What Do Domestic Extremists And ISIS Have In Common? A Social Media Strategy People who stormed the Capitol were radicalized by what they consumed online and in social media. That should sound familiar: Ten years ago, ISIS used a similar strategy to lure Americans to Syria.

A Tale Of 2 Radicalizations

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/972498203/977332835" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


The youngest person charged so far in connection with the storming of the U.S. Capitol is expected to be released on bail this week. He's accused of breaching the Capitol, shoving a police officer and posting violent messages on social media. The teenager's political radicalization echoes that of another kind of extremism from the not-so-distant past. NPR investigative correspondent Dina Temple-Raston reports.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: Eighteen-year-old Bruno Cua traveled to Washington, D.C., from Georgia on January 5. His father was a great supporter of the former president; so was his mother. So they decided to attend the Trump rally together as a family. But the younger Cua was more passionate than his parents about Trump and the election. According to court documents, in December, one of his posts on social media allegedly read, I don't want to sit here in Georgia and watch. I want to fight. As he saw it, the 2020 election had been stolen, and he had to do something about it.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Stop the steal. Stop the steal.

TEMPLE-RASTON: The day of the Trump rally, the Cuas followed the crowd to the Capitol. They watched as a scuffle broke out on the stairs, and Bruno asked his parents if he could get a closer look.


TEMPLE-RASTON: Bruno Cua, it turns out, went much further than the Capitol steps. He went inside the building, and according to the government, when he ran into police outside the Senate chamber, he shoved them out of the way to get inside. Video footage places him there, just as one of the rioters was telling a handful of others they shouldn't be sitting in Vice President Mike Pence's chair. Bruno Cua responded like a typical 18-year-old.


BRUNO CUA: They can steal an election, but we can't sit in their chair?


TEMPLE-RASTON: If they can steal an election, he says, why can't we sit in their chairs? Prosecutors say Cua is a violent, true believer. They say he assaulted police and was carrying a collapsible baton as a weapon. His social media posts in the runup to the insurrection suggest that he was angry and primed for action. Cua's defense attorneys see it a little differently. They say their client was being fed a steady diet of far-right content and conspiracy theories, and he was duped into believing things that weren't true, which people who have studied radicalization say sounds a lot like what happened almost 10 years ago when another group of young people were radicalized in much the same way. But in that case, their focus was on ISIS.


ABDULLAHI YUSUF: I thought they were courageous, and I thought they were standing up for what they believed in, you know?

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's a young man named Abdullahi Yusuf. Back in 2014, when he was 18, he began following the Syrian Civil War. It eventually led him to join ISIS with a bunch of his friends in Minneapolis. I spoke to him a few years later for a podcast called "What Were You Thinking?" and I asked him why it happened.


YUSUF: I think you'd have a hard time talking me out of what I believed in at the time. We're the ones doing something noble.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Yusuf and his friends watched the ISIS videos over and over again.


YUSUF: I was mesmerized, you know? Like, I didn't even know they existed.

TEMPLE-RASTON: And he came to the conclusion that he couldn't just sit on the sidelines while women and children were dying in Syria. He came to believe that he was just like those fighters in those videos he kept watching.


YUSUF: It's just check, check, check, check. That's me, that's me, that's me, that's me. And, you know, sign me up.

TEMPLE-RASTON: And he would have made it to Syria if the FBI hadn't stopped him at the airport. Radicalization happens that fast. And while Abdullahi Yusuf and Bruno Cua might have been driven by very different ideologies, the process by which they became extremists was remarkably similar. For both of them, what they consumed online warped and narrowed their vision of the world. A stolen election had to be overturned in one case, and innocent Syrians had to be saved in the other.

SAM JACKSON: One of the interesting things about the current misinformation landscape is it's not necessarily uninformed people. It's misinformed people.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Sam Jackson is an assistant professor at the University at Albany.

JACKSON: It's people who say, I do my own research. I don't trust the elites. And their research is nonsense. It's sophisticated nonsense.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Jackson studies extremist groups and the way they use online propaganda to nibble away at a recruit's worldview. In Cua's case, the person who inspired him was the former president.


DONALD TRUMP: We fight like hell, and if you don't fight like hell, you're not going to have a country anymore.

TEMPLE-RASTON: For many people on January 6, the storming of the Capitol was about standing up for something. It was about a love of country. Jackson again.

JACKSON: This rhetoric about patriotism is causing me to realize more parallels with these folks and some of the jihadis who understand the world in this very strict good versus evil kind of way.

TEMPLE-RASTON: And when the world is black and white or right versus wrong, finding facts to fit that narrative is vital. Alexandra Minna Stern, a professor of American culture and politics at University of Michigan, says people find what they need online.

ALEXANDRA MINNA STERN: We in many ways are living in this post-truth era where whether it's a lie or a truth doesn't matter to many people. What matters is that whatever the alternative facts are, so-called, actually resonate and make sense to them.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Abdullahi Yusuf said that it took a while to understand how ISIS had duped him.


YUSUF: So many sad stories, you know? It's not - you don't hear any - I guarantee you, everyone who went there regrets it.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Bruno Cua has spent more than a month in jail. His lawyers say he was assaulted there, and he has tested positive for COVID-19. A judge decided last week that Cua can be released to his parents pending trial. That's supposed to happen on March 16, the day his COVID quarantine is over. Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.

Copyright © 2021 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.