Zachary Chesser’s purported YouTube user name was LearnTeachFightDie. The words appear to have captured his version of the path of a faithful Muslim—the same extremist philosophy that, according to the FBI, led him to try to travel to Somalia on July 10 to join Al-Shabab, a group of militants that has staged terrorist attacks from the African country.
After federal authorities arrested Chesser on Wednesday for providing support to a foreign terrorist organization, they released an affidavit that paints him as a sinister version of an everyday blogger. It describes how the 20-year-old wrote how-to articles for his peers, commented on pop culture, and pontificated about his personal philosophy. In April his threatening online posts about South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone brought him broader public attention. Now his online footprint, along with statements he made to federal agents, forms the core of a criminal case that could send him to prison for as long as 15 years.
Chesser’s story also adds to a growing list of young American men allegedly drawn to radicalism online, but his is not the latest case seemingly connected to Anwar al-Awlaki, the U.S.-born jihad-inspiring cleric. On Thursday the Justice Department announced that Paul Rockwood, a 35-year-old former Virginia resident living in Alaska, pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FBI. Rockwood admitted to lying when he denied making a list of domestic targets for terrorist attacks. He was a “strict adherent” of al-Awlaki's, the department says.
Federal authorities first interviewed Chesser in May 2009, according to the affidavit. He told an FBI agent that he’d become interested in Islam about a year earlier. As his views became more extreme, he allegedly created an online persona, Abu Talhah Al-Amrikee; wrote a blog called muhajidblog.com (using the Arabic word for "freedom fighter"); and operated YouTube accounts under the names LearnTeachFightDie and AlQuranWaAlaHadeeth.
According to the affidavit, Chesser used the Web to learn about and connect to like-minded individuals; prime among them was al-Awlaki. Chesser allegedly posted al-Awlaki's lectures online and commented on them, and also admitted to sending al-Awlaki e-mails. In one July 2009 e-mail, the affidavit says, he told al-Awlaki of a dream he had in which he joined Al-Shabab, the Somalia-based militant group that took credit for bombing the capital of Uganda on July 11.
In the past, investigators have wondered how much al-Awlaki actually interacted with people who contacted him. The roster of those who have reportedly e-mailed the cleric includes Nidal Hasan, the gunman who allegedly went on a deadly shooting spree at a Fort Hood, Texas, military base in November 2009. In Chesser’s case, al-Awlaki did respond on at least two occasions, the affidavit says. A law-enforcement source confirms that al-Awlaki responded to Chesser’s e-mail about his dreams.
In April, Chesser used his standing as a poster on the Web site RevolutionMuslim.com to publish seemingly threatening remarks aimed at Parker and Stone concerning possible fallout from the South Park episode. The two creators of the Comedy Central show had made the Prophet Muhammad a character on the show, and Chesser suggested that they would suffer the same fate as Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, killed for producing a film critical of Islam’s treatment of women. Later that month Chesser exchanged e-mails with a FoxNews.com reporter, saying his posts were “not a threat, but it really is a likely outcome. They’re going to be basically on a list in the back of the minds of a large number of Muslims. It’s just the reality.”
Despite his fascination with the idea of fighting a global holy war, according to the affidavit, Chesser was ambivalent about whether he wanted to fight with a militant group. In 2009 he told an FBI agent that he did not support terrorism. But in June 2010 Chesser wrote an article for an online forum, the affidavit notes, calling the post “Counter-Counter-Terrorism #12—Actually Leaving for Jihad.” In it, he described what the reader would need to join an extremist Islamic group: money to pay for a flight, a passport and other travel documents, and a look that would not attract attention. Weeks later, having trimmed his beard, he traveled to a New York airport, bringing his infant son in what authorities believe was an attempt to avoid the attention of airport security.
But once airport security told him that his name was already on the government’s no-fly list, Chesser again altered his tune, according to the affidavit. After Chesser was denied check-in, a Secret Service agent interviewed him, and Chesser told the agent of his plans to travel to Uganda and then Somalia to join Al-Shabab, describing the route he would take and how much it might cost for him to travel across the Somali border. After he left the airport, he called the FBI and said he had information to provide about Al-Shabab.
A few days later, on July 14, he spoke with an FBI agent and claimed that the group’s bombing in Uganda had caused him to have a change of heart, the affidavit says. Chesser said he had corresponded with members of the group, who told him they needed laptops for the fighters’ “personal use” and cameras “to film production-quality videos for Al-Shabab’s propaganda campaign,” the affidavit says. He allegedly told a Secret Service agent at the airport that foreigners are usually stationed in Al-Shabab’s “media branch” in Mogadishu, Somalia, but that they also participate in fighting. Though he never made it to Somalia, the affidavit makes the case that Chesser fully intended to join up with Al-Shabab. He joins dozens of other U.S. citizens charged with violating terror laws since 2009.
With Mark Hosenball