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How to Prosecute an Internet Troll

Was ‘Australi Witness’ a troll or a terrorist?

On May 3, 2015, two men dressed in body armor and armed with assault rifles approached the Curtis Culwell Event Center in the Dallas suburb of Garland, Texas, where 200 people had gathered for a Prophet Muhammed Art Exhibit and Cartoon Contest.

Elton Simpson and Nadir Soofi, roommates from Phoenix, arrived just as the event was ending. CNN reported they got out of a dark-colored sedan and began shooting — hitting an unarmed security guard in the leg. A police officer working security at the event returned fire with his service pistol, killing both of the gunmen before they could hurt anyone else.

The FBI would later discover that Simpson had posted “May Allah accept us as mujahideen” on Twitter just before the attack, pledging loyalty to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. ISIS later claimed responsibility in its news bulletin, calling the gunmen “two soldiers of the Caliphate.”

Just days before the shooting in Garland, an Australian “soldier of IS,” who went by Australi Witness (@AusWitnessAU) on Twitter, had posted a map to the “Draw Muhammed” event and encouraged “US brothers” to be aware of it.

“Pls go there with your weapons, bombs or with knives,” read a message he retweeted.

A month later, Australi Witness posted a new statement, claiming credit for “inspiring the attacks in Garland, Texas, where two mujahideen entered an event mocking the Prophet Muhammad with intent to “slaughter the kuffar in it,” using the Arabic word for non-Muslims.

But Australi Witness, the supposed big, bad mujahid from Perth, was actually a 20-year-old Jewish kid named Joshua Ryne Goldberg — who lived with his parents in Orange Park, Florida. He was also what you might call a troll.

Photos of Goldberg reveal a soft, bespectacled nerd-type with long, stringy hair — he bears a passing resemblance to Valve software founder Gabe Newell, worshipped by many a gamer on Reddit. Online, though, his jihadi persona had been so convincing that SITE — a U.S. intelligence firm specializing in white supremacists and jihadis — said he held “prestige” in jihadi circles, describing him as “part of the hard core of a group of individuals who constantly look for targets for other people to attack.”

Pretending to be part of ISIS was only the tip of Goldberg’s deep iceberg of internet trolling.

His politics appeared to fall right along the cultural axis of Gamergate — the pustular, anti-feminist social movement that erupted out of the video game community in 2014 — and the Chanterculture, seen on free-for-all imageboards 4chan and 8chan.

These conservative movements share Goldberg’s disdain for “Social Justice Warriors,” as well as his free-speech absolutism. They tend to view any attempt to regulate trolling and harassment as an unacceptable limit on speech. For example, Gamergaters and others bailed from 4chan, long seen as the internet’s primary hub for serious trolling hobbyists, in early 2015 after its administrators started enforcing some light anti-harassment regulations. Many headed to 8chan, which has an ethos of absolute non-censorship within the bounds of U.S. law.

Goldberg’s targets were those he perceived as censorious opponents of free speech — progressives, feminists and Social Justice Warriors; human rights organizations; Muslim extremists; neo-Nazis; an Australian Jewish lawyer named Joshua Bornstein; and the entire states of Israel and Australia, for that matter.

Goldberg went after his targets using a variety of “online personas” as the Daily Beast reported: “an Islamic radical who was popular in ISIS social media; a white supremacist on hate site Daily Stormer; a feminist on Daily Kos; a radical free-speech advocate on Q&A site, and a sympathizer with GamerGate.” Though his attorney declined to tell me exactly how many fake identities Goldberg was juggling, he also impersonated real people, most notably, Bornstein — the Jewish lawyer and writer from Melbourne. In April, an aggressively anti-Palestinian editorial calling for violence appeared in the Times of Israel under Bornstein’s name. It was fake, and Bornstein suspected he had been set up by neo-Nazis.

Goldberg later bragged to journalists about framing and fooling Bornstein.

“That guy has no idea. He thinks Daily Stormer did it,” Goldberg told freelance reporter Luke McMahon.

Goldberg also used Twitter ads to antagonize Australian feminist activist Caitlin Roper. The promoted tweets he bought under Roper’s name referred to trans people as “trannies” and suggested they kill themselves. Roper was a favorite target of angry gamers and “men’s rights” groups, and had written extensively about her experiences with online harassment.

