Zachary Adam Chesser, the 22-year-old Oakton High School graduate who converted to Islam as a teen and pleaded guilty last year to terrorism-related charges, represents the future of online Islamist radicalization, according to a report to be released Monday by the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.
The report includes copies of four letters handwritten by Chesser from prison and sent to committee staff, and coincides with his own apparent return to the Internet last week. A four-part screed signed by Chesser and posted online on Feb. 20 outlines some of the ways he says he was wronged by the U.S. justice system.
The letters and the posting offer what appear to be the first public glimpses into Chesser’s thinking since he was sentenced last February to 25 years in federal prison. He pleaded guilty to soliciting violence, attempting to provide material support to a terrorist group, and threatening the creators of “South Park” after one of their shows depicted the prophet Muhammad in a bear suit.
Chesser, whom the report describes as the son of a U.S. government contractor, is incarcerated in Marion, Ill. The facility is one of two high-security penitentiaries in the United States with “Special Communications Units” sometimes referred to as “Guantanamo North” because they contain a high percentage of Muslim prisoners convicted of terrorism-related charges.
A gifted student who was, according to the report, briefly a Buddhist, Chesser converted to Islam in high school after dating a Muslim girl. But his radicalization appears to have taken place almost completely over the Internet, where he found like-minded people after local Islamic leaders disagreed with his views.
In his often rambling writings before his arrest, he recommended “desensitizing” law enforcement by planting phony bombs, and urged Muslim mothers to teach their children “the basics of jihaad.” He also corresponded via e-mail with Anwar al-Awlaki, the U.S.-born radical cleric killed by a U.S. drone last year in Yemen.
Chesser’s latest posting, on a Muslim prisoner advocacy site called aseerun.org and titled “Victims of the American Inquisition,” offers a window into a family torn apart by the events surrounding his arrest.
His wife, a fellow convert and a citizen of Uganda, voluntarily left the United States last year as part of his plea agreement and settled in Jordan. According to Chesser’s posting, the couple had hoped their 2-year-old son, Talhah, would join her. Instead, against their wishes, Chesser’s mother won custody earlier this year, Chesser wrote, and his mother-in-law has visitation rights. Neither woman is Muslim.
Although Chesser did not directly engage in violence, he is “significant because he is part of a trend which, if not addressed, threatens the security of our homeland,” the report says, adding that as incendiary material becomes more widely available online, there is “a corresponding increase in the number of individuals viewing extremist material and who can become radicalized.”
Chesser’s writings, videos and songs appeared on various extremist Islamist Web sites, allowing the government to track him over two years and arrest him in July 2010 after he tried to fly to Uganda in an apparent attempt to join an al-Qaeda-linked terrorist group in Somalia.
In a statement he read at his sentencing, Chesser implied that he regretted his actions. But his letters to the committee, neatly printed on lined paper, display the same combination of self-importance and naivete that pervaded his earlier online writings.
“I have above average artistic, computer graphics, video editing, writing, and programming skills,” he writes in one. “These, combined with a flair for propaganda, motivational work, recruiting, networking, and marketing led to my quick rise on the internet . . . I wound up in a position of enormous influence.”
In the letters, he suggests creating a forum for discussion among Islamists and the government and counterterrorism community, and he expresses anger at his lawyers’ attempts to portray him as “some guy with no influence and no connections trying to just march into Somalia.” At the same time, he appears to criticize law enforcement for taking his activities too seriously.
“There is no voice from the government seeking understanding,” he writes in one letter. “There is no stage between someone saying, ‘I like the Taliban’ for the first time and a sting operation. Read Orwell’s 1984 and you will see how it feels to be Muslim in America.”
He adds, “I had no clue you could be arrested for joining al-Shabaab.”
Chesser’s pre-arrest activities resurfaced in the news earlier this month when a fellow convert, Jesse Curtis Morton, who worked with Chesser on a now-defunct Web site called Revolution Muslim, pleaded guilty to using the site to make threats against the “South Park” creators and others.
The Senate committee report recommends that law enforcement share information about suspected extremists with their community and religious leaders and family members, involving them in trying to counter radicalization.
But a committee staff member who helped produce the report acknowledged that this would have been difficult to do with Chesser, who was not part of a mosque. “It raises the importance of the Internet,” he said. “People can really self-segregate to a large degree. I suppose that represents the purest form of the threat: People who have no connection to people who don’t agree with them.”
Chesser’s father and lawyer declined to comment; his mother, a supervising trial lawyer for the District, could not be reached.
Oren Segal, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, called Chesser’s case an important reminder of the extent to which extremism can flourish on the Internet.
“People still have this idea that there’s anonymity online,” he said. “It’s not uncommon for people to think that they can explore the underbelly of things online and have it be a safe space.”
The Internet, he said, also allows people to bypass community members and find like-minded others, “without the shame of asking the wrong person the wrong thing.”
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