Prosecutors say Benjamin Carpenter led what experts describe as one of the most notable English-language publications to boost Islamic State propaganda.
(CN) — An East Tennessee man the FBI arrested at the end of March allegedly led one of the better-known English-language publications in the orbit of the Islamic State group, according to extremism experts who monitor the group.
Federal prosecutors have accused Benjamin Carpenter, 31, of providing translation and transcription services to the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, and running Ahlut-Tawhid Publications, an organization with international connections.
That publication, experts said, is not a member of the terrorist group’s official propaganda machine, nor was it part of the group of supporters who shared the occasional piece of Islamic State media online. Instead, Ahlut-Tawhid Publications is one of the publications that sit somewhere in the middle of the Islamic State propaganda ecosystem, repackaging content to an English-speaking audience.
The Islamic State, an offshoot of Al-Qaida, rocketed to infamy in 2014, seizing territory in Iraq and Syria. It made itself known through its shocking propaganda, such as videos of beheadings and gruesome executions, that spread via social media. In the years that followed, the group lost its territory and its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has died, though it has seen some growth in Africa.
Its presence online has shrunk, thanks to action from social media companies, for instance.
“During this process, unofficial media outlets and individuals have come to play a greater part in the production and dissemination of propaganda,” Tore Hamming, who runs the Copenhagen-based consultancy Refslund Analytics, wrote in an email.
Hamming said Ahlut-Tawhid Publications started around fall 2017 but its activity has dropped off recently.
“ATP specialized in producing its own propaganda texts and translating ideological Islamic State material from Arabic to English to make it available to a Western audience,” Hamming said.
In English, “Ahlut Tawhid” means “people of oneness,” a reference to monotheism, Hamming said.
According to court documents, an FBI online covert employee had entered a group message on the encrypted messaging service Telegram made up of members of Ahlut Tawhid Publications and posed as someone from the Islamic State’s media organization Diwan.
The FBI asked Carpenter to translate a 25-minute video that showed Islamic State fighters carrying out a suicide bombing, battling with Egyptian troops and executing three prisoners. Prosecutors say Carpenter agreed to provide an English transcript of the video.
The FBI arrested Carpenter, who went by the name Abu Hamza, on March 24 in Knoxville, Tennessee. Last week, U.S. Magistrate Judge Debra Poplin ordered Carpenter detained before his trial, which is scheduled to begin June 1.
“Defendant has attempted to engage in assisting an extremely violent international terrorist organization and has demonstrated his history of support through his communications and personal documents,” Poplin wrote in the April 7 order.
During an April 5 detention hearing, Carpenter’s mother testified that he could live with her without any access to the internet, and the public defender appointed to represent Carpenter cited his dearth of criminal history.
But Poplin decided Carpenter was a flight risk. The judge noted he could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted, he worked at most 10 hours a week and has a “sophisticated knowledge of encrypted messaging applications.”
Furthermore, Poplin noted prosecutors said Carpenter regularly communicated with an Islamic State recruiter named Mohamad Ameen and he communicated with an Australian member of ATP incarcerated on the other side of the world for terrorism offenses.
Hamming, the Denmark-based consultant, said while ATP is large and may continue to produce content despite arrests of some of its members, Carpenter’s arrest may lead to other ATP members being unveiled.
Rita Katz, executive director of SITE Intelligence Group, said in an email that ATP was a respected publication in the community of Islamic State supporters and “to disrupt a group like [ATP] is in many ways to disrupt ISIS itself.”
In the short term, however, the disclosure by federal prosecutors that an FBI employee posed as a member of the Islamic State online to nab Carpenter has left English-speaking ISIS supporters in online chats rattled.
“That’s the worst possible outcome for an ISIS supporter: to think that they are talking to someone in ISIS, and to find out that they’re actually talking to someone [in the] FBI. That’s the thing that has essentially scared a number of English-language supporters of ISIS that I follow,” said Charlie Winter, a senior research fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation in London.
Winter said while third-party publications engaging in what the group calls “media jihad” may help create a movement around Islamic State ideology, it is unclear how strategically important they are to it. Furthermore, English-speaking supporters can get their pro-ISIS content from any number of sources still out there, he noted.
He said Carpenter’s arrest is significant because it demonstrates the capabilities of the FBI.
“English-speaking ISIS supporters will get their content in a hundred, a thousand other ways,” Winter said.