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Former FBI agent E.J. Hilbert spent 18 months online pretending to be a Chechen teenager living in California.
Hilbert said he originally worked on cyber crime, identifying international hackers. After 9/11, he was moved to counterterrorism.
"To ingratiate myself with various different radical elements online," said Hilbert. His focus was an individual named Adam Gadahn, an American al Qaeda who was eventually charged with treason.
"I would try and get into these different groups, and I just tweaked my online profile as a Russian hacker to be a young Chechnyan named Ivan, who had been forced to America by his family," said Hilbert.
"Ivan" did not like America, was disaffected, and had converted to Islam. He was looking for someone to commiserate with.
The assignment went against everything Hilbert believed in, but he had to listen to the people he was meeting online.
"Eventually they start sharing things like how to make videos of bombs, recent convoys that had been destroyed in Afghanistan and Iraq from the bomber's point of view, how the bombs were loaded up," said Hilbert.
Hilbert was gathering was fantastic intelligence for the U.S. government, intelligence that could be traced back to their sources.
Hilbert posed as a Chechen, he said, because long before the U.S. had to deal with al Qaeda, the Russians dealt with al Qaeda during the Chechen revolt. Hilbert said his online identity worked from a language perspective, as well, because he did not have to speak Arabic to connect to the groups he was targeting.
Hilbert's online identities would change when the situation warranted.
"Sometimes you get found out, or people don't believe, so you have to tweak it around," said Hilbert. "Ivan was one name, I've used Alexei, I've used Vasily, I've used all types of various types of names until I got to the correct group, the truly radical individuals."