Twitter terror: Arrests prompt concern over online extremism
GREECE, N.Y. (AP) - A few months after he turned 17 - and more than two years before he was arrested - Vincent Vetromile recast himself as an online revolutionary.
Offline, in this suburb of Rochester, New York, Vetromile was finishing requirements for promotion to Eagle Scout in a troop that met at a local church. He enrolled at Monroe Community College, taking classes to become a heating and air conditioning technician. On weekends, he spent hours in the driveway with his father, a Navy veteran, working on cars.
On social media, though, the teenager spoke in world-worn tones about the need to "reclaim our nation at any cost." Eventually he subbed out the grinning selfie in his Twitter profile, replacing it with the image of a colonial militiaman shouldering an AR-15 rifle. And he traded his name for a handle: "Standing on the Edge."
That edge became apparent in Vetromile's posts, including many interactions over the last two years with accounts that praised the Confederacy, warned of looming gun confiscation and declared Muslims to be a threat.
In 2016, he sent the first of more than 70 replies to tweets from a fiery account with 140,000 followers, run by a man billing himself as Donald Trump's biggest Canadian supporter. The final exchange came late last year.
"Islamic Take Over Has Begun: Muslim No-Go Zones Are Springing Up Across America. Lock and load America!" the Canadian tweeted on December 12, with a video and a map highlighting nine states with Muslim enclaves.
"The places listed are too vague," Vetromile replied. "If there were specific locations like 'north of X street in the town of Y, in the state of Z' we could go there and do something about it."
Weeks later, police arrested Vetromile and three friends, charging them with plotting to attack a Muslim settlement in rural New York. And with extremism on the rise across the U.S., this town of neatly kept Cape Cods confronted difficult questions about ideology and young people - and technology's role in bringing them together.
The reality of the plot Vetromile and his friends are charged with hatching is, in some ways, both less and more than what was feared when they were arrested in January.
Prosecutors say there is no indication that the four - Vetromile, 19; Brian Colaneri, 20; Andrew Crysel, 18; and a 16-year-old The Associated Press isn't naming because of his age - had set an imminent or specific date for an attack. Reports they had an arsenal of 23 guns are misleading; the weapons belonged to parents or other relatives.
Prosecutors allege the four discussed using those guns, along with explosive devices investigators say were made by the 16-year-old, in an attack on the community of Islamberg.
Residents of the settlement in Delaware County, New York - mostly African-American Muslims who relocated from Brooklyn in the 1980s - have been harassed for years by right-wing activists who have called it a terrorist training camp. A Tennessee man, Robert Doggart, was convicted in 2017 of plotting to burn down Islamberg's mosque and other buildings.
But there are few clues so far to explain how four with little experience beyond their high school years might have come up with the idea to attack the community. All have pleaded not guilty, and several defense attorneys, back in court Friday, are arguing there was no plan to actually carry out any attack, chalking it up to talk among buddies. Lawyers for the four did not return calls, and parents or other relatives declined interviews.
"I don't know where the exposure came from, if they were exposed to it from other kids at school, through social media," said Matthew Schwartz, the Monroe County assistant district attorney prosecuting the case. "I have no idea if their parents subscribe to any of these ideologies."
Well beyond upstate New York, the spread of extremist ideology online has sparked growing concern. Google and Facebook executives went before the House Judiciary Committee this month to answer questions about their platforms' role in feeding hate crime and white nationalism. Twitter announced new rules last fall prohibiting the use of "dehumanizing language" that risks "normalizing serious violence."
But experts said the problem goes beyond language, pointing to algorithms used by search engines and social media platforms to prioritize content and spotlight likeminded accounts.
"Once you indicate an inclination, the machine learns," said Jessie Daniels, a professor of sociology at New York's Hunter College who studies the online contagion of alt-right ideology. "That's exactly what's happening on all these platforms ... and it just sends some people down a terrible rabbit hole."
She and others point to Dylann Roof, who in 2015 murdered nine worshippers at a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina. In writings found afterward, Roof recalled how his interest in the shooting of black teenager Trayvon Martin had prompted a Google search for the term "black on white crime." The first site the search engine pointed him to was run by a racist group promoting the idea that such crime is common, and as he learned more, Roof wrote, that eventually drove his decision to attack the congregation.
In the Rochester-area case, electronic messages between two of those arrested, seen by the AP, along with papers filed in the case suggest doubts divided the group.
