they've defected, they're in the Middle East and they're surrounded by terrorists who will kill them just as quick as take care of them, and they're ranked like human trafficking, and become more like property rather than a sisterhood.

How can we educate parents and U.S. citizens about this issue?

Canada has a program they call Prevent, a collaboration between the government of Canada, their intelligence sector as well as their law enforcement sector, to provide literature, education, and recommendations on how to answer questions when your teen comes to you and says, "I want to be a Muslim. I want to not just be a Muslim but I want to fight for Islam."

Prevent uses pamphlets, literature and information saying, "How do we stop our children from viewing this material? How do we educate them on it?" The program talks about how to put controls on the computer to stop these sites from reaching youth.

What we're finding is that it first starts out in youth or young adults, and then the enactment of it is taking place as an adult. Does that make sense?

Sounds like the steps to protect kids from any adverse, online activity, right?

Exactly. One of the biggest things ISIS does is use YouTube. Well, YouTube will only allow you to post 10-minute segment videos. After 10 minutes they look at them really hard, so they'll say, "Hey, this is too large. Take it down," YouTube has gotten really good about taking down jihadist rhetoric videos.

However, the terrorist groups got smart to it and so what they're doing now is they're cutting them down to one to two-minute clips so they stay hidden amongst every other piece of media and they'll post multiple segments to get their message across.

Is it illegal for these groups to post jihadist videos?

That's the issue because if it's illegal, then you can trace it back to its source. You can use digital forensics to figure out who's making these videos, or doing reconnaissance on a military recruitment station, or a federal building. Who is putting out all the vulnerabilities, physical security vulnerabilities on YouTube?

How many hidden members of ISIS or Al-Qaeda, or any of the other terrorist factions that reside in the U.S. without us knowing about them, can easily pull it up, look at it, and go, "Okay, well, my brother and my compatriot from Saudi Arabia posted this about this building. Now I'm going to enact my plan to do X-Y-Z."?

So was your research incorporated into your course work?

There were a lot of discussions in several different areas of the courses related to identifying how people use the internet to conduct crimes. That evolved into more of a national dissent on terrorist activity. We definitely covered those bases...

Do all of the MS in Cybersecurity students vet different topics with their Capstone Professor?

Yes, as I went through my graduate program, I came across different professors who really stood out to me and took a personal, vested interest in my success. Cynthia Gonnella, Vernon McCandlish, Carmen Mercado, and Michelle Mullinix, to name a few. They were all what I consider as mentors and personal advisors, not just instructors. They're, like colleagues and friends.

I think the topic brainstorming part is the hardest part of the whole capstone!

The topic has to be something near and dear because if it's not something that you are genuinely interested in or are passionate about trying to correct or spotlight a problem that needs further research, then it is going to be a brutal and painful process that's going to put you to sleep.

I mean, you have to be passionate about the research because it's a research paper. It's a formal research paper that's going to be published, and you have to be passionate about it, and the passion will show in the research. If you are not passionate, it won't show.

What advice would you give to students who are about to start their Capstone course?

The advice I would give is that no matter what, just write. Just write. If you start writing, the information will come, but you have to write.

Just start writing, and as you start researching, it starts becoming clear and the puzzle starts coming together as to what you're trying to say. What kind of message you're trying to get to.

Now that the capstone is completed, are there any further steps that you hope to use the research for in your career, or just in your own efforts to get the education enacted?

Sure, absolutely. Right now I'm using the capstone thesis to discuss some of these topics with different places that I've interviewed. As I'm getting near my retirement from the military I still have to transition to the civilian occupation.

I've interviewed with different agencies and some of the positions I've interviewed are for a digital forensics, cyber-intelligence, and a criminal investigative position, which went very well.

What I would like to do is actually take this and push forward with it, and keep adding on to it and show more of a graph of the timeline of the grooming process.

I want to look more into the grooming process of how they actually do it, and provide more details.

Awesome. Thank you so much, Richard.

Oh, absolutely. Thank you for taking the time to talk to me.

To read more of Richard Brumfield’s research, download his MS in Cybersecurity capstone Innocence Lost: An Analysis of Terrorist Cyber Operations Targeting American Youth. For more information on the MS in Cybersecurity program, complete the form or call us at 315.732.2640 or toll free at 866.295.3106.