Graduate of Va.'s Oakton High charged with trying to join terrorist group

A man known for posting an online warning to the creators of "South Park" that they risked death by mocking the Prophet Muhammad was arrested Wednesday and charged with offering himself as a fighter to a Somali terror group linked to al-Qaida. (July 22)
By Spencer S. Hsu and Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, July 22, 2010

A 20-year-old Oakton High graduate who played football and rowed crew at the Fairfax County school was arrested Wednesday as an alleged terrorist recruit after he had been stopped on his way to join an al-Qaeda-linked group in Somalia, federal officials said.

Zachary Adam Chesser was barred July 10 from leaving New York City for Uganda on a multi-leg journey to join al-Shabab, an Islamist insurgency that wants to topple Somalia's weak central government, according to the FBI and papers filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Alexandria.

In diary entries, personal e-mails and interviews with federal agents detailed in court papers, Chesser described in haunting terms a two-year descent from a quiet and awkward suburban teenager to a willing "foreign fighter" for a designated terrorist group, which most recently claimed responsibility for bombings that killed 76 people in Uganda on July 11.

In doing so, Chesser -- who gained online notoriety in April for attacking the creators of the animated satire "South Park" for an irreverent depiction of the prophet Muhammad -- became the latest in a wave of homegrown terrorist suspects. Thirty-four Americans have been charged by U.S. authorities since January 2009 with direct involvement in international terrorism. The list includes would-be Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad.

Chesser, who was identified with a terrorist group for the first time, is charged with trying to join al-Shabab. There's no indication that he carried out any act of terrorism. But counterterrorism analysts warn that his evolution from propagandist to alleged terrorist-enlistee exemplifies the growing trend of young Americans whose passports and appearance make them valued potential operatives.

Another recent example includes five young men from the Alexandria area who were convicted in Pakistan of trying to join the fight against the United States in Afghanistan. Many of the suspects contacted al-Qaeda or related groups in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and other countries via the Internet, and slipped away from their families.

"The significance of this case is the proliferation of U.S. citizens who are becoming radicalized -- eating and drinking up propaganda and taking steps on behalf of terrorist causes," said a federal law enforcement official who spoke on condition that he not be named because he is not authorized to speak to the media.

Chesser was scheduled to appear in court Thursday morning, and court records listed no attorney. Megan Chesser, his stepmother, said the family would not comment. Relatives of his wife also declined to comment.

Chesser, a George Mason University dropout whose parents live in Centreville, told the FBI that he only recently became religious and grew a beard, took the name Abu Tallah Al-Amrikee and married a Muslim woman in 2009, according to court papers. He allegedly looked to online videos, chats and over-the-counter CDs "almost obsessively," before creating a stream of YouTube sites, blogs and postings spreading the call "to fight jihad," the papers say.

In particular, he said he exchanged e-mails directly with the Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Aulaqi, who helped direct Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's attempt to blow up a Detroit-bound plane on Christmas. U.S. authorities have designated the U.S.-born Aulaqi as a global terrorist and targeted him for killing.

In a July 13, 2009, e-mail sent from his GMU account and obtained by court order, Chesser asked Aulaqi "for an interpretation" of two dreams he had, explaining that he "had prayed to Allah to let him be in Al-Shabaab."

In an October 2009 diary entry obtained through a search warrant at his home, Chesser wrote, "I ask Allah to make [my writings] a source of inspiration as well as a real-life 'how-to-guide' on how to reach the fields of Jihad."

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