"I honestly see him being a terrorist," one of those arrested, Crysel, told his friend Colaneri in an exchange last December on Discord, a messaging platform popular with gamers that has also gained notoriety for its embrace by some followers of the alt-right.
"He also has a very odd obsession with pipe bombs," Colaneri replied. "Like it's borderline creepy."
It is not clear from the message fragment seen which of the others they were referencing. What is clear, though, is the long thread of frustration in Vetromile's online posts - and the way those posts link him to an enduring conspiracy theory.
A few years ago, Vetromile's posts on Twitter and Instagram touched on subjects like video games and English class.
He made the honor roll as an 11th-grader but sometime thereafter was suspended and never returned, according to former classmates and others. The school district, citing federal law on student records, declined to provide details.
Ron Gerth, who lives across the street from the family, recalled Vetromile as a boy roaming the neighborhood with a friend, pitching residents on a leaf-raking service: "Just a normal, everyday kid wanting to make some money, and he figured a way to do it." More recently, Gerth said, Vetromile seemed shy and withdrawn, never uttering more than a word or two if greeted on the street.
Vetromile and suspect Andrew Crysel earned the rank of Eagle in Boy Scout Troop 240, where the 16-year-old was also a member. None ever warranted concern, said Steve Tyler, an adult leader.
"Every kid's going to have their own sort of geekiness," Tyler said, "but nothing that would ever be considered a trigger or a warning sign that would make us feel unsafe."
Crysel and the fourth suspect, Colaneri, have been diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, a milder form of autism, their families have said. Friends described Colaneri as socially awkward and largely disinterested in politics. "He asked, if we're going to build a wall around the Gulf of Mexico, how are people going to go to the beach?" said Rachael Lee, the aunt of Colaneri's girlfriend.
Vetromile attended community college with Colaneri before dropping out in 2017. By then, he was fully engaged in online conversations about immigrants living in the U.S. illegally, gun rights and Trump. Over time, his statements became increasingly militant.
"We need a revolution now!" he tweeted in January, replying to a thread warning of a coming "war" over gun ownership.
Vetromile directed some of his strongest statements at Muslims. Tweets from the Canadian account, belonging to one Mike Allen, seemed to push that button.
In July 2017, Allen tweeted "Somali Muslims take over Tennessee town and force absolute HELL on terrified Christians." Vetromile replied: "@realDonaldTrump please do something about this!"
A few months later, Allen tweeted: "Czech politicians vote to let citizens carry guns, shoot Muslim terrorists on sight." Vetromile's response: "We need this here!"
Allen's posts netted hundreds of replies a day, and there's no sign he read Vetromile's responses. But others did, including the young man's reply to the December post about Muslim "no-go zones."
That tweet included a video interview with Martin Mawyer, whose Christian Action Network made a 2009 documentary alleging that Islamberg and other settlements were terrorist training camps. Mawyer linked the settlements, which follow the teachings of a controversial Pakistani cleric, to a group called Jamaat al-Fuqra that drew scrutiny from law enforcement in the 1980s and 1990s. In 1993, Colorado prosecutors won convictions of four al-Fuqra members in a racketeering case that included charges of fraud, arson and murder.
Police and analysts have repeatedly said Islamberg does not threaten violence. Nevertheless, the allegations of Mawyer's group continue to circulate widely online and in conservative media.
Replying to questions by email, Mawyer said his organization has used only legal means to try to shut down the operator of the settlements.
"Vigilante violence is always the wrong way to solve social or personal problems," he said. "Christian Action Network had no role, whatsoever, in inciting any plots."
Online, though, Vetromile reacted with consternation to the video of Mawyer: "But this video just says 'upstate NY and California' and that's too big of an area to search for terrorists," he wrote.
Other followers replied with suggestions. "Doesn't the video state Red House, Virginia as the place?" one asked. Virginia was too far, Vetromile replied, particularly since the map with the tweet showed an enclave in his own state.
When another follower offered a suggestion, Vetromile signed off: "Eh worth a look. Thanks."
The exchange ended without a word from the Canadian account, whose tweet started it.
Three months before the December exchange on Twitter, the four suspects started using a Discord channel dubbed "#leaders-only" to discuss weapons and how they would use them in an attack, prosecutors allege. Vetromile set up the channel, one of the defense attorneys contends, but prosecutors say they don't consider any one of the four a leader.
