Terror suspect took his desire to belong to the extreme

By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 25, 2010; C01

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.

Chesser said he didn't mind when his fellow club members spoke Korean with each other. "One of the advantages of break dancing was the girls," he said in a yearbook profile. "Girls would think it was cool."

But by senior year, friends said, he was interested in only one girl, a quiet one who wore a headscarf.

"The Islam thing started senior year," Harrington said. "He started dating this Muslim girl . . . They dated for most of the year," and the relationship affected his decision about where to attend college. "He was supposed to go to, I think it was Temple, but he went to [George Mason University] so he could stay in the area with her."

Speaking from the doorway of her Fairfax County apartment, the young woman, dressed in a headscarf, tunic and jeans, acknowledged that she had dated Chesser in high school. The woman, who didn't want her name associated with the terror suspect , confirmed that he had chosen George Mason to be near her but said the relationship ended after his first semester there.

She declined to speak about his conversion to Islam or the cause of the breakup and said she had not been in touch with him in the past year. "I'm just trying to forget him," she said.

Soon after their split, Chesser met another Muslim woman, married her and quickly had a son.

Increasing militancy

When members of Oakton High School's Muslim Students Association heard that a "white guy" was interested in Islam, they embraced him.

"He was a really nice kid, very social and easygoing," said Ibrahim Al-Khalaf, president of the club. He graduated in 2009, a year after Chesser.

But after Chesser started college, he grew a beard, began wearing a jalabiya, a traditional robe, and returned to the high school to lecture MSA members, revealing his increasingly rigid view of Islam.

"It was about dress, about guys not wearing shorts above the knee and girls not wearing tight pants and covering their hair," said Al-Khalaf, who described Chesser as "a lot more non-accepting."

His old friends were shocked at the transformation. After Chesser told MSA members that they would go to hell if they didn't follow his clothing guidelines, Al-Khalaf said, "everyone was just looking at each other, and I made a comment like, 'Well then, we're all screwed.' "

By then, Chesser was worshiping at the Islamic Center Northern Virginia in Fairfax, where he began working as a caretaker after dropping out of George Mason. Muhammad Farooq, the president of the mosque's trust, said mosque members noticed the same shift in Chesser's theology as the Muslim students at Oakton.

"He was becoming more and more conservative, and more and more on the side of the Islam that we do not recommend," Farooq said. "If there was one quotation from the Hadith, he would take that one hadith and not consider that there are 10 other quotes in the Quran that point to the middle ground."

Farooq said that he did not remember Chesser speaking of violence but that Chesser insisted that Muslims should dress as they had in the time of the prophet. Mosque officials were relieved when Chesser quit his job there in November.

The same month, according to a journal seized by the FBI, Chesser planned to go to Somalia via Kenya but was thwarted because the mother of his wife confiscated her passport.

He'd already been exchanging e-mails with U.S.-born Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Aulaqi, who has been linked to last year's massacre at Fort Hood and an attempt to blow up a Detroit-bound plane on Christmas Day, according to an affidavit filed by FBI Special Agent Mary Brandt Kinder.

Chesser began espousing increasingly militant views online.

In a posting in April on Revolution Muslim, a New York-based group that features videos by Aulaqi, Chesser warned Western nations that "if we see killing your civilians as the only way to remove these wars and bases, then that is what is going to happen."

Messages left for Revolution Muslim were not returned.

Chesser had posted the U.S. Army Ranger Handbook, which includes instructions on using explosives, and a TSA manual on airport screening that the FBI believes was meant to help terrorists target U.S. airlines, according to the FBI affidavit. Chesser also described himself to an FBI agent as one of the most influential members "in the Jihadi community" in the Washington area and said he believed his online posting, "Open Source Jihad," describing the use of the Internet to support operatives, inspired Aulaqi to use that same term in an al-Qaeda publication.

Chesser also posted an article recommending the planting of "fake" suspicious packages to desensitize law enforcement, according to the affidavit.

"A cop might walk up to a bag that someone thought might be a bomb, so he assumes it is not. Then he bends over to open it, rolling his eyes at this waste of his time. Boom! No more kafir," or non-Muslim, Chesser allegedly wrote, according to the affidavit.

A dfferent direction

At moments, though, he appeared to waver in his extremism. Last year, he told an FBI agent that he "no longer supported jihad propaganda," and on July 14, four days after his failed attempt to leave the United States, he told the agent that he had changed his mind about joining al-Shabab after the group took responsibility for bombings that killed 76 people in Uganda.

On a forum for the Web Site "Islamic Awakening," several posters questioned his decision to speak so openly to the FBI.

"I know the brother personally," a poster with the screen name Basil al-Mamluk wrote the day after his arrest. "He did have very loose lips at times. It does seem odd that someone would just tell the FBI all the stuff face-to-face."

Chesser's family members have declined to comment, as did Michael Nachmanoff, the public defender assigned to his case.

Chesser told the FBI that he has not been on speaking terms with his parents since April, when he caused a stir by issuing a warning to the creators of the television show "South Park" that they faced assassination for making an episode that included an irreverent depiction of the prophet Muhammad.

When he was younger, Chesser had a much different take on the show, recalled Chung, his middle school classmate. "In middle school, he actually loved 'South Park,' " Chung said. "We used to talk about it on the bus."

One member of the Oakton Muslim Student Association, who did not want his name used, said he was angry that extremists had apparently led a convert astray. "If I had the chance to talk to Zac, I'd say, 'Who's teaching you all this . . . ?' " he said. "I never talked to him myself, to try to get him to go down the right path. I regret it now."

Harrington, too, seemed to think Chesser's attraction to Islam could easily have taken a different direction.

"He was interested in other cultures, and he found one he really liked," Harrington said. "I think he just wanted to be part of something."

Staff writers Spencer S. Hsu and Michael Alison Chandler and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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