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From D.C. Suburbia to Al-Shabab

Zachary A. Chesser wanted to embody the most extreme form of Islam.

12:27 PM, Jul 27, 2010 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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Last Thursday, July 22, 20-year-old Zachary A. Chesser of Fairfax County, Va., was arrested for providing material support to, and attempting to join, the Somali Islamist militia affiliated with al Qaeda, al-Shabab. Chesser has been ordered to remain in jail until his trial.

From D.C. Suburbia to Al-Shabab

Chesser was the subject of a feature profile in this Sunday's Washington Post, bylined by the newspaper’s staff writer Tara Bahrampour. Chesser, who became Muslim at Oakton High School, adopted the Wahhabi interpretation of the religion--that of the official, fundamentalist sect in Saudi Arabia. He first came to public attention in April, posting on a jihadist website called “Revolution Muslim” what he called a prediction ("It's not a threat, but it really is a likely outcome") that the cartoonists who created South Park would be assassinated like Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, for airing an episode that portrayed Muhammad dressed up in a bear suit.

Chesser also posted handbooks from the Army Rangers and the Transportation Security Administration on one of several websites of his own, which he titled “Open Source Jihad.” He made contact with the U.S.-born al Qaeda leader Anwar Al-Awlaki, who incited the atrocities committed by Nidal Hasan Malik, the Fort Hood mass murderer, as well as the Christmas Day attempted airline bombing by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, and the recent Times Square bomb plot by Faisal Shahzad. Chesser boasted to the FBI that Al-Awlaki had borrowed “Open Source Jihad” as a title for Al-Awlaki’s own writings.

On July 10, the day before presumed al-Shabab operatives from Somalia killed 76 people in terror bombings in Uganda, Chesser was prevented from flying from New York to Uganda, with his seven-month old son “as cover.” His wife, Proscovia Nzabanita, did not accompany him because her mother had previously confiscated his wife’s passport, preventing Chesser from taking her with him to join Al-Shabab via Kenya late last year. Chesser himself had been placed on the U.S. government’s no-fly list.

The Post treated Chesser’s journey to jihad as an adolescent quest: “he was trying out a variety of identities . . . looking for a place to belong." Members of the Muslim Students Association (MSA) at Oakton High School, according to the Post account, were excited to hear that “a white guy” was drawn to the Muslim faith. But MSA members claimed that after he graduated and began college at George Mason University, he turned to Islamist radicalism, coming back to Oakton High and haranguing the Muslim students there. Ibrahim Al-Khalaf, president of the Oakton High MSA, described Chesser’s preaching as “a lot more non-accepting.” That is a euphemism for Wahhabism.

Chesser’s motivation for professing Wahhabi jihad would seem to be a familiar one: He wanted to embody the most extreme form of Islam. But was he led there simply by the Internet? That is a question for which the Post so far has no answers.

The MSA, as a national student group, does not have a reputation for moderation in religion. MSA was founded in 1963 by the Muslim World League (MWL) and the World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY), two Saudi-based entities then in the full flush of Wahhabi expansionism. In 1982, MSA’s foreign backers launched the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), which continues to represent fundamentalist doctrine even as its president, Ingrid Mattson, was a featured participant in the Obama inauguration.

Chesser dropped out of GMU and worked as a caretaker in the Islamic Center, Northern Virginia Trust in Fairfax. According to the Post, Muhammad Farooq, president of the mosque’s trust, declared that Chesser identified with “the Islam that we do not recommend.”  Mosque officials "were relieved when Chesser quit his job there in November [2009].” But the mosque leaders were apparently not alarmed enough to dismiss or expel him.

Unfortunately, even if the MSA at Oakton High and the Islamic Center, Northern Virginia Trust may be moderate, American Islam is dominated by fundamentalists who are financed by radical Saudis, administered by South Asian extremists, and indoctrinated in the beliefs of the Muslim Brotherhood. And because Muslims are conformist in their attitudes toward their leaders, few will take action to prevent terrorist recruitment. The Sunday Post profile quoted an unidentified member of the Oakton High MSA, who said, “If I had the chance to talk to Zac, I’d say, ‘Who’s teaching you all this . . . ?’ I never talked to him myself, to try to get him to go down the right path. I regret it now.” Muslims who observed Chesser failed to take measures that should have been natural had they a compelling concern for the future of Islam in America.

According to the Post's profile, Chesser described himself to the FBI as “one of the most influential members ‘in the Jihadi community’ in the Washington area.” That Washington is a center of jihadist activities as well as a rich field of terror targets is the real story here.

Beginning in 2001, Anwar Al-Awlaki preached at the region’s most notorious Wahhabi mosque, Dar ul-Hijrah in Falls Church. Two of the hijackers in the attacks of September 11, 2001, Nawaf Al-Hazmi and Hani Hanjour, moved from San Diego, Al-Awlaki’s previous location, to be near him. As reported by Stephen F. Hayes and Thomas Joscelyn, the Fort Hood killer, Nidal Malik, met Al-Awlaki at Dar ul-Hijrah. Nidal Malik also attended another radical mosque in the area, the Muslim Community Center in Silver Spring, Md.

In 2002, Operation GreenQuest, a federal interagency task force, raided a network of radical Islamist institutions in Herndon, Va. The GreenQuest investigation has yet to be concluded, but Sami Al-Arian, who pled guilty in 2006 to assisting Palestinian Islamic Jihad, remains under house arrest since he has refused to testify as a grand jury witness in the case of the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT), a major subject of the GreenQuest inquiry.

In 2003, the “Northern Virginia jihad” network led by another white middle-class youth turned Muslim, Randall Royer, was taken down by federal authorities. Last year, a group of five Muslims of varied origin, living in Alexandria, went to Pakistan where they were arrested for trying to join the Taliban. They were found guilty in a Pakistani court a month ago and sentenced to 10 years each. Their Virginia mosque also had ties to jihadists.

Washington and Northern Virginia have a problem. No other part of the country has seen such a concentration of major jihadist cases. It is time for the Washington Post and other leading figures in the capital’s metropolitan area to face up to this reality and quit daydreaming about lost or confused young people who, as if by accident, volunteer for jihad.

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