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Wednesday, April 7, 2010 as of 11:14 AM ET


Mike Levine

Washington, DC


VA Terror Suspect Wanted To Help FBI

July 26, 2010 - 5:57 PM | by: Mike Levine


Zachary Chesser appears in federal court July 22. (Sketch by Bill Hennessy Jr.)


Within hours of his arrest, the Virginia man who allegedly threatened the creators of the television show “South Park” and then tried to join an Al Qaeda-linked group in East Africa told U.S. agents he wanted to help the FBI in their fight against terrorism, according to federal prosecutors and the man’s own defense attorney.

Federal agents arrested 20-year-old Zachary Chesser on Wednesday, after a months-long investigation into at least two alleged attempts to join the Somalia-based group al-Shabaab, which has been fighting to establish a strict Muslim state in Somalia and has pledged its allegiance to Usama bin Laden. Chesser is now charged with providing material support to a terrorist group.

On the day of his arrest, Chesser told FBI agents he was “willing to assist the FBI with a few things,” but in exchange he wanted the FBI to send him overseas, possibly to East Africa, Justice Department lawyer John Gibbs told a federal judge during a hearing on Monday. Public defender Michael Nachmanoff acknowledged that Chesser talked about “potentially working for” or “working with” the FBI.

Only months earlier, in a message posted online, Chesser denounced FBI Director Robert Mueller as the U.S. government’s “chief spy,” saying it is “both ironic and promising” that many Americans had already joined al-Shabaab.

“Robert Mueller said he is ‘absolutely’ afraid that more heroes like [them] … will answer the call of Jihad,” Chesser wrote in an online message posted April 1, according to charging documents filed in the case. “This is a call to action and a call to fulfill your obligation as a Muslim to defend your brothers and sisters.”

Chesser’s other writings were even more threatening, prosecutors told the judge on Monday as they urged that Chesser be detained until trial.

During the FBI’s investigation, agents found a “hand-written document” titled “How to Destroy the West,” according to Gibbs. The document, allegedly written by Chesser, discussed ways of attacking the United States and other countries, including cyber-attacks, vehicles filled with explosives, and the bio-agent ricin, Gibbs said.

In addition, Chesser communicated several times with Anwar Awlaki, the U.S.-born cleric tied to several recent terrorist plots inside the United States, prosecutors said. He also posted an array of “extremist” videos, “jihad propaganda” and other potentially dangerous materials online, including a leaked version of sensitive Transportation Security Administration guidelines and a message suggesting the creators of the show “South Park” could face death for their depiction of the prophet Mohammed, according to prosecutors.

“He represents a very real danger either here in the United States or overseas with the information he’s able to disseminate,” Gibbs told U.S. Magistrate Judge Ivan Davis. “For the past year, this defendant’s job has been writing about, talking about and preparing for jihad overseas.”

During several interviews with the FBI over the past year, Chesser — also known as “Abu Talhah Al-Amrikee” — told agents he tried to go to Somalia at least twice to join al-Shabaab as a “foreign fighter,” according to prosecutors.

Most recently, on July 10, he and his infant son were prevented from boarding a flight from New York to Uganda because Chesser was on the “no fly” list. Chesser told FBI agents he hoped his son would act as a “cover” for his travels, prosecutors said.

Chesser “effectively confessed” to the charges against him, Gibbs told Davis on Monday.

Nachmanoff, Chesser’s court-appointed attorney, insisted Chesser is not as much a threat as prosecutors allege, and he should be released until trial.

“The government has made a big deal of the fact that he’s tried to go overseas,” but in reality Chesser has hardly traveled overseas, Nachmanoff told the judge.

In addition, Nachmanoff said, Chesser poses “no greater, no less” of a potential security threat or flight risk than he has over the past year, when for months federal agents watching Chesser declined to arrest him.

Davis, though, sided with prosecutors, saying that Chesser’s online postings and self-proclaimed willingness to “die for Islam” were concerning. But, Davis said, “the most significant” public safety concern Chesser’s willingness to bring his infant son to war-torn Somalia.

“If he’s not going to look out for his 7-month-old child, then the court is required to do so,” Davis said.

Chesser’s next court date was not set.

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