By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 1, 2010; A07
The arrest of a young Fairfax County man on charges of supporting Somali terrorists spotlights an operational shift by al-Qaeda and its affiliates, which increasingly are relying on a new generation of American recruiters to radicalize other Americans, counterterrorism officials said.
Zachary Adam Chesser, 20, of Oakton sought to follow the path of at least four other U.S. citizens with extensive knowledge of American culture who have risen to prominent roles in al-Qaeda's network overseas, according to court documents.
Chesser's most direct role models appear to be Anwar al-Aulaqi, 39, a New Mexico-born Muslim cleric based in Yemen, with whom Chesser was in e-mail contact, and Omar Hammami, 26, an Alabama native who has become a senior commander in Somalia and who starred in a rap recruiting video that created an Internet stir as he led an armed group of fighters to a musical beat.
"What these guys obviously have in common and represent is a terrorist who really understands and comes out of American society and culture, and that is obviously an advantage for them . . . both in terms of operational activity and planning and in terms of recruitment," said David Kris, assistant attorney general for national security. He was referring to Hammami and Aulaqi and two other Americans overseas in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area, Adnan G. El Shukrijumah, 34, a naturalized citizen indicted recently on charges that he helped plan September's failed al-Qaeda bomb plot against New York City's subway system, and Adam Gadahn, 31, an al-Qaeda spokesman raised in California who was charged with treason in 2006.
"Can you imagine Zawahiri or bin Laden doing a rap video? That is something that people without the same connection to America or the West would have a harder time pulling off," said Kris, referring to al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Egyptian cleric Ayman al-Zawahiri.
U.S. officials said the ability to speak in the American vernacular and tailor a message to a peer audience of people in their teens to early 30s is a significant step for al-Qaeda, even as U.S. officials say half of its members have been eliminated.
Meanwhile, attack plots against the United States have proliferated and grown more diverse. Over the past 18 months, the federal government has charged 34 U.S. citizens with direct involvement in terrorism. The Fort Hood, Tex., shootings in November, the May 1 Times Square car bombing attempt, and last year's New York subway plot were each allegedly carried out by Americans inspired from or trained abroad.
The killing of many of al-Qaeda's senior operatives has weakened the group, but the growing role of Americans may reflect the inability of its core leaders to mount more effective operations, authorities said. Still, even less sophisticated attacks can be deadly.
"The threat is complicated and diverse and in many ways more difficult for us to figure out," a senior U.S. intelligence official said, speaking on condition of anonymity so he could freely discuss counterterrorism analysis. "The training is quicker and tolerance [for less spectacular and successful plots] are much greater . . . but the likelihood of a mass 9/11-style attack is a lot smaller."
Chesser was both a prolific consumer and propagator of extremist propaganda, court papers and U.S. officials allege.
At 20, the U.S.-born, George Mason University dropout created multiple Facebook profiles and Twitter accounts and deluged the discussion boards of hardcore al-Qaeda forums and mainstream Islam chat rooms with comments, videos and re-posted texts to spread extremist ideology, U.S. authorities said.
Best known for wishing death over the Internet upon the creators of the "South Park" animated satire in April, Chesser was arrested July 21 after being placed on the no-fly list and stopped from traveling to Somalia. He allegedly told FBI agents that he planned to join al-Shabab, an Islamist insurgency linked to al-Qaeda that has committed numerous attacks and bombings as it seeks to topple the Somali government.
Chesser has not been indicted. Michael Nachmanoff, a lawyer for Chesser, declined comment.
Chesser "was positioning himself as a stand-alone al-Qaeda propaganda machine in the United States," Jarret Brachman, a counterterrorism analyst at North Dakota State University who monitors jihadi Web sites, wrote last week in Foreign Policy's online magazine.
The FBI said Chesser avidly re-posted the work of al-Aulaqi, who has forged close ties with al-Qaeda planners since leaving the United States in 2002, and who e-mailed Chesser at least twice.
U.S. authorities in July said that al-Aulaqi played a direct role in the attempted bombing of the Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day by connecting accused bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab with trainers from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Chesser also emulated and named himself after Hammami. Raised as a Southern Baptist, Hammami has become an influential al-Shabab commander known as Abu Mansoor al-Amriki, or "the American." Authorities say he helped plan the first U.S. citizen suicide bombing, which took place near Mogadishu in 2008.
Since joining al-Shabab in 2006, Hammami is credited with establishing an image of "jihadi cool," making Somalia a leading destination for dozens of U.S. Muslim youths seeking to enlist as foreign fighters. In a 31-minute YouTube video this spring, Hammami appeared running in slow motion with a band of fighters, explaining that recruits have left their families, the cities, "you know -- ice, candy bars, all these other things" to fight their enemies.
Chesser re-posted that video and imitated it with his own U.S. versions -- urging mothers to read their children bedtime stories about waging jihad and making tinfoil swords for them to play with, said Alix Levine, an analyst with the Anti-Defamation League who has reported on Chesser's online activities.
Chesser was as sophisticated as they come "in trying to use our own words against us, to think of and innovate new strategies. He was very clever," Brachman said in an interview.
"That's the scary thing: You have a fairly smart kid who gets the ideology but can put out the propaganda and then wants to get street credibility in the real world," Brachman said.