A young JewishÂ American man has been charged with pretending to be an Australian-based Islamic State jihadistÂ after aÂ FBI joint investigation with the Australian Federal Police based on information provided by Fairfax Media.
Joshua RyneÂ Goldberg, a 20-year old living at his parents’ house in USÂ state of Florida, is accused ofÂ posing online as “Australi Witness,” an IS supporterÂ who publicly called for a series of attacks against individuals and events in western countries.
In recent days AustraliÂ WitnessÂ hasÂ claimed onlineÂ thatÂ he is working with other jihadists to plan attacks in Australia and the United States.Â He distributed pictures of a bombÂ that he was working on with “2 lbs of explosives inside”.
Early on Friday, Australian time,Â Goldberg, who is non-Muslim and has no real-world links with extremism,Â was arrested at his home by Florida police forÂ “distribution of information relating to explosives, destructive devices, and weapons of mass destruction”.
AustralianÂ national security and citizenshipÂ laws were strengthened last year to create a new offence of advocating terrorism, partly to stop online recruitment of jihadists, and Prime Minister Tony Abbott earlier this year allocated significant funding to security agencies because “too many Australians are being brainwashed online by this death cult”.
However, one of those apparent representatives of Islamic State has now been revealed as an America-based, non-Muslim online hoaxer.
The Australian Federal Police do not intend to apply for Goldberg’s extradition, but said in a statement that he faced a 20-year prison term if convicted.
“Investigations by the AFP in June 2015 established no initial threat to the Australian community. When investigations determined it was likely the person responsible for these threats was based in the United States, the investigation became the jurisdiction of the FBI, with the AFP in a support role.”
AFP Acting Deputy Commissioner National Security Neil GaughanÂ alleged Goldberg had “relied on the internet providing a cloak of anonymity”.
“This operation again highlights how law enforcement can investigate people in the online space and use our long-established partnerships to work with overseas agencies to bring people to account for their actions”.
An affidavit sworn at the time of the arrestÂ says that, betweenÂ August 19 and August 28, Mr Goldberg “distributed information pertaining to the manufacturing of explosives, destructive devices, or weapons of mass destruction in furtherance of an activity that constitutes a Federal crime of violence”.
USÂ Attorney Lee Bentley III, saidÂ Goldberg instructed a confidential source how to make a bomb similar to two used in the Boston Marathon bombings two years ago that killed three people and injured more than 260Â others.
He allegedlyÂ instructed someone how toÂ fill the bombÂ with nails, metal and other items dipped in rat poison.
Police base the charge on his communication of five web linksÂ toÂ sites that provided instructions that could be used to make explosivesÂ as part of a plot to explode a bomb on September 13 at a memorial ceremony in Kansas City, commemorating the 9/11 the terrorist attacks.
The affidavit, released by Special agent William Berry of US Customs and Border Protection, says that Goldberg had initially denied to officers that he had any involvement with distributing information on how to make a bomb, but then later admitted it.
“Goldberg further admitted that he believed the information would create a genuine bomb,” Agent Berry alleged.
However, Goldberg also claimed that he meant for the person he was communicating with to either kill himself creating the bomb or, that Goldberg intended to warn police in timeÂ so that he would receive “credit for stopping the attack”.
In conversations with Fairfax Media, which were also cited in the affidavit, Mr Goldberg had said he did not expect any jihadist to actually carry out an attack because: “These guys are pussy keyboard warriors”.
Fairfax media can also reveal that Goldberg, as AustraliÂ Witness, is suspectedÂ of a number of other online hoaxes, including posing online as prominent Australian lawyer, Josh Bornstein.
Australi Witness’sÂ online actions might have had fatal real-world consequences in May.
In the leadup to an exhibition in Garland, Texas, at whichÂ pictures of the Prophet Mohammed were to be displayed, “Australi Witness”Â tweeted the event’s addressÂ and reposted a tweet urging people to go there with “weapons, bombs or with knifes”.
Two Muslim men attempted an attack at the exhibition, andÂ were killed by police.Â Australi Witness then praised them online as martyrs.
Australi WitnessÂ also urged followers to target Australian cartoonist Larry Pickering, who has previously depicted the Prophet Mohammed.
The Australi WitnessÂ persona fooled members of the international intelligence community as well as journalists, with well-known analyst Rita Katz of SITE Intelligence Group saying the “IS supporter”Â held a “prestige” position in online jihadi circles and was “part of the hard core of a group of individuals who constantly look for targets for other people to attack”.
Ms Katz has previously acted as a consultant for US and foreign governments and testified before Congress on online terrorist activities.
The Australian Federal Police were unaware of Australi Witness’s realÂ identity as GoldbergÂ until contacted by journalists working on behalf of Fairfax Media.
In theÂ Bornstein hoax, GoldbergÂ established a blog on the Times of Israel in the lawyer’s name before posting an inflammatory article calling for the “extermination” of Palestinians. The Times retracted the article and apologised, and Bornstein went public with the story saying “I deplore racismâ€¦I’ve fought racism since I was four years old”.
When confronted, Goldberg boasted he had avoided detection, saying, “That guy has no idea. He thinks [online radical right wing website] Daily Stormer did it.” He also said he wanted to obtain Bornstein’s real life address, in order to “freak him out even more”.
In conversations and in articles written under his real name, Goldberg repeatedly professedÂ to be an advocate for free speech, and showedÂ disdain for organisations and individuals who call for limits on hate speech or hate speech laws.
AsÂ Australi Witness, heÂ publicly linked himself toÂ Amnesty International, saying that he used to work there. The fake jihadi also claimed a friendship with anti-Islamophobia campaigner MariamÂ Veiszadeh, but only to smear her reputation.
In online conversations, Goldberg said:Â “I wanna smear Amnesty and Mariam Veiszadehâ€¦Amnesty is already in hot water over their links to CAGE, I wanna cement their jihadist connections and ruin their reputation. And Mariam is a Muslim whore, so smearing her as a jihadist should be easy.”
Ms VeiszadehÂ said she was not suprised at Goldberg’s arrest, saying she had “fallen within his radar” because of the campaign by an anti-Muslim hate group, theÂ Australian Defence League, whoÂ campaigned to “incite hatred and violence towards me from across the globe.”
Mr Bornstein declined to comment.
Elise Potaka is a journalist for SBS