Arrests in terror plot stoke online extremism concerns

Adam Geller
Associated Press

Greece, N.Y. — A few months after turning 17 — and two years before he was arrested — Vincent Vetromile recast himself as an online revolutionary.

Offline, in this Rochester, New York suburb, Vetromile was studying heating and air conditioning at a community college. He spent hours with his father, working on cars.

On social media, though, the teenager spoke about reclaiming “our nation at any cost.” Eventually he subbed out the grinning selfie in his Twitter profile with the image of a colonial militiaman shouldering an AR-15 rifle. And he traded his name for a handle: “Standing on the Edge.”

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 calling himself Donald Trump’s biggest Canadian supporter. The final exchange came in December.

“Muslim No-Go Zones Are Springing Up Across America. Lock and load America!” the Canadian tweeted, with a map showing states with Muslim enclaves — including New York.

“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,” Vetromile replied.

Weeks later, when police charged Vetromile and three friends with plotting to attack the Muslim settlement of Islamberg in Delaware County, New York, it raised questions about ideology and young people — and technology’s role in bringing them together.

“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 assistant district attorney prosecuting the case. “I have no idea if their parents subscribe to any of these ideologies.”

Accused with Vetromile, 19, are Brian Colaneri, 20; Andrew Crysel, 18; and a 16-year-old the Associated Press isn’t naming because of his age. They’ve all pleaded not guilty. Parents or other relatives declined comment. Their attorneys did not return calls; in court some of them have chalked all this up to talk among buddies.

There is no indication the four had set a date for an attack, prosecutors say, and reports they had 23 guns are misleading; the weapons belonged to family members. Prosecutors allege the suspects discussed using those guns and explosive devices against Islamberg, where residents have faced harassment by right-wing activists who call the community a terrorist training camp. A Tennessee man was convicted in 2017 of plotting to burn Islamberg’s mosque.

Well beyond New York, the spread of extremism — and technology’s role — has sparked concern. A House committee questioned Google and Facebook executives recently about their platforms’ role in feeding hate crime. Experts point to algorithms used by search engines and social networks to prioritize content.

“Once you indicate an inclination, the machine learns,” said Jessie Daniels, a professor at New York’s Hunter College. “That’s exactly what’s happening on all these platforms … and it just sends some people down a terrible rabbit hole.”

There are few clues to explain how four with little experience beyond their high school years might have come up with the idea to attack Islamberg. What is clear, though, is the long thread of frustration in Vetromile’s online posts.

Where once those posts centered around video games and English class, by 2017 Vetromile was directing strong statements at Muslims. The Canadian account, belonging to one Mike Allen, seemed to push that button.

When Allen tweeted, “Czech politicians vote to let citizens carry guns, shoot Muslim terrorists on sight,” Vetromile responded: “We need this here!”