Wolf dens, not lone wolves, the norm in US Islamic State plots

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NEW YORK, June 14 (Reuters) - If Omar Mateen acted alone in plotting the massacre of 49 people at Orlando's Pulse gay nightclub, he would be the exception rather than the rule in U.S. cases involving suspected Islamic State supporters.

Sunday's worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history prompted renewed warnings from officials of "lone wolf" attackers, a term that commonly invokes images of isolated individuals, radicalized online by violent propaganda and plotting alone.

But a Reuters review of the approximately 90 Islamic State court cases brought by the Department of Justice since 2014 found that three-quarters of those charged were alleged to be part of a group of anywhere from two to more than 10 co-conspirators who met in person to discuss their plans.

Related: Vigils held for Orlando massacre victims around the world

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Wolf dens, not lone wolves, the norm in US Islamic State plots
People gather in front of the US Embassy in Copenhagen to remember the victims at the nightclub Pulse in Orlando Florida on June 13, 2016. / AFP / Scanpix / Jens Astrup / Denmark OUT (Photo credit should read JENS ASTRUP/AFP/Getty Images)
April Ross looks at a makeshift memorial outside the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts for the mass shooting victims at the Pulse nightclub June 13, 2016 in Orlando, Florida. The American gunman who launched a murderous assault on a gay nightclub in Orlando was radicalized by Islamist propaganda, officials said Monday, as they grappled with the worst terror attack on US soil since 9/11. The Islamic State group claimed slain shooter Omar Mateen was acting as 'one of the soldiers of the caliphate in America' when he attacked the Pulse club in the Florida resort city, an assault that ended when police stormed the venue. / AFP / Brendan Smialowski (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
People lay flowers and light candles to commemorate victims of a mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando in front of the US embassy in Warsaw on June 13, 2016. / AFP / AFP PHOTO / WOJTEK RADWANSKI (Photo credit should read WOJTEK RADWANSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
People commemorate victims of a mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando in front of the US embassy in Warsaw on June 13, 2016. / AFP / AFP PHOTO / WOJTEK RADWANSKI (Photo credit should read WOJTEK RADWANSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
MOSCOW, RUSSIA - JUNE 13, 2016: Placards and flowers brought at the US Embassy in Moscow to pay tribute to the Orlando nightclub shooting victims. Alexander Shcherbak/TASS (Photo by Alexander Shcherbak\TASS via Getty Images)
SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - JUNE 13: Flowers are placed on a rainbow flag to remember victims of the shooting at an Orlando nightclub on June 13, 2016 in Seoul, South Korea. Omar Mateen, who had recently pledged allegiance to ISIS, died after killing 49 people early morning on June 12 at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. The massacre was the deadliest mass shooting in the United States. (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)
People hold candles as they share a minute of silence during a vigil for the victims of the Orlando shooting in Florida, in Hong Kong on June 13, 2016. Law enforcement authorities have lowered the death toll from the weekend massacre at a gay nightclub in Orlando to 49, the deadliest mass shooting in American history, explaining that the shooter had been counted in the original tally. / AFP / ANTHONY WALLACE (Photo credit should read ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP/Getty Images)
BANGKOK, THAILAND - JUNE 13: People hold a rainbow flag during a vigil for the attack at the gay club in Orlando, on Monday, June 13, in Bangkok, Thailand. (Photo by Dario Pignatelli/Getty Images)
Australians gather to place candles and flags in Sydney on June 13, 2016, in solidarity with the global gay community after a gunman opened fire in a nightclub in Orlando, Florida, killing over 50 people. The Sydney Harbour Bridge was lit with the colours of the rainbow on June 13 as hundreds of Australians gathered to stand in solidarity with the global gay community after the worst mass shooting in modern US history. / AFP / WILLIAM WEST (Photo credit should read WILLIAM WEST/AFP/Getty Images)
WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND - JUNE 13: Members of the public look on during a candlelight vigil for the victims of the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida, at Frank Kitts Park on June 13, 2016 in Wellington, New Zealand. Omar Mateen allegedly killed more than 50 people and injured 53 others in what is the deadliest mass shootings in the country's history. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
Josh Mercer wears a T-shirt Monday, June 13, 2016, in honor of two of his friends who were killed during a fatal shooting at Pulse Orlando nightclub in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
People gather for a candlelight vigil in remembrance for mass shooting victims in Orlando, from San Diego, California, U.S. June 12, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake
Mourners gather under a LGBT pride flag flying at half-mast for a candlelight vigil in remembrance for mass shooting victims in Orlando, from San Diego, California, U.S. June 12, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake
A rainbow flag is held up during a vigil after the worst mass shooting in U.S. history at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in front of the White House in Washington, U.S., June 12, 2016. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
