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This article gave an incorrect name for an institute at McGill University. It is the Institute of Islamic Studies.
Paths to jihad

Out of suburbia, the online extremist

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 2, 2010

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

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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.


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