A federal judge on Thursday sentenced a 21-year-old Northern Virginia man to 25 years in prison for trying to join an al-Qaeda-linked terrorist group in Somalia and making threats to the creators of TV’s “South Park” show over their depiction of the prophet Muhammad.
Zachary Adam Chesser of Oakton pleaded guilty in October to charges of providing material support to terrorists, communicating threats and soliciting crimes of violence in his case, which is being prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia.
The government had asked for the maximum sentence of 30 years in prison. As part of his plea, Chesser agreed to request no less than 20 years.
During an hourlong hearing, Chesser – who wore a beard and a green prison jumpsuit – told Alexandria U.S. District Judge Liam O’Grady he was remorseful. “Your honor, I accept full responsibility,” he said.
But O’Grady called Chesser an “extraordinarily energized traitor to your country.” (Darn straight.)
The defense had asked for some leniency in sentencing, suggesting that Chesser was a teenager when he committed his offenses. O’Grady, however, told Chesser “it’s amazing how quickly you became a danger. If anyone had been harmed, we’d be talking about a life sentence.” (He should count his blessing that he wasn’t convicted of treason.)
The sentencing bookends the tale of a suburban Washington man friends described as “freakishly intelligent” and who became known to the FBI as a prolific Internet propagandist for al-Qaeda.
He was arrested in July, days after he and his wife drove with their infant son to New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport. He was stopped there after he tried to board a flight to Uganda before heading to Somalia, where he planned to join al-Shabaab, an Islamic terrorist group trying to oust Somalia’s government.
Chesser also admitted to making threats from April to July over the Internet to “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, saying they would “wind up like Theo Van Gogh.” The reference was to a Dutch filmmaker gunned down in 2004 after he attacked the treatment of women in Islamic society.
Chesser said his targets included a Florida man known as “JG,” a teenager in Mississippi and a young man from Texas who participated in an “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day” group on Facebook.
Chesser also confessed to posting a link to 200 books on jihad and warfare, and to encouraging “fake operations” – such as placing bags that appear to be suspicious packages in public places – to desensitize federal agents to actual attacks.
How Chesser changed is something he and his family still seem to be grappling with, according to court filings. His father, stepmother and Chesser wrote letters to the judge in an attempt to influence his sentencing and explain his change in behavior.
As a kid, Chesser drifted from “one obsession to another,” according to court papers. At one time he was a vocal antiwar pacifist who grew his hair long and listened to heavy metal music. His interests varied, as he later studied Japanese and Buddhism. He joined a largely ethnic Korean breakdancing team.
In a Feb. 11 letter to the court, Chesser’s father, David, an economist and contractor for the U.S. Transportation Department, described him as an “intellectual, athletic and artistic” person who was “impulsive, impractical, naive and obstinately single-minded.” (Ok, it sounds to me like he was making a case against his son, not for him. People with no self control who are out of touch with reality are not the type of people we can trust.)
At Oakton High School in Fairfax County, Chesser joined the freshman basketball and football teams and was involved in crew. In his spare time, his stepmother said he liked to play Xbox games and watch TV, including “South Park.”
In 2008, Chesser became a Muslim and, as a student at George Mason University, isolated himself from anyone who wasn’t Muslim at the college. He spent hours each day studying Islam, according to court papers. Chesser grew a beard, donned a traditional robe and later married the daughter of a Ugandan diplomat who had been raised as a Roman Catholic but converted to Islam three days after he met her through a local mosque. In November 2009, the couple had a son. (Well that answers some of my questions. I really feel for her parents.)
From his small apartment in Northern Virginia, Chesser – who became known online as “Abu Talhah” – spent hours on the computer, posting on radical Islamic Web sites, forums and blogs. He wrote about “Destroying the West” with a list of ideas that included filling tanker trucks with Ricin.
His blog, titled “themujahidblog.com,” was “dedicated to those who give their blood for [Islam] and “primarily devoted to spreading knowledge regarding Jihad and the Mujahideen,” according to court documents.
In a Dec. 10 letter to the court in which he takes responsibility for the allegations, Chesser describes himself as someone who felt like he had to “do everything to the fullest extent, whether it was how I dressed, who I spoke to, or how I prayed.” He goes on to say that after “about three months of being a practicing Muslim,” he was given a copy of lectures by the U.S.-born Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Aulaqi. (So that excuses him, how exactly?)
The cleric has been linked to last year’s massacre at Fort Hood and an attempt to blow up a Detroit-bound plane on Christmas Day. Chesser said in his letter to the court that the “element of radicalism” in the papers “served as a gateway for me to other more extreme beliefs.” According to the FBI, Chesser exchanged e-mails with Aulaqi.
But Chesser said he’s since had a change of heart. In the Dec. 10 letter, he wrote that the jihad ideology he was drawn into “was contrary to everything I had grown up thinking and believing.” He noted that he was for a while, “both a practicing Muslim and a vegetarian.” (Convenient to have a change of heard AFTER he was busted. Just sayin’.)
He reconciled his beliefs, he wrote, “by convincing myself that if I went to fight jihad, I would be saving more lives even if it meant that others died. I understand now how preposterous that sounds, and I completely reject the idea that killing can be justified in the name of Islam or any religion.”
He said he was “ashamed and bewildered” by the allegations and described his 18 months of following a radical version of Islam as “a missing puzzle piece in my life.”
“I know that I will spend many years trying to understand why I followed the path that has led me here,” he wrote. “I only hope that through my actions now and in the future I can make up for what I have done.”