Terror suspect took his desire to belong to the extreme

By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 25, 2010

Long before 20-year-old Zachary Adam Chesser embraced the cause of jihad, he was passionate about the heavy metal music of Marilyn Manson, the anime culture of Japan and the kinetic energy of American break dancing.

Chesser spent his years at Oakton High School trying out a variety of identities, friends said, before transforming himself into the bearded, robed young man who was arrested by the FBI last week for allegedly trying to join an al-Qaeda-linked terrorist group in Somalia.

"Zac" to his high school friends, "Abu Talhah Al-Amreeki" to those he met after converting to Islam, he seems to have spent his adolescence looking for a place to belong.

"He was always trying to find himself," said Drew Harrington, a friend from high school.

After his arrest, old classmates posted incredulous messages on Facebook. He'd been taken into custody 11 days after he tried to board a flight to Uganda, the first stop in a journey to join al-Shabab, an Islamic terrorist group trying to oust Somalia's weak central government, according to court papers.

But those who knew Chesser weren't entirely surprised by the intensity of his sudden devotion to Islam.

"If he'd get interested in something, he'd really get into it," said James Chung, who was in the gifted and talented program with Chesser at Kilmer Middle School in Vienna.

Back then, Chung said, Chesser admired Manson, the metal singer whose lyrics were often vilified by parents for references to sex and violence. Chesser began wearing a Manson T-shirt, playing guitar and growing his hair long, which earned him the nickname "Rapunzel."

At Oakton High School, Chesser joined the freshman basketball and football teams and was involved in crew. Teammates affectionately called him "Cheese."

"He was the nicest guy on the team," said Justin Otley, who played basketball with him. "He was freakishly intelligent."

In class and in the locker room, he often expressed opposition to the war in Iraq. "He would always just say how messed up it was, how we're not supposed to be there, how it was messing things up, how this was going to be bad for America in the long run," Otley recalled. "He always talked about it like it bothered him."

He had plenty of interests beyond politics. He loved Japanese anime, studied Japanese and traveled to Japan on a student trip, classmates said. Senior year, he was the only non-Asian member of the school's break-dancing club. Most of the other break-dancers were of Korean descent.

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