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Graduate of Va.'s Oakton High charged with trying to join terrorist group
He said he stopped talking with his mother, who received death threats for his "South Park" posting, while his mother-in-law hid his wife's passport to prevent her from going overseas with him.
"These allegations underscore the need for continued vigilance against homegrown terror threats," U.S. Attorney Neil H. MacBride said in a statement.
"We can't fight terrorists alone," said Shawn Henry, assistant director in charge of the FBI's Washington Field Office. "Religious leaders of all faiths, family members and particularly the younger members of our communities need to speak up and speak out against individuals who participate in actions like those alleged here."
In April, Chesser wrote about "South Park's" creators on the Revolution Muslim blog, posting, "We have to warn Matt [Stone] and Trey [Parker] that what they are doing is stupid and they will probably wind up like Theo Van Gogh," a Dutch filmmaker killed in 2004 after he attacked the treatment of women in Islamic society.
"This is not a threat, but a warning of the reality of what will likely happen to them," he wrote.
Court filings do not say what first drew Chesser to the FBI's attention. But he was interviewed by Special Agent Paula G. Menges in May and June 2009. Chesser told her that he had created YouTube sites such as AlQuranWaAlaHadeeth and Themujahidblog.com, and posted numerous videos and chats advocating his desire to "LearnTeachFightDie" for Islam, as one of his usernames stated, according to court papers.
Chesser had tried to travel to Somalia via Kenya in November 2009 to join al-Shabab but decided against it because his mother-in-law hid the passport belonging to his wife, Proscovia Nzabanita, the court papers say.
After being told he was on the no-fly list July 10, Chesser was released. It is not clear where he went, but he contacted Menges again July 14, saying he had planned to join al-Shabab but had a "change of heart" after the Ugandan bombings, the court papers say.
Chesser said he planned to travel to Uganda by way of Dubai and Ethiopia, and from there, go to Kenya and bribe a border guard for as little as $20 to enter Somalia, court papers say. In court-ordered wiretaps, he told his wife that he would be in Uganda for a day and would fly with their infant son as part of his "cover."
He told the FBI that al-Shabab wanted laptops and cameras and planned six-week boot camps starting after Ramadan, the Muslim holiday, this fall.
Ibrahim Al-Khalaf, a 2009 graduate of Oakton High School and a former president of the Muslim Students Association, said he thought Chesser converted to Islam his senior year. "He was a really nice kid. He smiled at everybody," Al-Khalaf said.
But Chesser criticized other students' faith at MSA meetings. "We were more liberal, and we used to try to educate everybody and create a positive environment," Al-Khalaf said. "But Zach would say, 'If you do this, you are going to hell. If you do that, you are going to hell.' "
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.