A 20-year-old Jewish man from Florida, who pretended to be an Australian-based Islamic State supporter online, has been charged by the FBI with “distributing information pertaining to the manufacturing of explosives, destructive devices, or weapons of mass destruction”, after information was passed on to the Australian Federal Police by SBS journalist Elise Potaka, and freelance journalist Luke McMahon.
Joshua Ryne Goldberg has been accused of posing as ‘Australi Witness’, an IS supporter who publicly called for attacks on individuals and events in western countries. He had claimed to be working with jihadis to plan attacks in both Australia and the US, and sent images to the journalists purporting to show a pressure-cooker bomb that he was working on.
Goldberg was arrested at his home, where he lives with his parents and sister, on Friday morning Australian time. An affidavit sworn in the case says that Goldberg is being investigated for suspected involvement in the “illegal distribution of information relating to explosives, destructive devices, and weapons of mass destruction, in violation of Title 18, United States Code, Section 842(p)”.
Goldberg is accused of providing web links with bomb-making instructions to a confidential source, with the plan of carrying out an attack at a memorial in Kansas City commemorating the attacks on September 11, 2001.
The affidavit, signed by Special agent William Berry of US Customs and Border Protection, says that after his arrest, Goldberg admitted that he “provided the individual with instructions on how to create a pressure cooker bomb”, and that he told them to include “nails and to dip the nails in rat poison”. However, he also stated that he intended the bomb to kill the individual who detonated it, or if not, that he “intended to alert law enforcement” prior to the event.
Australi Witness's online actions may already have resulted in real-world consequences.
In the lead up to an exhibition in Garland, Texas, at which pictures of the Prophet Mohammed were to be displayed, "Australi Witness" tweeted the event's address and reposted a tweet urging people to go there with "weapons, bombs or with knifes."
Two Muslim men attempted an attack at the exhibition, and were killed by police. Australi Witness then praised them as martyrs.
Goldberg, posing as the hardened jihadi, had also previously claimed he was planning an attack in Melbourne.
As well as ‘Australi Witness’, Joshua Goldberg is believed to behind a string of other online hoaxes. In conversations with freelance journalist Luke McMahon, Goldberg admitted he was behind an attack on prominent Melbourne employment lawyer, Josh Bornstein.
Using Bornstein’s name, Goldberg established a blog on the Times of Israel, and posted an inflammatory article calling for the "extermination" of Palestinians. The Times retracted the article and apologised, and Bornstein went public with the story saying "I deplore racism…I've fought racism since I was four years old".
When confronted, Goldberg boasted he had avoided detection, saying, "That guy has no idea. He thinks Daily Stormer (US neo-Nazi website) did it." He also said he wanted to obtain Bornstein's real life address, in order to "freak him out even more".
In conversations and articles written under his real name, Goldberg repeatedly professed to be an advocate of free speech and criticised organisations and individuals who have called for limits on hate speech or hate speech laws. Josh Bornstein has advocated in this area.
He linked the Australi Witness accounts to Amnesty, saying that the ‘jihadi’ used to work for the organisation. He told journalist Luke McMahon that he wanted to “smear Amnesty”, for their advocacy around limits on hate speech.
The AFP was unaware of Goldberg’s real identity until information was passed onto them by SBS journalist Elise Potaka and freelance journalist Luke McMahon. They quickly acted on the information, sharing it with their US counterparts and supporting the investigation.