Profile

My Pen Pal, the Jihadist

How a young Virginia man charged with supporting terrorists in Somalia became my online sparring partner -- and why he is so dangerous.

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.

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."

In 2009, Chesser began posting radical material to the Internet. It did not take long before a flood of extremist material began streaming from his computer as well as from his wife, who was equally radical in her ideology and savvy in her technological skills. An April 2010 report from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) illustrates just how complexly interwoven Chesser's web of extremist media activities really was. His deluge of posts across multiple websites under a myriad of monikers believed to be him suggests that Chesser was positioning himself as a stand-alone al Qaeda propaganda machine in the United States.

Under variations of the "Abu Talhah al-Amrikee" screen name, Chesser promulgated an extensive collection of al Qaeda media products to an astonishing array of online outlets, from the hardest-core al Qaeda discussion forums to mainstream Islamic web forums to social networking websites on which he had multiple accounts. He even recorded his own jihadist war tunes, emulating the hero who he was trying to fight alongside, Omar al-Hammami, the American member of al-Shabab better known as Abu Mansur al-Amriki. Hammami had issued his own jihadist rap songs from the Somali battlefront, which Chesser greeted in the forums with critical acclaim.

According to ADL analyst Alix Levine, who is familiar with Chesser's activities, "The rapid growth of Chesser's online activity demonstrates the ease at which someone who adheres to a radical interpretation of Islam can use the Internet to connect with influential extremist leaders around the world and play an active role in the global terrorist movement."

Chesser registered accounts at the most elite al Qaeda-supporting discussion forum still in service, Al-Faloja. He also logged scores of posts on the Somali violent extremist discussion forum Al-Qimmah. He launched his own Twitter accounts and hosted multiple Facebook profiles. In January 2010, Chesser linked up with the Revolution Muslim website, an extremist blog run by American jihadists. Most of what he promulgated were videos and texts of al Qaeda productions or hard-line jihadist material, including a number of products from the now notorious Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, another personal hero of his. Chesser was perhaps most proud of the YouTube channel that he started and his personal blog, known as, "The Mujahid Blog." Most of his online accounts have been suspended or removed.

He monitored the growth of his efforts obsessively. In March 2010, Chesser told me by email that, "In 2010 both [Chesser's] youtube page and several others have seen more traffic than in all of 2009." He continued, "the UK was formerly where most of my views were located, but now the United States is on top with Canada closing in. Canada and the United States seem to grow by a 1% share in my views every two weeks while the UK decreases its share steadily (although total viewership is growing). The growth of my page and some others I pay attention to is looking to hit a rate that would produce more than 1,000,000 views per year. There are currently no jihadi youtube pages with even that many total views."

What I found most compelling was his need to demonstrate his ability, however sophomoric, to re-appropriate American counterterrorism strategies in the name of the global jihadist movement. For whatever reason, he had honed in on a handful of public counterterrorism analysts, including myself, and sought to learn as much as he could from our writings in order to redirect our insights back against us. Chesser issued a multi-part series entitled, Counter Counter Terrorism, which encapsulated his thinking on everything from tactical operational security advice to big-think strategy.

Chesser spent considerable time thinking about how to improve jihadist strategic communication. He argued in one post that jihadists should use terms like, "5 Western pigs sent to Hellfire in sha'a Allah." According to him, "there needs to be a clear bias in every story . . . Unbiased journalism is a myth and we should not seek to operate by it." Yet he also counseled his colleagues to, "Make sure you publish the truth. Lies are counterproductive. Do not invent successes like the kuffar [infidels] do. If you do this it might build temporary momentum, but it will eventually backfire when it is shown to be false."

According to Chesser, the jihadist movement is "neglecting the true potential of this movement by allowing it to continue with almost no direction whatsoever." Al Qaeda's leaders do what they can to direct things, he says, "but it is not so easy when you are fighting a physical war at the same time." Chesser believed that he was in a position to serve as the agenda-setter for the American jihadist community in the absence of a regional directorate. Toward that end, he created numerous taxonomies, categorizing and subcategorizing non-Muslim adversaries as well as various types of Muslims. This strategy of "divide and conquer" seemed to underlie much of his thinking about how to consolidate the strength of his movement while fomenting disunity among his adversaries.

In short, Chesser was in search of the silver bullet for eroding the effectiveness of the U.S. counterterrorism community. In one essay, for instance, he sought to pit American counterterrorism specialists against one another. "I have noticed that there are many polarizing figures and ideas in the [American CT] movement that can be exploited to create divisions," he observed in one essay. According to Chesser, "Jarret Brachman is viewed in very high regard by others in his field. However, from what I have seen he can be exploited in three different areas." One such vulnerability, he argued, was my concept of a "Jihobbyist" (referring to the throngs of online al Qaeda cheerleaders who support the movement from their computers instead of the battlefield), which he argued "causes people to underestimate the threat of domestic attacks. References to this word in postings when a domestic attack does occur," he wrote, "could cause people to blame Jarret Brachman for any shortfalls in attention being payed [sic] to domestic threats."

Chesser believed himself to be exceptional in his ability to outsmart and outwit his adversaries, be it the FBI, me, or the U.S. government writ large. Chesser once counseled that, "you should not dialogue with [American counterterrorism researchers] unless you are going to feed them outright lies to mislead them. This is a permissible lie, because it is misleading the enemy. Simply put, they are better at analyzing us than we are at analyzing them. They do it full time, but we spend a large amount of our time learning other things and only spend a little time of CT officials." He believed that he was best positioned to oversee the future of American jihadist activity and propel it into the next era of sophistication. The only difference is that Chesser broke every rule in his book, thinking that he was too smart to get caught. In this case, it seems as if he was wrong. The outstanding question, however, is whether Chesser was anomalous or represents the next generation of jihadist-minded youth in the United States.

