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.
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 .” But the mosque leaders were apparently not alarmed enough to dismiss or expel him.