How could this happen here? Local terror expert says ISIS and al-Qaida are "masterful" at appealing to young people

Published: Jan. 15, 2015 at 12:42 PM EST|Updated: Jan. 15, 2015 at 6:37 PM EST
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Christopher Cornell, 20, of Green Township, faces federal charges after authorities say he...
Christopher Cornell, 20, of Green Township, faces federal charges after authorities say he plotted to blow up the U.S. Capitol. (FOX19 NOW/file)

ISIS and al-Qaida are "masterful" at appealing to young people anywhere in the world - just like the Green Township man accused of plotting to blow up the U.S. Capitol - and radicalizing them via social media, a local terror expert said Thursday.

"The way that ISIS and al-Qaida really operate is they brand themselves," said Jennifer Morris, a history professor at Mount St. Joseph University in Delhi Township.

"They talk about economic depression and not belonging. They talk about revenge. They are masterful at appealing to a certain demographic of age," she said. "They really do target young adults who developmentally are still in an adolescent phase and so it gives them a sense of belonging and it allows them to achieve their goals and they do not respect social values so they can recruit via social media anywhere in the world."

The groups, she noted, are on Facebook and Twitter - literally everywhere young people are anywhere in the world. They can reach them with the click of a computer mouse or the tap of an iPhone.

"And there's really no one to intervene in that," Morris said. "It's easy access."

Christopher Cornell, 20, is accused of scheming with a confidential informant to build and detonate pipe bombs at or near the U.S. Capitol, and then shoot employees inside the federal building, the FBI's Cincinnati office announced Wednesday.

He is locked up at the Butler County jail on federal charges of attempted killing of a U.S. government official and possession of a firearm in furtherance of attempted crime of violence.

Federal officials say the Oak Hills High School graduate created a Twitter account under the alias of Raheel Mahrus Ubaydah last summer. That's where he posted videos and statements supporting ISIS and violent jihad in North America.

A confidential FBI source began contacting Cornell in August. Cornell responded via instant message that he had been touch with individuals overseas, but he did not believe that he would receive authorization to conduct a terrorist attack in the United States.

Cornell told the informant that they should go on with the attack.

"I believe that we should just wage jihad under our own orders and plan an attack," Cornell said to the informant.

The case instantly made national headlines and set off shock waves around the Tri-State, especially on the traditional, predominantly Catholic and close-knit West Side, which has produced generations of public servants such as police officers, firefighters, judges and prosecutors.

Cornell's father, John Cornell, described his son as a good, quiet kid who recently converted to Islam.

"He graduated (when) he was 18-years-old," John Cornell said. "I don't think he really knew where he wanted to go in life. I was the same way."

John Cornell said his son started attending mosques in the past six to eight weeks.

Morris said Cornell's father exhibited common reactions of disbelief and denial, but there were warning signs he should have picked up on.

"If we look at the interviews that we've seen with his father, his father had an image of who his son was and that image did start to change," Morris said. "His son converted to Islam. His son told him he was going to visit mosques. This is not something his son normally did, and I think that that maybe should have raised a red flag. When we see our children change behavior in a way that is not normal, you might want to take a look at that a little more closely."

She predicted more cases like this could easily emerge across the nation and globe as extremists like ISIS and al-Qaida keep trying to terrorize the world.

"It can happen anywhere," Morris said. "These organizations are radical. They don't have a home state. They want to be international and the whole reason they exist is to instill fear. They want to power and sort of achieve what they want to achieve by making the rest of us afraid. So, to think that this could happen in Cincinnati, Ohio - and in a small neighborhood in Cincinnati, Ohio - is probably pretty terrifying to some people who live here, but they need to understand that it can happen anywhere."

"The biggest message that we need to put out there is we need to always keep in mind that these type of things are meant to make us afraid and we have to check our fear and really look at what's going on."

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