An anonymous poster on 4chan (in retrospect, probably Goldberg) boasted about framing Roper with the bogus ads, calling her “an Ausfailian feminazi who is involved in all sorts of censorship campaigns,” adding, “she was the one who started the campaign to get GTA V [the bestselling video game Grand Theft Auto V] banned from Ausfailia.”

It’s no coincidence that, despite being American, Goldberg’s best-known trolling targets and his fake Jihadi character were all Australian. Goldberg had a special fixation on the country and what he apparently perceived as its backward and repressive government. He told journalists he thought Australia was the most “anti-freedom of speech country in the English speaking world,” beholden to an “unspeakably stupid” left wing.

It would be Goldberg’s fascination with Australia that eventually got him caught.

The two journalists who unmasked Australi Witness, Elise Potaka and Luke McMahon, wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald that they first made contact with Goldberg in April 2015 after he set up a fake Facebook account using Potaka’s name and Twitter photo.

She found out about the fake account from one of her contacts, Saudi-Australian Junaid Thorne, described by Sydney Morning Herald as “a young Muslim preacher with connections to IS supporters.” At some point, Thorne found himself chatting on Facebook with two Potakas — one was real, and the other turned out to be Joshua Goldberg.

Thorne had recently been impersonated online — a high-profile hoax that fooled dozens of jihadis — and he quickly warned Potaka that the same thing appeared to be happening to her.

When Potaka and Thorne compared notes, they discovered that their respective Facebook impostors only had one friend: Joshua Goldberg.

Working with McMahon, the freelance reporter, Potaka decided to confront her troll online. McMahon met with Goldberg in a private Internet Relay Chat (IRC) chatroom, and according to McMahon’s Morning Herald piece and information he turned over to the FBI, Goldberg was quick to admit everything. He confessed to the Bornstein hoax in the Times of Israel; the Caitlin Roper hoax; operating under several fake identities; and most importantly, the online activities of Australi Witness.

But Goldberg didn’t seem worried that he’d been found out. He boasted to McMahon about framing the neo-Nazis for his Bornstein caper and fooling journalists by pretending to be a fake Aussie jihadist.

“Too many [journalists] to list,” he told McMahon, “and some ‘terrorism experts’ commented on it too. One of them said I was a senior ISIS recruiter.”

“Are you not all at concerned by the way that some of these jihadi nutcases might actually kill someone at your behest?” McMahon asked at one point.

Goldberg was not. “These guys are pussy keyboard warriors,” he responded.

But while McMahon was chatting up Goldberg, so was one of those “jihadi nutcases.” And, according to the FBI, Goldberg was giving that nutcase the instructions to build a pressure cooker bomb and detonate it in a Kansas City stair-climb on the 14th anniversary of 9/11.

“Have you decided what kind of attack to carry out on 9/11, akhi?” Goldberg-as-Australi Witness wrote on August 20, addressing his chat partner with the Arabic word for brother. “I was thinking a bombing.”

“Yes I’m leaning towards that too. I’ve been getting excited about this,” replied an unnamed Jihadi, who claimed to live near Kansas City.

Four days later, the two were chatting again, planning out the details of an attack.

“Where will the most people be in Kansas City on 9/11? That’s where we need to target,” Australi Witness suggested.

His co-conspirator said he didn’t know — he lived an hour away and didn’t visit often. But then Australi Witness came up with their ideal target: the Kansas City Stair Climb — a memorial event commemorating 9/11 “where firefighters from the Kansas City region and members of the community participate in a stair climb to honor New York City’s first responders.”

He then instructed the mujahid to build a pressure cooker bomb and fill it with nails dipped in rat poison, to cause maximum carnage.

“Get FAR away from the bomb, brother,” Australi Witness wrote. “There’s going to be chaos when it goes off. Shrapnel, blood, and panicking kuffar [non-Muslims] will be everywhere.”

“Indeed, akhi,” his unnamed conspirator answered. “The kuffar will speak our names with terror in their voices.”

But the Kansas City attack Goldberg instructed never happened. Goldberg’s anonymous terrorist contact was an FBI confidential informant, not a burgeoning jihadi bomber. Thanks to that informant, the bureau had been monitoring Goldberg’s online activities, and agents were already watching his family’s home in the Jacksonville suburbs, looking for signs that he was inside.

