Local News

The terrorism research center behind the Coast Guard officer scoop

March 1, 2019
Seamus Hughes of George Washington University's Program on Extremism. Photo by Amanda Darrach.

Last Wednesday afternoon, Seamus Hughes stood in his driveway in the suburbs of Maryland, scraping snow off his car. He took a break, pulled his phone from a pocket, and indulged in his favorite pastime: trawling court documents. He saw something interesting: a detention memo showing that a lieutenant in the US Coast Guard, held in Maryland on drug and gun charges, had been stockpiling weapons and human growth hormone on the recommendation of a manifesto by Anders Breivik, a Norwegian terrorist who killed more than 70 people in 2011. The lieutenant, Christopher Hasson, planned to use “focused violence” to “establish a white homeland.” He also kept a hit list of media personalities and elected officials.

Hughes tweeted, and attached the memo. “Always troll the MJ court filings folks. Always,” he wrote. Soon, The Washington Post had the story, attributing it to the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, where Hughes is the deputy director. “Nobody ever wants to use Pacer,” Hughes tells me later, when we meet at his office. He blames the user interface (“God awful”) and the fact that journalists are siloed, and therefore too narrowly focused in their research. “The justice reporters only write about justice, the Russia reporters about Russia,” he says. “But that’s not how it works if you want to search Pacer.”

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Hughes, who is 35, is boyish in an Oxford and khakis. He and his boss, Lorenzo Vidino, consider the Program on Extremism an academic body, not a journalistic one. Yet their research and investigative work has repeatedly broken news that the press would have otherwise missed, from Julian Assange’s 2018 indictment to the Los Angeles City Council’s corruption investigation in January.

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Hughes specializes in documents on domestic terrorism, while Vidino, originally from Milan, spends more time in the field with primary sources. Since the program’s inception, in 2015, they have archived more than a million English-language tweets about ISIS. “Our work is ‘just the facts, ma’am,’” Hughes says. “But we love a good story. It makes the data matter to policy makers.”

For instance, when Hoda Muthana, a Yemeni-American terrorist, left home in the summer of 2015 to go to Turkey and then Syria, Hughes noted her activity on Twitter and met with her father in Dulles airport in Washington, DC to speak on background. At the time, there was not much reported on her. Last week, however, when Muthana appealed to return to the US, Hughes gave interviews to outlets including The New York Times, the Associated Press, ABC, and FOX about Muthana’s role in ISIS.

Hughes learned the value of sifting through documents in the aughts, when he was an intern with the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. He worked under Jim McGee, a former reporter who had spent eight years at the Miami Herald, where he broke the Gary Hart scandal and shared a Pulitzer for his work on the Iran-Contra story, and another decade at the Post. Hughes was impressed: “He’s a digger.”

Hughes followed his boss’s lead. Within two years, he had his own office. “My investigative skills translated very easily to Congressional oversight, but it’s an adversarial environment,” McGee says. “Seamus just got it.”

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The Program on Extremism makes as many documents as possible public, for the use of other academics, policy makers, and journalists. Hughes tweets out leads as soon as the team finds them; sometimes, he and his team will write their own stories. But there are ethical concerns: before revealing a new story, Hughes says, they contact the Department of Justice or the Federal Bureau of Investigation to consult about whether the material might compromise national security. Also important is keeping safe the people mentioned in the documents. For “ISIS Files,” a project Vidino is working on with the Times that will scour and translate 15,000 pages of internal Islamic State documents, they’ll spend a year analyzing the risks, in consultation with the Hoover Institute; the Genocide Archive for Rwanda; and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “We need to make these documents public, to fully understand what happened,” Vidino says. “But we don’t want anyone endangered.”

Hughes likes to forward pertinent documents to journalists at local papers. “They are the ones who deserve it,” he says. Hughes strives for a “symbiosis” with the press, he adds, and compares himself to a fixer. “They’ve got a first name of an American in a refugee camp, and we try to run it down, cross reference with our sources, make sure they’re ok with it.” Sometimes, he finds, his journalist contacts get frustrated when he tweets out findings, rather than share them confidentially, as with the Assange indictment.

A week after he broke the Hasson story, Hughes traveled to New York to deliver a Pacer training for the staff of Gizmodo. He advised focusing on four areas: Maryland, DC, Virginia, and central California. “That’s where you know you’re going to find terrorism cases,” he says. “Though you’re never going to break a story in DC. Our local news is too good.” He also recommended checking court dockets on the Fridays before national holidays. “That way they can hold suspects an extra day before they see the judge.”

For the Hasson story, Hughes went down to the federal courthouse in Greenbelt, Maryland, to attend the detention hearing. He was amazed by the number of reporters, who spilled over into an extra room. The scene made him think of a hearing he’d attended a year ago in Baltimore—“the only case yet of ISIS sending money to the US to commit an attack”—when he had been the only non-family member to show up. “I was beating my head trying to get anyone to care,” he recalls. This time, he realized, the story had all the right ingredients. “With Hasson, you’ve got a media hit list, which means the media cares,” he says. “You’ve got guns, a political aspect, presidential rhetoric. Wrap it all together and you get a story.”

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Amanda Darrach is a contributor to CJR and a visiting scholar at the University of St Andrews School of International Relations. Follow her on Twitter @thedarrach.