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 and Fujairah, and spent a lot of time in the desert dealing with detainees who were captured during high-value missions 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 is, 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 was 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, for 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 illegal for one person to pass it to somebody else. The 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.