By Michael Riley
WASHINGTON — In 2006, a disaffected 22-year-old Chechen living in California spent 18 months trolling radical websites, eventually getting invited into private online forums where he watched bomb-making videos.
"Ivan" was actually a 30-something FBI agent named Ernest Hilbert, whose investigation provided federal agents with a window into online grooming that targeted young transplants living in U.S. cities.
"It used to be that the process had to be physical and now 90 percent or more can happen online," said Hilbert, 43, now a managing director for Kroll Advisory Solutions, the private security company.
Law enforcement officials said their early assumption is that the alleged Boston Marathon bombers acted alone and were motivated by a web-based radicalization that turned them from kids next door into self-taught militants willing to injure more than 260 people and kill three, including an eight-year-old boy.
Hilbert, whose online persona was remarkably similar to the real lives of the two suspects — brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who arrived from the Russian Caucasus in 2002 — said "self-taught" doesn't mean the bombers had no help on their journey to militancy.
As he spent months posing on the Internet as a Chechen increasingly drawn to militant Islam, Hilbert's alter ego was engaged by others in long conversations on Skype chat or in web forums. They told him to draw on the tenets of the Koran and his Chechen roots as an antidote to the injustices he experienced as an immigrant.
Some of those conversations became regular interactions. Eventually, he was sent links to videos on how to build a bomb and demonstrations of the damage those devices inflicted on U.S. troops abroad.
The agent was never given a specific mission. Instead, he was encouraged to find his own ways to act on his beliefs.