PATRICK BAZ/AFP/Getty Images

Profile

Hostage to Events

In an exclusive interview, the State Department's leading Iran expert discusses his resignation and why the Islamic Republic and the United States keep on talking past each other.

John Limbert knows better than anyone not to have high expectations about U.S.-Iran relations.

One of 52 Americans held hostage by Iranians for 444 days in the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Limbert came back from retirement nine months ago to head the State Department's Iran desk in hopes he could help end the bitter enmity between the U.S. and Iran.

Those hopes have been dashed as Iran rejected U.S. overtures and the Obama administration pivoted to a familiar pattern of economic sanctions.

On Friday, Limbert is stepping down from his position. In an interview Tuesday -- his first since rumors of his departure were confirmed earlier this month -- he said he had promised the U.S. Naval Academy, where he had been teaching history and political science, that he would return for the fall semester. But he acknowledged personal regret that U.S.- Iran relations have not made more progress.

"I have the sense right now that we -- the Obama administration writ large -- are not in the place we wanted to be," Limbert said. While he said the administration is determined to pursue efforts to negotiate with Iran, he fears that both countries risk regressing to the dysfunctional pattern that has kept them largely at odds for three decades.

"Here's the problem," Limbert said. "For 30 years, careers were made both here and in Tehran by how nasty you could be to the other side and how creative you could be in being nasty to the other side. So if you're going to change that, what happens if it doesn't get some immediate result? It's very easy to slip back into what you always have been doing."

Limbert says he worked hard during his tenure to tone down the language U.S. officials employed in talking about Iran during George W. Bush's administration.

"Phrases like ‘They have to change their behavior' -- this kind of preachy sermonizing," he said, referring to a phrase often used by former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, "do not create much confidence." Limbert said he sought to "make things less judgmental, more professional." As a result, "We are perhaps doing less yelling at each other. That's a pretty small step but compared to what's gone on over the last 30 years, maybe it's more important."

Still, it's hard not to view Limbert's departure as a turning point and yet another missed opportunity in U.S.-Iran relations. A number of players with more skeptical views about the prospect of rapprochement with Tehran -- such as White House aide Dennis Ross and nonproliferation experts like Robert Einhorn and Gary Samore -- appear to be driving U.S. policy now, and the president himself blames the Iranian government for failing to respond to his outreach.

Limbert, a scholar of Persian history and poetry and former Peace Corps worker in Iran who is fluent in Farsi and whose wife, Parvaneh, is Iranian, wrote a book about how to negotiate with Iran for the U.S. Institute of Peace. He is also the only American official who has met Ayatollah Ali Khamenei -- during the hostage crisis before Khamenei became Iran's president and then supreme leader.

"I believe his departure is a loss for the Department of State," says Haleh Esfandiari, head of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. "John is not only a skilled diplomat but a historian, versed in Iranian history. He speaks the language just like a native, he knows the literature and he understands the mentality and the way Iranians think. As far as I remember John is the most qualified person on the Iran team at State in the three decades I have lived in the United States. He would have made an ideal negotiator if ever the U.S. and Iran sit across the table to talk."

"John is an exceptional diplomat and a really fine human being," said William Burns, the under secretary of state for political affairs and a leading administration player on Iran. "We were fortunate that he agreed to return temporarily to government service, and we hope to continue to draw on his insights and experience. I deeply admire his commitment to trying to build better understanding between Iranians and Americans, with no illusions about the challenges involved."

It has been the pattern in U.S.-Iran relations that whenever one side is ready for progress, the other is not and vice versa. As Limbert put it: "They always zig when we zag."

What looked like an opening for negotiations last year passed as Iran plunged into domestic turmoil following disputed presidential elections. Then, in January, the Obama administration turned its focus toward ever more punitive economic sanctions while Iran continues a nuclear program that can give it the capability to make weapons.

U.S. officials insist that sanctions are another form of engagement and meant to persuade Iran to change course, but it appears that the Iranians -- Ahmadinejad said this week that "the logic that they can persuade us to negotiate through sanctions is just a failure" -- view the matter differently.

"Sanctions were never supposed to become an end in themselves but unfortunately they can easily became so, because they are something we know how to do," Limbert said. "Changing relations with Iran is much harder [than imposing sanctions] -- particularly if the other side is not going to be very cooperative."

Trita Parsi, a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center who is writing a book about the Obama's administration's Iran diplomacy, faults both Washington and Tehran for the current impasse. While internal Iranian politics are a major factor, he says, the Obama administration has not shown enough patience and should have responded with more enthusiasm to an Iranian-Turkish-Brazilian plan to allow Iran to send out large quantities of its low-enriched uranium -- a variant of the original U.S. proposal but one that had lost much of its attraction as Iran's uranium stockpile grew.

Limbert, who has also served in a host of difficult posts from Algeria to Sudan to post-U.S. invasion Iraq, was pessimistic when asked if he believed he would ever get to return to Iran.

"To be honest, I don't think so ... I'd love to go back. If I could, I'd go back in a heartbeat," Limbert, 67, said.

He said his advice to his successor, Philo Dibble, another State Department veteran who oversaw the Iran file during the first term of George W. Bush, is to "keep at it ... whatever you can do to keep some rationality in the policy."

Noting that Iran is asking for more talks this September with the United States and its European partners, Limbert said, "If you can get people at least exchanging letters in a professional way, given what's gone on for the last 30 years, that's a form of progress."

BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images