America’s latest alleged ISIS wannabe could go to prison for reblogging a threat on Tumblr.
Terrence Joseph McNeil, 25, was arraigned in federal court Thursday on felony charges of threatening U.S. military personnel and attempting to kill the officers. His actions: Reblogging a hateful GIF on Tumblr that published supposedly confidential information pertaining to military officers. The GIF said, in part, “and kill them wherever you find them.”
Though the complaint notes that he had professed an affinity for ISIS on social media, McNeil has not yet been hit with any terror-related charges. The charges in this complaint, filed September 24 but unsealed Thursday, all harken back to the one reblogged post.
George Washington University’s Program on Extremism has been tracking McNeil’s social media for months. In one Tweet they cataloged, McNeil boasted about America’s free speech protections covering his actions.
McNeil’s social media postings show he thought he was safe as long as he didn’t try to carry out an attack—or leave the country:
But the free speech protections didn’t cover him as much as he expected, according to federal agents.
“While we aggressively defend First Amendment rights, the individual arrested went far beyond free speech by reposting names and addresses of 100 U.S. service members, all with the intent to have them killed,” Special Agent in Charge Stephen D. Anthony said in a Justice Department press release.
The U.S. government’s war on ISIS sympathizers has long been plagued by accusations of prosecuting people for thought-crimes. A 17-year-old in Virginia was sentenced to 11 years in prison for crimes that consisted largely of running a Twitter account and giving a friend instructions on how to go abroad. Charges for a California man rest almost entirely on his Twitter postings.
It’s only McNeil’s case, though, that rests on a GIF produced by others and only reblogged by the defendant.
Of course, McNeil’s online presence is far from clean. Scrolling through his Facebook feed is like flipping through ISIS’s Dabiq magazine: there are photos of a Jordanian pilot being burned alive in a cage, photos of men being bled out like cattle, and a link to the beheading video of American journalist James Foley.
McNeil’s commentary peppered in between the images ranges from “it took the slaughter of a U.S journalist to get Obama to speak out against ISIS. So apparently thousands of Iraqis and Syrians killed don't matter” to “Some dead terrorist for your memorial day”—attached to photos of killed U.S. soldiers.
His tumblr account featured photos of Anwar al-Awlaki, the American cleric who became a leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. (Awalki was killed by a U.S. drone strike in Yemen in 2011 and is said to have inspired several terrorists inside the U.S., including the Ft. Hood shooter.)
The complaint identifies more than half a dozen Twitter accounts allegedly created by McNeil, all of them subsequently shut down by Twitter.
It’s not clear when McNeil embraced Islam, but he appears to take the shahadah, or Muslim declaration of faith, in July 5, 2014 Facebook post. “Ash-hadu an la ilaha ill Allah Wa ash-hadu ana Muhammad ar-rasullallah,” he wrote, or, “I bear witness that there is no God but God, and I bear witness that Muhammad is his prophet.”
Those inspired to convert by ISIS often take the oath on social media if they don’t know Muslims who can serve as witnesses in real life.
Posts from a few years back show Facebook friends accusing him of being an atheist. But in subsequent posts, McNeil increasingly criticizes American policies. By June 2014, he called for the release of Al Qaeda spokesman Suleiman Abu Ghaith, currently serving a life sentence in a U.S. prison.
“Allah saved me today,” he wrote on June 30 of that year.
And the next day: “Death to America.”