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Out of suburbia, the online extremist

By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 2, 2010; A01

For months, the radical young Muslim convert had been waging war online, championing violent jihad from his computer in Northern Virginia.

Zachary Adam Chesser often wrote scathingly about people who voiced support for the mujaheddin but who made no move to join them. The fact that he remained safely in the United States clearly troubled him as 2009 gave way to 2010.

In March, Chesser begged the fighters already abroad to "not forget those of us who have lagged behind."

"Your fingers glide over cold steel whilst mine merely grace the empty plastic of my keyboard," the 20-year-old white suburbanite posted to his Web site, themujihadblog. "If I die in this land then what will I say to Allah? 'O Allah I was just going to wait until the mujahideen reached America. I swear I would have joined them, but they took too long.' "

Chesser, who pleaded guilty in federal court Oct. 20 to supporting Somali terrorists and threatening the creators of "South Park" for mocking the prophet Muhammad, hadn't been a Muslim long. He converted to Islam in 2008, soon after graduating from Oakton High School in Fairfax County.

His emergence online as a Muslim extremist followed at warp speed. By the time federal agents arrested him in July for trying to travel to Somalia and join the Islamist insurgent group al-Shabab, he'd gone from breakdancing high school kid to bearded radical in little more than two years.

For Chesser, it was the latest - and perhaps most unlikely - in a series of identities he'd experimented with, then discarded.

Other attempts to define himself had proved harmless. "If he'd lived in L.A.," observed one person close to him, "he would have been a Scientologist."

Instead, Chesser faces up to 30 years in prison and a label that will haunt him for the rest of his life: terrorist.

While much about what prompted Chesser's transformation remains a mystery, he illustrates a growing phenomenon in the United States: young converts who embrace the most extreme interpretation of Islam.

Of the nearly 200 U.S. citizens arrested in the past nine years for terrorism-related activity, 20 to 25 percent have been converts, said Oren Segal, director of the Anti-Defamation League's Center on Extremism. More than a quarter have been arrested in the past 20 months. The center provided The Washington Post with saved copies of Chesser's postings, most no longer available on the Web.

"Many of these converts are basically white kids from the suburbs" in search of a community, said Segal, whose group has produced numerous papers on those arrested, including Chesser. They are overwhelmingly male, frequently in their 20s and eager to "become something more than they are, or be part of something greater," he said.

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.

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.

Going to Somalia would have set Chesser apart from the legions of "jihobbyists," as Brachman calls them: armchair warriors who limit their participation to the Web.

What already set him apart was his increasing recklessness.

Chesser needed to have his "head examined" for openly advertising himself as a Muslim militant on Web sites clearly being monitored by the FBI, said Evan F. Kohlmann, a senior partner at Flashpoint Global Partners, a New York-based security consulting firm.

"The worst part is that he's not alone," Kohlmann said. "There are indeed others out there in various parts of America who are just as foolish and naive as Chesser and determined to follow down this same path. "

Hard-core convert

Chesser was a freshman at George Mason University when he posted a question on Aulaqi's now-defunct blog.

"Does anyone know of some good English taught Madrassas?" he asked in December 2008. "I am learning Arabic, but it will be a couple of years before I could take classes in it, and I don't want to wait that long."

Chesser, who would soon drop out of college, made the query using his George Mason e-mail address, according to the ADL, which saved a cached copy. He added that the school should be cheap, "because my parents are not Muslim, and I am pretty sure they would not pay for that."

Chesser and the woman he would marry, Proscovia Nzabanita, a fellow convert and the daughter of a Ugandan diplomat, appear to have courted via Aulaqi's blog.

In an exchange there in January 2009, Chesser wanted to know how much interest a potential wife might have in a "fairly broke" future mujahed.

Nzabanita, who has been charged with making false statements to the FBI and faces deportation to Uganda, was encouraging. "I do know of some sisters . . . who would love to marry" a man like that, she replied.

They wed two months later and quickly produced a son.

Chesser also asked Aulaqi to interpret dreams that he had had, according to the FBI, which was tracking their e-mails. In one dream, he described praying to Allah to let him join al-Shabab.

It was a very different Zac Chesser from the boy who had been a Civil War buff at age 9 and dreamed being a U.S. Army general. Or the middle schooler who had developed a passion for the shock-rock music of Marilyn Manson and grown his hair long, friends said. Or the teenager who had become so interested in anime and his Japanese-language classes that he traveled to Japan on a high school trip.

Chesser's yearbook photos show a clean-shaven, pensive-looking young man, the child of divorced parents who lived in Northern Virginia.

But Chesser was playful, too, dressing up as Buzz Lightyear for Halloween, participating in powder puff cheerleading, and joining Oakton's breakdancing club. He told Aaron Zelin, a Brandeis University research assistant who interviewed him by e-mail two weeks before his arrest, that there might still be videos on the Web of him breakdancing.

He grew interested in Islam while dating a Muslim girl his senior year, friends said, and his sudden devotion to the religion didn't surprise them.

"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.

Members of Oakton's Muslim Student Association initially found him relaxed and friendly. But after graduation, he became far more intense about his newfound faith, they said: He warned that they would be condemned to hell if they did not dress and behave conservatively enough.

