By Brian Taff
Saturday, May 21, 2016 12:44AM
PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) —
So many people tend to think about ISIS as something that is both foreign and far away, but the truth is it’s neither of those things.
Counter-terrorism officials in the area say they are increasingly seeing ISIS influence, and that’s because getting to that group is not nearly as hard as one might imagine.
“I was challenging them in a totally different way that other people hadn’t challenged them to that point,” said Toby Lopez of Wilmington, Delaware.
In 2014, Lopez set out on what even he now admits was a very dangerous quest to satisfy his curiosity.
“I wanted to educate myself on what they were doing,” said Lopez.
But instead of searching for answers about these terrorists on Google, he wanted them straight from the source.
And a few clicks of the keyboard later, he says he got them.
“I had no doubt that these people were actively engaged in ISIS in Syria,” said Lopez.
Lopez, a car salesman from Delaware, says he was communicating with top ISIS commanders.
He then contacted the FBI, a back and forth ensued and, though all charges were eventually dropped, Lopez spent 14 months in federal prison, accused of threatening an agent.
But of everything that happened, he says among his biggest surprises was how easy it was to contact and engage ISIS.
“To put it simply, doors opened and I walked through them, and I wasn’t afraid to walk through them,” said Lopez.
It’s a phenomenon now well known to Philadelphia’s counter-terrorism forces.
What was once a dark road to radicalization is now a well-paved and high-tech path.
“ISIS has also put together the most sophisticated form of recruitment, and they are truly masters of social media,” said Sullivan.
And police say the message is seeping into Philadelphia.
The gunman behind the shooting of Officer Jesse Hartnett allegedly told police he did it in the name of ISIS.
And a man, who we interviewed for an unrelated story, was seen wearing what appears to be an ISIS sweatshirt.
He later told us it was not a sign of support.
‘To say that anything is not in your backyard is to be ignoring the modern world that we live in,” said Sullivan.
Local investigators say it’s the new reality. Anyone with interest and the Internet can reach out to terror groups or be reached by them.
And ISIS is putting a lot of effort into their outreach.
“60,000 tweets a day ISIL puts out. The Facebook pages and all these social media outlets,” said Sullivan.
Last Friday, hundreds attended midday prayers at the Germantown Masjid.
In his lesson, the Imam spoke about seeking knowledge of Islam to fight ISIS. People without understanding, he said, can be more easily influenced.
“Those people are rude and they are ignorant, and those people have arrogance with them,” said the Imam.
The Imam also distributes pamphlets – anti-ISIS literature – that he hopes carries his message beyond the walls of the mosque.
And police say they need all the help they can get.
“We’re behind the eight ball. We’re playing catch up,” said Sullivan.