In November, the conversation expanded to a second channel: "#militia-soldiers-wanted."
At some point last fall the 16-year-old made a grenade - "on a whim to satisfy his own curiosity," his lawyer said in a court filing that claims the teen never told the other suspects. That filing also contends the boy told Vetromile that forming a militia was "stupid."
But other court records contradict those assertions. Another teen, who is not among the accused, told prosecutors that the 16-year-old showed him what looked like a pipe bomb last fall and then said that Vetromile had asked for prototypes. "Let me show you what Vinnie gave me," the young suspect allegedly said during another conversation, before leaving the room and returning with black explosive powder.
In January, the 16-year-old was in the school cafeteria when he showed a photo to a classmate of one of his fellow suspects, wearing some kind of tactical vest. He made a comment like, "He looks like the next school shooter, doesn't he?" according to Greece Police Chief Patrick Phelan. The other student reported the incident, and questioning by police led to the arrests and charges of conspiracy to commit terrorism.
The allegations have jarred a region where political differences are the norm. Rochester, roughly half white and half black and other minorities, votes heavily Democratic. Neighboring Greece, which is 87 percent white, leans conservative. Town officials went to the Supreme Court to win a 2014 ruling allowing them to start public meetings with a chaplain's prayer.
The arrests dismayed Bob Lonsberry, a conservative talk radio host in Rochester, who said he checked Twitter to confirm Vetromile didn't follow his feed. But looking at the accounts Vetromile did follow convinced him that politics on social media had crossed a dangerous line.
"The people up here, even the hillbillies like me, we would go down with our guns and stand outside the front gate of Islamberg to protect them," Lonsberry said. "It's an aberration. But ... aberrations, like a cancer, pop up for a reason."
Online, it can be hard to know what is true and who is real. Mike Allen, though, is no bot.
"He seems addicted to getting followers," said Allen's adult son, Chris, when told about the arrest of one of the thousands attuned to his father's Twitter feed. Allen himself called back a few days later, leaving a brief message with no return number.
But a few weeks ago, Allen welcomed in a reporter who knocked on the door of his home, located less than an hour from the Peace Bridge linking upstate New York to Ontario, Canada.
"I really don't believe in regulation of the free marketplace of ideas," said Allen, a retired real estate executive, explaining his approach to social media. "If somebody wants to put bulls--- on Facebook or Twitter, it's no worse than me selling a bad hamburger, you know what I mean? Buyer beware."
Sinking back in a white leather armchair, Allen, 69, talked about his longtime passion for politics. After a liver transplant stole much of his stamina a few years ago, he filled downtime by tweeting about subjects like interest rates.
When Trump announced his candidacy for president in 2015, in a speech memorable for labeling many Mexican immigrants as criminals, Allen said he was determined to help get the billionaire elected. He began posting voraciously, usually finding material on conservative blogs and Facebook feeds and crafting posts to stir reaction.
Soon his account was gaining up to 4,000 followers a week.
Allen said he had hoped to monetize his feed somehow. But suspicions that Twitter "shadow-banning" was capping gains in followers made him consider closing the account. That was before he was shown some of his tweets and the replies they drew from Vetromile - and told the 19-year-old was among the suspects charged with plotting to attack Islamberg.
"And they got caught? Good," Allen said. "We're not supposed to go around shooting people we don't like. That's why we have video games."
Allen's own likes and dislikes are complicated. He said he strongly opposes taking in refugees for humanitarian reasons, arguing only immigrants with needed skills be admitted. He also recounted befriending a Muslim engineer in Pakistan through a physics blog and urging him to move to Canada.
Shown one of his tweets from last year - claiming Czech officials had urged people to shoot Muslims - Allen shook his head.
"That's not a good tweet," he said quietly. "It's inciting."
Allen said he rarely read replies to his posts - and never noticed Vetromile's.
"If I'd have seen anybody talking violence, I would have banned them," he said.
He turned to his wife, Kim, preparing dinner across the kitchen counter. Maybe he should stop tweeting, he told her. But couldn't he continue until Trump was reelected?
"We have a saying, 'Oh, it must be true, I read it on the internet,'" Allen said, before showing his visitor out. "The internet is phony. It's not there. Only kids live in it and old guys, you know what I mean? People with time on their hands."
The next day, Allen shut down his account, and the long narrative he spun all but vanished.