The increasing severity and attention to tiny details are typical of many converts, said Brachman, who described Chesser as "obsessed with nuances: 'Is my robe too long; is my beard not long enough?' "

It is during this initial, fervent period that impressionable young converts are most vulnerable to extremists, who easily find them online, said Adnan Zulfiqar, a former chaplain at the University of Pennsylvania who studies militancy and has encountered many young men like Chesser.

"Jihadi recruiters are like headhunters," Zulfiqar said. "They roam around YouTube and Internet chats, looking for low-hanging fruit."

In Chesser's case, the people running Revolution Muslim, a New York-based Web site that has called for a global Islamic state, began linking to Chesser's videos and said they would like to work with him, he told Zelin.

Before long, Chesser had shifted from a contributor to one of Revolution Muslim's more visible public faces.

Social-media Islam

As his theology became more rigid, Chesser stopped attending the mosque where he had been worshiping and working: the Islamic Center Northern Virginia in Fairfax.

"He was becoming more and more conservative, and more and more on the side of the Islam that we do not recommend," said Muhammad Farooq, president of the mosque's trust, after Chesser's arrest.

Mosque leaders were relieved when he left in November 2009, Farooq said.

After that, Chesser relied on his keyboard for a sense of community. The Web, he argued, was the new town square for extremism.

"The jihad movement has moved from the mountains and caves to the bedrooms of every major city around the world," he wrote on Revolution Muslim.

Chesser encouraged readers to take advantage of Facebook, Paltalk and, especially, Twitter, which he said was "the future of social-media and we need to utilize it now in sha'a Allah."

Although it is unclear how many Facebook friends or Twitter followers he had, his YouTube channel registered more than 11,000 views before it was suspended this year, according to the ADL. His wife, who just turned 26 and wears a full-face veil, also shared his materials through her Facebook page and YouTube channel and on extremist forums.

Among Chesser's postings were lengthy essays on jihadi propaganda strategies.

"We should use terms like '5 Western pigs sent to Hellfire insha'a Allah,'" he wrote on one extremist site. "There can be absolutely no sympathy shown for dead kuffar," or non-Muslims.

Chesser eventually shared a nearly 7,000-word manifesto entitled "Raising Al-Qaa'ida: A Look into the Long Term Obligations of the Global Jihaad Movement." The treatise criticized Muslim men who wear only mustaches and not beards, and argued that Muslim mothers are crucial to the struggle.

"The basics of jihaad should be taught at the home from an early age," he wrote, with mothers encouraging war games, sewing "jihaadii outfits," and making aluminum-foil swords for their children.

In March of this year, wearing a long beard and knit cap, Chesser appeared with Revolution Muslim members in front of the White House. With the strident air of a campus protester, he urged President Obama to embrace Islam and excoriated U.S. foreign policy.

"Rather than defeat the terrorists, as you call them, you are radicalizing a whole generation of Muslim youth," he said. "Apparently all the spending and the war on terror is only creating more of it."

Videos of his speech appeared on YouTube, as did his songs about jihad.

In one, Chesser sang in a reedy drone, switching between English and a carefully articulated Arabic. It was accompanied by video footage of guerillas training in a desert, under the caption, "One Day America Will Be Under The Rule Of Allah."

'South Park' provocateur

In April, Chesser denounced a "South Park" episode that showed the prophet Muhammad in a bear suit, predicting that the show's creators would probably end up being killed for it.

"This is not a threat," he wrote on his blog and on Revolution Muslim, "but a warning of the reality of what will likely happen to them."

The national media jumped on it. At first Chesser, who had been a "South Park" fan before his conversion, seemed to relish the attention.

In a tweet captured by the ADL, he reported, "The kuffar are really starting to pick up on the South Park story in sha'a Allah this can be the USA's version of the Rushdie affair in UK."

But the postings, which the FBI said prompted death threats to his mother and an estrangement from his parents, went even further than some in the online jihadi world liked.

Chesser eventually came to regret the "useless attention" the episode had generated, he told Zelin. Even so, he said, "I learned a lot about how to manipulate the media from it."

Manipulation was a central part of his approach.

In a posting cited by the FBI, Chesser recommended "desensitizing" law enforcement by planting phony bombs: "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 kaafir," or unbeliever.

Over time, a sense of self-importance pervaded his writings.

"I might be mistaken," he told Zelin, "but my impression is that I was at one point operating the #1 jihaadii youtube channel in terms of daily views, as well as [Revolution Muslim] and my blog, which were both fairly successful."

He also thought that Aulaqi had gotten the idea for the term "open source jihad" from one of his postings, according to the FBI affidavit.

But Chesser might have been mistaken about his influence.

"I have never seen any of his work cited by others," said Christopher Anzalone, a PhD student at McGill's Institute of Islamic Affairs who conversed with Chesser on Zelin's blog Jihadology.

Brachman agreed: "Not a lot of people engaged him. I think he was hoping people would engage him."

Instead, it was the FBI who seemed most interested in Chesser's ideas.

By this summer, agents had wiretapped his apartment, searched his home and car, and interviewed him repeatedly.

Yet that did not stop him and his wife from loading up the car and heading to New York in July with a video camera, which the FBI says Chesser intended to use for al-Shabab propaganda once he reached Somalia. They also brought along their baby son, who was supposed to provide "cover" for Chesser as he boarded his flight.

When they arrived at John F. Kennedy International Airport, the FBI was waiting.

Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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