Skip to Main Content

Extremists a Click Away, UMass Lowell Students Out to Stop Them

Project aims to protect kids from terrorist appeals online

UMass Lowell junior Danielle Thibodeau, left, and sophomore Nicolette San Clemente talk about their work
UMass Lowell junior Danielle Thibodeau, left, and sophomore Nicolette San Clemente talk about their work at UML's Center for Terrorism and Security Studies. "Students need to learn how to be safe online and avoid radicalization," San Clemente said. "We need to start having important discussions with them."

Lowell Sun
By Rick Sobey

LOWELL -- A deflated teenager arrives with a fat lip and dirt on his collared shirt.

He then receives a text message: "That's what u get foreigner."

The teen reacts by logging on to Twitter and writing on the social network: "I'm so sick of America. It's AWFUL here. #Hateamerica #americasucks."

Moments later, he receives a direct message from a stranger; the random Twitter user tries to console the teen, writing that he'll always be there for him.

The stranger then sends him news articles about U.S. airstrikes in Syria. They continue their conversation on a more private messaging system.

Fast-forward and a government official is at the teen's home with handcuffs. The official opens the teen's bedroom's door; the teen looks like he has seen a ghost.

This is the scenario online visitors will witness in a powerful video completed by UMass Lowell students in the university's Center for Terrorism and Security Studies.

A group of 10 undergraduate students are working on an internship project sponsored by the Department of Defense called Peer 2 Peer -- a program that enlists the help of university groups in countering violent extremist organizations online. The P2P program is one of the government's flagship efforts to counter the persuasive messages of the Islamic State and other extremist organizations.

"It's to make people safer online, done by peers communicating to peers," said Neil Shortland, program manager at the UMass Lowell Center for Terrorism and Security Studies.

He's the group's faculty supervisor.

For the UMass Lowell students' project, they're focusing on the education and awareness of youths (aged 11 to 16) and their parents about the risks associated with being online -- and how to protect themselves from coming into contact with online violent extremist activities.

Nicolette San Clemente, 20, said the group chose this mission after noticing a void in the country's education system; youths are generally uneducated about the topic of terrorism and online violent extremism because of a multitude of reasons, she said.

For instance, it's a bit of a taboo subject, it's considered slightly edgy or possibly inappropriate, and it's generally not deemed necessary to talk about in school, according to the college sophomore.

Because of this lack of education, children are more vulnerable to stumbling upon nonfactual online information, and more susceptible to online radicalization/grooming by radicals, San Clemente said.

"When we don't talk about this with kids, then they'll find information in inappropriate ways," she said. "Terrorists can give them a place to belong, but we need to avoid that."

In the video that the group made for the project, they showed how children who have an emotional void -- or are seeking a sense of belonging -- may seek out a community "feeling" online. That's when terrorists can pounce on their vulnerabilities, San Clemente said.

"We show the grooming process and what recruiters will do," said Tyler Cote, 20, a junior. "Teenagers may find themselves talking to the wrong people."

At the end of the video, observers learn that 250 Americans have left to join ISIS. As a result, the UMass Lowell group is called Operation 250, and is hoping to prevent another 250 through education.

Their website, with the video on the home page, launched on Nov. 18. It has tabs for students, parents and educators, and provides valuable tips and education under each section.

"It's constantly being refined," Shortland said. "It's been reviewed by parents and teachers, who gave us great feedback to make it even better."

The group will soon be submitting their project to the Department of Homeland Security, proposing for the government to keep funding them. San Clemente's goal is to expand the project and "bring it to the next level" by getting it into classrooms.

"Students need to learn how to be safe online and avoid radicalization," she said. "We need to start having important discussions with them."

The group recently launched Twitter and Facebook pages. They hope to further expand their reach on social media to increase awareness about the issue.

To check out the group's project, visit