The radicalized and reckless Muslim convert

One of the oddities of the current conflict with Islamic radicalism is how one bit player can have such a big effect on things. Take Zachary Adam Chesser, a Northern Virginian convert who threatened the creators of "South Park" for, well, not portraying the Prophet Muhammad. This led to an attempt to defend First Amendment freedoms through the Everybody Draw Muhammad Day. And that led not just to Pakistan blocking access to Facebook for a while but also to the founder of the day having to go into hiding, and change her livelihood, name and identity. This Chesser guy ended up being arrested a few months ago for trying to join Somali terrorists. Earlier this month, the Washington Post's Tara Bahrampour wrote a lengthy profile of this young radical. The article is well organized and written and it does a really good job of helping the reader understand as much as possible about Chesser, given the limited information available.

Here's how it begins:

For months, the radical young Muslim convert had been waging war online, championing violent jihad from his computer in Northern Virginia.

Zachary Adam Chesser often wrote scathingly about people who voiced support for the mujaheddin but who made no move to join them. The fact that he remained safely in the United States clearly troubled him as 2009 gave way to 2010.

In March, Chesser begged the fighters already abroad to "not forget those of us who have lagged behind."

"Your fingers glide over cold steel whilst mine merely grace the empty plastic of my keyboard," the 20-year-old white suburbanite posted to his Web site, themujihadblog. "If I die in this land then what will I say to Allah? 'O Allah I was just going to wait until the mujahideen reached America. I swear I would have joined them, but they took too long.' "

Chesser, who pleaded guilty in federal court Oct. 20 to supporting Somali terrorists and threatening the creators of "South Park" for mocking the prophet Muhammad, hadn't been a Muslim long. He converted to Islam in 2008, soon after graduating from Oakton High School in Fairfax County.

His emergence online as a Muslim extremist followed at warp speed. By the time federal agents arrested him in July for trying to travel to Somalia and join the Islamist insurgent group al-Shabab, he'd gone from breakdancing high school kid to bearded radical in little more than two years.

For Chesser, it was the latest - and perhaps most unlikely - in a series of identities he'd experimented with, then discarded.

The article talks about the phenomenon of young converts embracing the most extreme interpretations of Islam. In so doing, it does a better job than most stories of admitting that there are different interpretations of Islam. There are no assertions that Islam "is" this or that. Rather, the story talks about the effects of how Chesser interpreted Islam.

The story backs up claims with data points, such as that 20 to 25 percent of terrorism-related arrests of U.S. citizens in the last decade involve converts. A quarter of those have been in the last year and a half. Some people have claimed that Islamic militancy in the United States arises from Muslim youth feeling alienated. But recent converts don't have that same background, obviously. The Anti-Defamation League suspects that their outrage is cultivated online with English-language forums that cater to extremist interpretations of Islam. It's not surprising to find out that Chesser was conversing with American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. The story includes details about Chesser's view of the cleric.

The article explores some of Chesser's online activity. He started a blog and had Twitter, Facebook and YouTube accounts. He published poetry, songs and videos. But the article quotes one counterterroism analyst saying he had little visible impact. Of course, the "South Park" stunt seemed to have a great deal of impact.

Anyway, the article paints Chesser as not just radical but reckless:

Going to Somalia would have set Chesser apart from the legions of "jihobbyists," as [Jarret Brachman, a counterterrorism analyst at North Dakota State University] calls them: armchair warriors who limit their participation to the Web.

What already set him apart was his increasing recklessness.

Chesser needed to have his "head examined" for openly advertising himself as a Muslim militant on Web sites clearly being monitored by the FBI, said Evan F. Kohlmann, a senior partner at Flashpoint Global Partners, a New York-based security consulting firm.

"The worst part is that he's not alone," Kohlmann said. "There are indeed others out there in various parts of America who are just as foolish and naive as Chesser and determined to follow down this same path. "

I really appreciate that an article would be able to not just categorize Chesser as radical but as a particular type of radical. That is truly helpful information for the reader.

We also learn about his conversion, which followed his interest in a Muslim girl in high school. Apparently he threw himself headlong into all his interests so his friends weren't suprised by his sudden devotion to the religion. When he was younger he was a Civil War buff, then a Marilyn Manson devotee, then a fan of Japanese culture. He is described as both pensive and playful.

The article includes many details about his online efforts to educate himself in Arabic and Islam. He apparently met his wife, the mother of his child, through al-Awlaki's blog. She's also a convert and the daughter of a Ugandan diplomat.

What I found most intriguing, in that I wanted to find out more, was how fellow Muslims viewed him. The best way this is described is in a description of Oakton High's Muslim Student Association. We're told that initially his fellow Muslims found him relaxed and friendly but that he became "far more intense." We're told he warned them they'd be condemned if they did not dress more modestly. But here was one point where I definitely wanted more information:

As his theology became more rigid, Chesser stopped attending the mosque where he had been worshiping and working: the Islamic Center Northern Virginia in Fairfax.

"He was becoming more and more conservative, and more and more on the side of the Islam that we do not recommend," said Muhammad Farooq, president of the mosque's trust, after Chesser's arrest.

Mosque leaders were relieved when he left in November 2009, Farooq said.

It's probably worth mentioning that he didn't just attend the mosque but was a caretaker there. But I'd like to know more about "the side of Islam that they do not recommend." What in particular is troubling to the president of ICNV? I know that this mosque has a reputation for being moderate but I would love to know more specifics about that. I think this would be an excellent opportunity to show specifics about what this mosque teaches or practices. This WAMU story from the time of Chesser's arrest did get more specific. Also quoting Farooq, we learned that while Chesser was friendly and normal during his time there, he showed increasing stubbornness in class. He would focus on obscure verses and stick to his interpretation even when teachers pointed out how other verses balanced out a particular reading. It would be great to know more about those verses but even just what's provided is helpful not only for understanding Chesser but the mosque he left.

Anyway, there's plenty more to this story and it's well worth a read for anyone looking for insight into how a young convert can be radicalized. The Post also had a nice timeline with important dates. It's a very well constructed package that is engrossing -- even disturbing -- while also being very straightforward in its presentation of the news.

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