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Va. man pleads guilty to aiding Somali terrorists

By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 21, 2010; A3

A Northern Virginia man pleaded guilty in federal court Wednesday to charges of supporting Somali terrorists and threatening the creators of TV's "South Park" over their depiction of the prophet Muhammad.

Zachary Adam Chesser, 20, of Bristow, pleaded guilty in Alexandria to charges of providing material support to terrorists, communicating threats and soliciting crimes of violence.

U.S. District Judge Liam O'Grady set a sentencing hearing for Feb. 25. The three charges carry a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison.

In an agreement with prosecutors, Chesser would request no less than 20 years in prison. The terms do not limit what the government may seek or what a judge would impose, depending on Chesser's cooperation.

The plea, which Chesser cannot appeal or withdraw, brings an end to the saga of a suburban Washington man whom friends described as "freakishly intelligent" and whom the FBI deemed a prolific Internet propagandist for al-Qaeda. Together with his wife, the Oakton High School graduate adopted pseudonyms and deluged al-Qaeda forums and mainstream chat sites with comments, videos and texts.

Terrorism analysts said Chesser e-mailed Anwar al-Aulaqi, a U.S.-born Muslim cleric who now lives in Yemen and has been accused of helping direct the Dec. 25 bombing attempt of a Detroit-bound airliner. And Chesser styled himself after Omar Hammami, a Mobile, Ala., man who has become a top Somali insurgent commander.

However, his efforts to become another American spokesman for al-Qaeda-linked groups have "had no enduring impact," said Jarret Brachman, a counterterrorism analyst at North Dakota State University who monitors jihadi Web sites.

"He was on the right track to become something of an influential player, but he hadn't arrived yet," Brachman said. "He clearly was innovating . . . but, that said, he's just a blip."

In a statement, Neil H. MacBride, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, said Chesser's threats will leave innocent people at risk for years to come.

"His solicitation of extremists to murder U.S. citizens also caused people throughout the country to fear speaking out - even in jest - lest they also be labeled as enemies who deserved to be killed," MacBride said.

Michael Nachmanoff, Chesser's attorney, said his client's actions were very different from those of high-profile terrorism suspects such as alleged Fort Hood gunman Army Maj. Nidal M. Hasan, and Faisal Shahzad, who has confessed to attempting to set off a car bomb in New York's Times Square.

"Mr. Chesser has renounced violent jihad. He has accepted responsibility and he is deeply remorseful," Nachmanoff said. "He is a young man who has taken some very important steps to putting his life back together."

A George Mason University dropout known online as Abu Talhah al-Amrikee, Chesser was arrested July 21, days after he was blocked from traveling with his infant son from New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport to Uganda, en route to Somalia.

Chesser admitted he had planned to join the Islamist insurgent group al-Shabab, which the U.S. government lists as a terrorist organization, in its bid to overthrow the weak, U.N.-supported Somali government.

He also admitted making threats from April to July over the Internet to "South Park" creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker, saying they would "wind up like Theo Van Gogh." The reference was to a Dutch filmmaker gunned down in 2004 after he attacked the treatment of women in Islamic society.

Chesser said his targets included a Florida man, identified as "JG," who participated in an "Everybody Draw Muhammad Day" group on Facebook.

Prosecutors agreed to charge Proscovia Kampire Nzabanita, Chesser's wife, with making false statements, which carries a maximum five-year prison term, and not with aiding and abetting his offenses.

The government also agreed not to seek Chesser's incarceration in a so-called federal supermax facility, such as the Colorado prison where terrorist convicts are held in isolation and confined 23 hours a day.

Staff writer Tara Bahrampour contributed to this report.

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