Goldberg didn’t show himself for weeks — agents only saw a shadow moving inside the house, but couldn’t confirm it was him. Finally, he came outside to let a construction crew into the garage. The FBI obtained a warrant and made its move.

Joshua Goldberg was arrested on September 9, 2015, for allegedly providing instructions to build an explosive device intended for use in a terrorist attack.

Despite the extensive online record of Goldberg’s activities, prosecuting him is much less straightforward than it might appear.

On one hand, he told the FBI when he was arrested that he believed his “jihadist” contact “did intend to create functioning bombs and would actually attempt to use them to kill and injure persons.” On the other, he’d told McMahon months before that he believed the jihadis Australi Witness interacted with were “pussy keyboard warriors” who would never follow through on their threats.

Even the statements he made to the FBI after his arrest — apparently after he’d waived his right to have an attorney present — were far from consistent.

“In general, Joshua Goldberg claimed that he intended for the individual to either kill himself creating the bomb or, if not, that he intended to alert law enforcement just prior to the individual detonating the bomb, resulting in Joshua Goldberg to receive credit for stopping the attack,” reads an FBI affidavit.

After his arrest, he told a court psychiatrist he had been trying to gather intelligence on terrorists in hopes of becoming a journalist or working with the FBI.

Were we wrong all along? Was Australi Witness an anti-jihadist who was trying to blow up ISIS from the inside? Was he a sophisticated troll or was he really a terrorist?

Thus far, Goldberg’s case hasn’t gone before a grand jury. In December, a federal judge declared him not competent to stand trial after an initial one-month mental health evaluation. Dr. Lisa Feldman, the forensic psychiatrist who evaluated him, testified that he showed signs of a disorder “on the schizophrenia spectrum” and harbored “very paranoid, suspicious ideas and a feeling that other people wanted to harm him.” In her judgment, he wasn’t fit to participate in his own defense.

Goldberg was ordered to undergo a second, longer evaluation — four months, this time — to determine his mental state now and whether he was sane at the time of his alleged offense.

Goldberg’s attorney, Paul Shorstein, tells me over the phone that even if Goldberg’s online presence read as typical troll, not mentally unstable, that doesn’t mean he’s competent to stand trial. There are defendants, Shorstein said, who “may be normal in some sense,” but their brains don’t function in such a way that they’re able to understand and assist in a complex criminal defense.

For example, the defendant could appear not to understand the legal situation he’s gotten himself into, which Feldman felt was the case with Goldberg.

His psychiatric evaluation, released through a Freedom of Information Act request filed by several news organizations, describes him as suffering from “grandiosity” and “delusions of persecution.”

If Goldberg is later found competent and the case does go to trial, law blogger Ken White of Popehat doesn’t like his chances. White argues Goldberg had a viable defense, but threw it away through his own statements when he was arrested.

“Goldberg could have engaged in the troll’s typical defense — that he knew that [the FBI’s source] wasn’t a real terrorist and was stringing him along. I wouldn’t want to go to a jury with that, but it’s colorable,” White wrote. “But Goldberg blew that defense by talking to the FBI when they raided his house.”

Currently, the only charge against Goldberg is distributing the explosives instructions. And to convict for that, a prosecutor would have to convince a jury Goldberg believed his jihadi confidant would actually go through with the plan to build and use a bomb.

In White’s opinion, Goldberg gave the prosecution everything he needed when, according to the affidavit against him, he “stated that he believed that the individual did intend to create functioning bombs and would actually attempt to use them to kill and injure persons.”

But Goldberg’s attorney, Shorstein, says it’s not that simple.

“We don’t think the evidence is going to show that he’s a terrorist,” he tells me, describing his client as “someone who likes to get on various websites and start discussions, get people riled up, that kind of thing.”

Despite his many online faces, Goldberg might not be that hard to explain: at heart, he might be a simple troll defending a simple principle: woe to anyone who tells him what he can or cannot say. Or, as BuzzFeed writer Joe Bernstein puts it when describing the reactionary Chanterculture, perhaps he just had “an ironclad belief in the duty to say hideous things.”

If Goldberg’s case does ever make it to trial, Shorstein told the court in December, he plans to pursue an insanity defense.

Meanwhile, Goldberg was put on suicide watch at a detention center in Miami where, Feldman said, he had stopped washing himself. He has insisted repeatedly that he needs to be in a hospital, not in prison.