Men stand together during a vigil after the worst mass shooting in U.S. history at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in front of the White House in Washington, U.S., June 12, 2016. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
People hold a vigil after the worst mass shooting in U.S. history at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in front of the White House in Washington, U.S., June 12, 2016. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
A rainbow flag is held up with the name of the gay nightclub where the worst mass shooting in U.S. history occured in Orlando,Florida, during a vigil in front of the White House in Washington, U.S., June 12, 2016. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputies are seen behind a girl riding in a bus at the 46th annual Los Angeles Gay Pride Parade in West Hollywood, California, after a gunman opened fire at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida U.S. June 12, 2016. REUTERS/David McNew
People pay their respects to the Orlando massacre victims during a vigil in the Queens borough of New York, U.S., June 12, 2016. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton
Two women hold each other at a vigil outside The Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street, considered by some as the center of New York State's gay rights movement, following the shooting massacre at Orlando's Pulse nightclub, in the Manhattan borough of New York, U.S., June 12, 2016. REUTERS/Mark Kauzlarich
A man carries a gay pride flag at a vigil outside The Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street, considered by some as the center of New York State's gay rights movement, following the shooting massacre at Orlando's Pulse nightclub, in the Manhattan borough of New York, U.S., June 12, 2016. REUTERS/Mark Kauzlarich
A man lays flowers at a memorial outside The Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street, considered by some as the center of New York State's gay rights movement, following the shooting massacre at Orlando's Pulse nightclub, in the Manhattan borough of New York, U.S., June 12, 2016. REUTERS/Mark Kauzlarich
People take part in a vigil for the victims of a mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, U.S., in Sao Paulo, Brazil, June 12, 2016. REUTERS/Nacho Doce
Orlando residents Arissa Suarez (L) and Malcom Crawson attend a vigil at Lake Eola Park for victims of a mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, U.S June 12, 2016. REUTERS/Steve Nesius
A Boston Police Officer stands behind flowers left at a Pride Month block party, the same day as the mass shooting at Orlando's Pulse nightclub, in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S. June 12, 2016. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
People attend a candlelight vigil for the victims of the Orlando attack against a gay night club, held in San Francisco, California, U.S. June 12, 2016. REUTERS/Beck Diefenbach
People march down Market Street during a candlelight vigil for the victims of the Orlando attack against a gay night club, held in San Francisco, California, U.S. June 12, 2016. REUTERS/Beck Diefenbach
People hold up signs in solidarity at a candlelight vigil in remembrance for mass shooting victims in Orlando, from San Diego, California, U.S. June 12, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake
A candlelight vigil in remembrance for mass shooting victims in Orlando is held in San Diego, California, U.S. June 12, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake
A rainbow flag is held up during a vigil after the worst mass shooting in U.S. history at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in front of the White House in Washington, U.S., June 12, 2016. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A couple puts their arms around each other outside the White House where the U.S. flag flies at half-staff at sundown as people gather for a vigil on Pennsylvania Avenue later in the day of the worst mass shooting in U.S. history at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida in Washington June 12, 2016. REUTERS/James Lawler Duggan
WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND - JUNE 13: The Michael Fowler Centre is lit up in the colours of the rainbow flag after a candlelight vigil for the victims of the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida, at Frank Kitts Park on June 13, 2016 in Wellington, New Zealand. Omar Mateen allegedly killed more than 50 people and injured 53 others in what is the deadliest mass shootings in the country's history. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
ORLANDO, FL - JUNE 12: Candles sit on the edge of Lake Eola, June 12, 2016 in Orlando, Florida. The shooting at Pulse Nightclub, which killed 50 people and injured 53, is the worst mass-shooting event in American history. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Brett Morian, from Daytona Beach, hugs an attendee during the candlelight vigil at Ember in Orlando, Fla., on Sunday, June 12, 2016. (Joshua Lim/Orlando Sentinel/TNS via Getty Images)
People sit by the water with candles during a vigil in a park following a mass shooting at the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, U.S. June 12, 2016. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri
Flags fly at half-staff around the Washington Monument at daybreak in Washington with the US Capitol in the background Monday, June 13, 2016. President Barack Obama ordered flags lowered to half-staff to honor the victims of the Orlando nightclub shootings. (AP Photo/J. David Ake.)
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Even in those cases that did not involve in-person meetings, defendants were almost always in contact with other sympathizers, whether via text message, email or networking websites, according to court documents. Fewer than 10 cases involved someone accused of acting entirely alone.

