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Internet helped Muslim convert from Northern Virginia embrace extremism at warp speed

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Va. native Zachary Chesser plead guilty to supporting Somali terrorists, threatening the creators of South Park and soliciting crimes of violence. He faces up to 30 years in prison.

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Their militancy is not a product of the alienation that has sometimes prompted Muslim-born young people in the United States and elsewhere to embrace extremism, particularly in the years since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the beginning of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

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Growing up, they were not the target of anti-Muslim slurs or discrimination. Instead, extremist converts often cultivate their sense of outrage online, where they have access to radical English-language Web sites, videos and forums that didn't exist 10 years ago.

The ADL thinks that thousands of Americans are consuming this material. While most do little more than read blog posts or watch videos, some go further.

In Chesser's case, it is not known how extremists responded to his online postings or what the details were of his e-mail exchanges with radical Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Aulaqi. But it is clear that the Internet played an important role in his radicalization.

Chesser told federal agents in 2009 that he was "watching online videos, discussions and debates, and over-the-counter CDs almost obsessively," according to an FBI affidavit.

He was particularly inspired by Aulaqi, the U.S.-born cleric who has used the Web to promote violent jihad in the West and who has been linked to the Fort Hood massacre, the attempted Christmas Day bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner and other attacks.

Chesser traded e-mails with Aulaqi, cited him repeatedly and incorporated clips of the cleric's fiery sermons into videos he made.

Like Aulaqi, Chesser often sounded angry, although the source of his indignation seemed more theoretical than personal. He railed against U.S. support for Israel, "the U.S. military machine that is slaughtering Muslims in Afghanistan and Iraq," and those who slandered Allah.

Posting under the nom de guerre Abu Talhah al-Amrikee ("the American father of Talhah," a reference to Chesser's newborn son), Chesser started a blog, established Twitter, Facebook and YouTube accounts, and launched reams of prose, poetry, songs and videos into cyberspace.

There was no shortage of places to express himself. The FBI says that there are approximately 15,000 Islamic extremist Web sites, and Chesser - who has now renounced terrorism, according to his attorney - was just one voice among many.

His words had little visible impact, said Jarret Brachman, a counterterrorism analyst at North Dakota State University who began corresponding with Chesser in February, after he posted several comments on Brachman's blog.

But Chesser longed to do more and be more.


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