Zachary Adam Chesser, better known by his Internet sobriquet of "Abu Talhah al-Amrikee," is the 20-year-old Virginia man who was indicted this month for supporting a Somalia-based al Qaeda affiliate, al-Shabab. Most Americans learned of him in April 2010, when Chesser's media stunt wishing death upon the creators of the South Park cartoon thrust him into the national spotlight. I came to know him in a different, more personal way and believe that as frightening as the "American Jihadi" headlines surrounding him have been, the portrait that has emerged of Chesser in recent months is still a caricature that unfortunately obscures the very reason "Abu Talhah" was so dangerous.
If you look at the range, pace, and content of Chesser's online postings, it becomes clear that he was trying to do more than simply issue idle threats. Under the banner of his "Abu Talhah al-Amrikee" brand, Chesser wanted to fundamentally transform English-language jihadist online activism. He was trying to narrow the gap between the rudimentary thinking of American jihadists and the more advanced thinking among Arab jihadists -- a project that threatened to make the al Qaeda's ideology more accessible to more Americans in more compelling ways.
In February 2010, Chesser posted a comment to my al Qaeda monitoring blog chastising me for reminding my readers about an old spat that one of his heroes, the Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, had gotten into with another jihadist cleric. I dismissed that post and his next post about the Taliban as the usual ranting of a low-level al Qaeda supporter. It was not until his third post to my website in mid-March, where he was commenting on rifts he saw among America's counterterrorism researchers, that I realized "Abu Talhah" was different from my typical jihadist reader. I emailed him out of curiosity and he responded. From there we began sparring by email and on my blog across a wide array of topics, including U.S. domestic politics, current trends in American counterterrorism analysis, our thoughts about the value of various senior al Qaeda leaders, and American media personalities. We had actually been discussing the possibility of holding an in-person, public debate just before his arrest was announced.
Path to Extremism
Watch a video documenting Chesser's radicalization.
By Jarret Brachman
I found Chesser to be far more respectful in his tone with me than most jihadists I communicate with, except for when he said that an argument I made was "retarded" and that "someone should break [my] hands and cut out [my] tongue so that [I] do not have any way of communicating." (He later apologized for the comment.) What surprised me was the degree to which Chesser fancied himself a legitimate analyst and strategist, one who could go toe-to-toe with me on any jihadist matter. He was insightful and rational, but only to a point. For instance, Chesser opened one email to me by stating, "Do you write in lowercase letters to sound more colloquial intentionally, or is it just a habit? Your comment about 'spoon-feeding' reflects that you have not done very much research on propaganda. The more intelligent somebody is, then the more they need things to be 'spoon-fed' to them to keep them consistent in their beliefs. This is a psychological trend that applies to all forms of persuasion."
Chesser was intensely intellectually curious. He was an avid reader and current-events junkie who kept up with news from sources as diverse as Foreign Policy magazine and the Taliban's website. Once, in response to a series of criticisms I gave him about his analysis of my work, Chesser wrote, "I think you missed the point, but I guess that means that I did not make the point clear enough or at all. This is good feedback, and I will admit that the part on you is the weakest." In a May 6, 2010, email, Chesser asked me:
"Why is it that more or less 14 years into this war the political and media leaders in this country are still telling the people that they are being attacked for their 'way of life?' I recently listened to Senator Reid admitting that America had killed hundreds of thousands of Muslims in congress and there was no debate on that issue. Yet it does not seem to get through these people's heads that maybe that is a reason for them being a target. Michael Scheuer just ripped apart the hosts of Fox and Friends when one of the hosts tried to say that they were attacked for their 'freedom,' but he has been doing things like that for quite some time to no effect."
Chesser converted to Islam in the summer of 2008 while playing on a soccer team organized by a member of the Islamic proselytizing group Hizb ut-Tahrir. He had donned other personas growing up, including brief stints with Goth and rapping/break dancing. In our private communications, Chesser was surprisingly candid about both his youth and his relatively short time being a Muslim. He wrote to me in an email, "I was still singing songs about wanting to kill/torture Usaamah bin Laadin when you got your MA. I am 20 years old, and I am very much aware of the impact that has on the maturity of my thoughts. I have been a Muslim for less than two years as well, so that is another time related handicap."