News & Politics

"Extreme Radicalization Can Happen Anywhere"

A Fairfax 20-year-old is arrested for backing a terrorist group. How did he get from Oakton High to Al-Shabaab?

A twenty year old from Northern Virginia was arrested today on charges of providing material support to a terrorist organization—namely, Al-Shabaab, the Somalia-based radical Islamic group that claimed responsibility for the bombing that killed 74 World Cup final watchers in Uganda this month.

Zachary Adam Chesser of Fairfax County, Virginia is 20 years old.  He attended Oakton High School in Fairfax County—the same one as Michele Salahi of White House State Dinner crashing fame—and played football, was on the crew team, and studied Japanese.  He's the product of a family neighbors describe as "non-violent," and a high school that was ranked 103rd in the country by Newsweek in his graduating year.   He is married to Proscovia Nazabanita, a girl he met in college at George Mason University, and they have an infant son together.  Yet he admitted to authorities that when he tried to board a flight to Uganda at JFK airport on July 10th, he only brought the baby along as part of his "cover."

The young man from Virginia is the latest in a string of "homegrown terrorists," individuals who hold a U.S. passport but identify more strongly with the radical Muslim ummah, or community, abroad.  

The U.S. Attorney from the Eastern District of Virginia, Neil H. MacBride, issued a statement today saying, “This case exposes the disturbing reality that extreme radicalization can happen anywhere, including Northern Virginia." 

But that reality is really no surprise—five young men from Northern Virginia traveled to Pakistan shortly after Thanksgiving to join jihadi groups in 2009. Chicago citizen David Coleman Headley was charged this year with involvement in the 2008 Mumbai bombings. And Faisal Shahzad tried to ignite a car bomb in Times Square.  All were American citizens.

An archive of Chesser's two-year path from Oakton High School to the Eastern District jailhouse exists online, in his blog posts, tweets, and videos.  He edited the blog, and contributed to, and maintained a YouTube profile with the user ID LearnTeachFightDie, all of which have since been suspended.  Chesser made headlines in April 2010 when he posted a warning to South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone on, writing that they might end up like slain Danish cartoonist Theo Van Gogh, for depicting the Prophet Mohammed in a bear suit.  

A longtime admirer of radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, Chesser, who prefers the nickname Abu Talhah Al-Amrikee, emailed the former Imam of the Dar al Hijrah Islamic Center in Falls Church, and al-Awlaki even replied twice.  Chesser's thirst for jihad runs deep, including a 25-page report titled "Raising Al-Qaa'ida: A Look into the Long Term Obligations of the Global Jihad Movement" that calls for creating a "normalization of the notion of dying for the sake of Allah" in the "masaajid (mosques), the schools and the homes," and encouraging mothers to do arts and crafts that support jihad (think tin-foil swords) and telling bedtime stories about Islamic warriors.  

When Chesser attempted to check in for his flight on July 10th, he was denied check-in by the airline and was on the No-Fly List.  Authorities interviewed him and turned him away.  Chesser contacted the FBI a few days later and said he had a change of heart after the July bombings in Uganda, for which Al-Shabaab claimed responsibility.  He detailed his plans to the FBI, noting that he and his wife tried to fly to Kenya in hopes of traveling to Somalia to join Al-Shabaab in November 2009.  The plan was foiled when his mother-in-law refused to give her daughter her passport.  This time, he planned to travel with is infant son, and followed nearly all of the instructions he wrote in an article posted to an online forum titled "Counter Counter Terrorism #12 – Actually Leaving for Jihad."  A short guide, the most useful tip included trimming one's beard, and the last instruction was actually "LEAVE."

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