The "lone wolf" image obscures the extent to which individuals become radicalized through personal association with like-minded people, in what might be termed "wolf dens," experts on radicalization and counter-terrorism say.

"We focus so much on the online stuff that we're missing that there's a very human connection going on here," said Karen Greenberg, who runs the Center on National Security at Fordham University in New York.

U.S. authorities on Monday were investigating whether Mateen -- who pledged allegiance to Islamic State during the attack -- had any help, but officials stressed they believed there were no other attackers.

FBI director James Comey said his exact motives remain unclear, but that there were strong indications he was inspired by foreign terrorist groups and that authorities were "highly confident" he was radicalized in part over the Internet.

INFILTRATING GROUPS

Law enforcement efforts to combat homegrown extremism have started to focus more on group dynamics. In a December speech at a counterterrorism conference in New York, Comey said investigators need family and friends to help them identify potentially radicalized individuals who may not have a visible online presence.

"If they go out and interact with small groups of people, who sees them?" he said. "Community members."

In February, the FBI launched a website to educate teenagers about the dangers of extremism and help parents and community leaders decide when to intervene and when to report troubling behavior.

The Justice Department has secured convictions in around half the 90 Islamic State-linked cases. Other cases are ongoing, with some of the charges unproven in court and disputed by defendants.

The relationships between accused co-conspirators range from casual acquaintances to lifelong friends, from married couples to cousins and from roommates to college buddies.

In some cases, the group included several defendants from the same community, such as the sprawling investigation in Minnesota in which 10 Somali-Americans were charged with plotting to aid Islamic State. Three were convicted at trial this month, while six others pleaded guilty in the case.

In others, such as the married couple responsible for killing 14 people in December in San Bernardino, California, the relationship was far more intimate.

In an increasingly frequent occurrence, the defendant was unwittingly working with an FBI informant posing as a co-conspirator, as federal authorities rely more on human intelligence and less on the comparatively low-hanging fruit of social media to identify potential attackers.

Face-to-face interactions can accelerate extremist viewpoints, turning the group to violence, experts said. And it can draw in others who might otherwise not have been susceptible to the lure of jihadism.

"The true lone wolf is usually psychotic, and very few jihadists are truly psychotic," said Jytte Klausen, a professor at Brandeis University who specializes in radicalization.

Online propaganda is merely stoking the fire rather than igniting it, some experts said.

"Imagine if Match.com were set up in such a way that the people could never meet," said Max Abrahms, a professor at Northeastern University who has studied extremist groups. "Clearly there's no replacement for actual socialization in person."

"PREYING" ON INSECURITIES

One of the cases showing the crucial role of group dynamics involves a cluster of six defendants in the New York area.

Nader Saadeh and his friend, a New York City college student named Munther Omar Saleh, had become convinced in 2013 that the end of the world was near, according to prosecutors.

The two 20-year-olds decided to create a "small army" of friends, prosecutors said, and eventually recruited four others, including 21-year-old student Samuel Topaz and a 16-year-old friend of Saleh's named Imran Rabbani.

The men spent months discussing plans to join Islamic State in Syria or to launch a bomb attack on U.S. soil, according to investigators.

Authorities first became aware of the group when Topaz's mother called the FBI in early 2015 after becoming increasingly concerned about his behavior.

Topaz, raised by a Catholic mother from the Dominican Republic and a Jewish father from Israel, had dropped out of college and begun spending most of his time with two classmates, Saadeh and his older brother, Alaa. Topaz converted to Islam and had begun talking about traveling overseas, his mother told the FBI, according to court documents.

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The Saadeh brothers were trying to recruit Topaz by "preying" on his insecurities, she said.

In May this year, Alaa Saadeh was sentenced to 15 years in prison after pleading guilty in October to conspiring to provide material support to Islamic State. His brother, Topaz and Rabbani also pleaded guilty and are awaiting sentencing.

Saleh, who is accused of plotting to set off a homemade bomb in New York, was arrested in June 2015 when he and Rabbani attacked a law enforcement surveillance vehicle that had been following them. Saleh and the other defendant, Fareed Mumuni, have pleaded not guilty.

At his sentencing, Alaa Saadeh told the judge he had acted in part out of love for his younger brother in the absence of their deported parents.

"I could have helped him," he said. "I could have done a lot more." (Reporting by Joseph Ax; Additional reporting by Kristina Cooke; editing by Stuart Grudgings.)

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