DENVER (AP) - Gathered under the fluorescent lights of an austere Denver mosque, a group of parents stared at a photo projected on a wall in front of them.
It showed a knife, a gun and a phone. Some seemed perplexed.
“You can kill someone with a gun or a knife, but a phone might get me 10 more recruits,” said Seamus Hughes, of the National Counterterrorism Center, who traveled from Washington, D.C. to speak to parents and Muslim leaders about the ease with which their children can be lured to terror on the Internet.
Thursday night’s meeting was the first formal encounter between federal counterterrorism officials and Denver’s tight-knit Muslim community since authorities last month stopped three suburban Denver girls from flying to Syria to join Islamic State extremists. It’s part of a joint effort by Muslim leaders and federal law enforcement around the country to stop kids from going overseas to fight in purported holy wars.
“I want to build a relationship with your community,” said Thomas Ravenelle, special agent in charge of the Denver FBI office. “We don’t want to be talking with you for the first time the next time children go overseas.”
As terror recruiting becomes easier in an increasingly connected world, there have been alarming cases of young Americans joining Islamic extremists across the county. Law enforcement and community leaders in Minneapolis, for example, have been working together for years after authorities learned in 2008 that small groups of young Somali men had gone back to their homeland to fight with the al-Qaida-linked terror group al-Shabab. A handful of others have to traveled to Syria in the last year take up arms with militants, and outreach efforts ramped up.
In Colorado, three girls from east African immigrant families, ages 15 to 17, were radicalized online, swapping messages with top Islamic State recruiters on Twitter and other social media sites.
At Thursday’s meeting, Hughes displayed pictures of dozens of young people lured in similar ways.
“All these kids were reachable before they crossed the line,” Hughes said. He showed photos of jihadist propaganda tailor-made for young, alienated Americans — the voice of a Malcolm X speech overlaid on images of bombed-out Middle Eastern villages, a riff on the millennial internet saying “YOLO” — You Only Live Once — converted to “YODO,” for You Only Die Once.
“Their audience is not 40-something guys, it’s our kids,” Hughes said. “They’re tricking our kids.”
The crowd sat quietly through most of the three-hour presentation. Since the girls were stopped last month the east African immigrant community has been on edge, and some parents asked how to deflect media attention. Others wanted to know how they could monitor their own children’s use of the internet after a Denver Public Schools teacher gave them a glimpse into the array of social media sites they might be using. She encouraged them to set rules for when their kids can be online.
Qusair Mohamedbhai, general counsel for the Colorado Muslim Society, who helped organize the meeting, said it was important to ensure people know what resources they have, and education efforts would continue. FBI officials planned to meet with school leaders and others as part of the plan. The meeting was similar to those held several years ago in Denver after concerns arose that young men were returning to Somalia to join the terror group al-Shabab.
“The adults that are here must take this message back to the youth,” said Abdur-Rahim Ali, imam of the Northeast Denver Islamic Center. “We have to be vigilant and consistent in educating the youth. It takes community effort.”
Ahmed Ferjani, 15, one of several teens in the audience, said the thought of his friends and classmates going overseas to fight was a scary prospect. Seeing FBI officials was a sign they were there to help and would likely make young people feel more comfortable coming forward with their concerns, said Ferjani, who stopped Ravenelle for a private chat after the meeting.
“I want to ask him to come speak at my school,” he said.
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