A 20-year-old Virginia man who allegedly threatened the creators of "South Park" after the show mocked the Prophet Muhammad was arrested Wednesday for his attempts to join the Al Qaeda-linked terrorist group Al-Shabab.
The man, Zachary Chesser from Fairfax, was monitored by the FBI for over a year and was barred on July 10, 2010 from boarding a flight from New York to Uganda as he attempted to make his way to Somalia. Chesser was on the no-fly list and was traveling with his infant son to look less suspicious, according to an FBI affidavit in the case.
Al-Shabab recently claimed credit for coordinated bombing in Uganda which killed 76 people watching the World Cup Championship match on July 11, including 1 American citizen.
Chesser is just the latest individual radicalized in the United States who had contact with radical Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who has been linked to numerous terrorism plots in the United States including the November 2009 shooting at Ft. Hood, Texas, and the attempted car bombing of New York's Times Square on May 1.
Chesser first came to the attention of FBI counterterrorism officials for several online posts he had made to a website called revolutionmuslim.com. After the controversial April 2010 "South Park" episode aired insulting the prophet, he posted a note under the pseudonym Abu Talhah Al-Amerikee threatening the show's creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone.
"What they are doing is stupid, and they will probably wind up like Theo van Gogh for airing this show," Chesser wrote, referring to the Dutch filmmaker assassinated in 2004 after he made a controversial film about women living in Islamic countries. "This is not a threat, but a warning of the reality of what will likely happen to them."
Chesser's radicalization appears to have taken place very quickly according to the FBI affidavit in the case. FBI agents initially spoke to Chesser in May 2009 about some of his previous online activity.
After converting to Islam in July 2008, Chesser "became very 'extremist' in his beliefs. He explained that he was watching online videos, discussions and debates and over-the-counter CDs almost obsessively," FBI Special Agent Mary Kinder wrote in the affidavit.
In his 2009 meetings with the FBI, Chesser told an FBI agent that "he sent Awlaki several email messages and that Awlaki replied to two of them." The FBI's affidavit alleges that in April and June 2010 Chesser posted online articles about leaving for jihad and a call for individuals to go fight in Somalia.
The FBI's affidavit alleges that Chesser and his wife had initially attempted to travel to Kenya in November 2009 but they were not allowed because his wife did not have access to her passport. His second attempt to travel to Somalia was first reported to the FBI by US Customs and Border Protection agents who noted that he had bought a ticket to travel to Uganda from New York's JFK airport via Dubai.
The FBI has also corroborated Chesser's intention to travel to Somalia to fight with Al-Shabab through its own surveillance.
According to the affidavit, "On June 8, 2010 Chesser told his wife that he would not be in Uganda for more than 24 hours. Further on May 28, 2010 Chesser told his wife that he was taking their son with him to Uganda as part of his 'cover'. Indeed, on July 10, 2010, Chesser had his son with him as he attempted to fly to Uganda."
On July 14, 2010, following the attacks in Uganda, Chesser contacted the FBI agent who had previously interviewed him, saying that he wanted to share information about his attempted travel and that he had had a change of heart about joining Al-Shabab after the attack in Uganda. Chesser allegedly told the FBI that it would be easy for him to join the group, which would be starting its training camps in two months.
According to Justice Department officials, in the past two years nearly 35 U.S. citizens and people living in the U.S. have been arrested and charged for terrorist activity. A recently disclosed FBI Directorate of Intelligence document noted that there were an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 websites, blogs and Internet forums supportive of terrorist related activities and propaganda.
An attorney for Chesser, is expected to have an initial appearance at the Federal Court in Alexandria Thursday morning, was not identified in the court docket.
"This case exposes the disturbing reality that extreme radicalization can happen anywhere, including Northern Virginia," US Attorney Neil MacBride said in a statement released Wednesday. "This young man is accused of seeking to join al-Shabab, a brutal terrorist organization with ties to Al-Qaida. These allegations underscore the need for continued vigilance against homegrown terror threats."