On July 21, the U.S. Justice Department indicted Zachary Adam Chesser on charges that he twice tried to join al-Shabab, the fast-growing Somali terrorist group that has become a close ally of al Qaeda. On October 20, he pleaded guilty to three counts of providing material support to terrorists, communicating threats, and soliciting crimes of violence: He faces upwards of 20 years in jail. Chesser, a 20-year-old Virginian turned radical convert to Islam better known by his Internet sobriquet Abu Talhah al-Amrikee, had become a minor online celebrity in April when he issued a threat against Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of the cartoon series South Park. Parker and Stone, Chesser warned, would probably be killed after airing an episode depicting the Prophet Mohammed wearing a bear costume.
It is tempting to dismiss Chesser as just another suburban white kid lashing out at the world. But his story is not the irrelevant absurdity it appeared, not merely another terrorist folly like exploding underpants and the undetonated bomb in Times Square. Chesser, in fact, was the real thing: a significant al Qaeda propagandist for a new moment, South Park fatwa and all. In less than two years, under various identities, Chesser had promoted an extensive collection of radical papers, videos, and blog posts to an astonishing array of online outlets, from the hardest-core al Qaeda discussion forums to mainstream Islamic websites to social-networking tools like Facebook and Twitter. He even recorded his own jihadi war tunes.
I know all this because I stumbled upon Chesser five months before his arrest: We became improbable pen pals. I first met Chesser virtually, after he posted a comment to my al Qaeda-monitoring blog correcting what he believed to be a mistake I had made. He was bothered by my depiction of his hero, Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born Yemeni cleric who has been tied to a growing number of terrorist plots in the United States. I dismissed that post and Chesser's next one as the usual splenetics of a low-level al Qaeda supporter. It was not until his third post to my website in mid-March, commenting on rifts he saw within the U.S. counterterrorism community, that I suspected "Abu Talhah al-Amrikee" might be different from my typical jihadi critic. Out of curiosity, I emailed him -- and surprisingly, he responded. From there we became what you might call hostile friends, sparring over a wide array of topics, including U.S. domestic politics, recent terrorist plots, al Qaeda personalities, and even my own counterterrorism colleagues. We had been discussing the possibility of holding an in-person, public debate just before his arrest.
Under the banner of Abu Talhah al-Amrikee, Chesser's goal was breathtakingly ambitious: He was trying to make al Qaeda's radical ideology more accessible to Americans -- and thus inspire more people like the Times Square bomber to take up the jihad at home. And Chesser thought he was on his way to doing that, offering his readers a guide to what he called "Counter Counter Terrorism" in a long series of articles he penned and posted to al Qaeda websites before his arrest. His starting premise was that al Qaeda's online supporters were easily fooled, lazy, and in need of direction. "How are we so gullible that we fall for tricks that our enemy admits are tricks before he tries them on us? This is nonsense and we should not be like this," he wrote, before going on to offer detailed guidelines for outsmarting the watchers.
In one of our March exchanges, Chesser bragged about his success as a jihadi web publisher; he was, he believed, Americanizing violent jihadi thought:
In 2010 both my youtube page and several others have seen more traffic than in all of 2009. In my case 2010 is 80% of my views so far. Also, the UK was formerly where most of my views were located, but now the United States is on top with Canada closing in.… 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.
Whatever his actual traffic, Chesser had become the newest incarnation of a dangerous online phenomenon al Qaeda has inspired over the last several years -- one that is helping the group transcend its image as a brutal terrorist organization and attract a much broader spectrum of followers, particularly in the West. In full view of us, al Qaeda is cultivating a nimble, sophisticated global network of Internet activists, amateur pundits, and general well-wishers working to bring al Qaeda to the masses.
This is no longer the original al Qaeda, the highly centralized organization of Osama bin Laden and his closest acolytes, or even its post-9/11 incarnation as a network of affiliates, but a global, fluid, and adaptive amoeba: a kind of collectively self-aware organism, one that closely monitors what Western experts are saying about it -- and plots ways to turn those ideas against the United States. The process goes something like this: 1) The U.S. government does something that garners international media coverage, like announcing a new military strategy in Afghanistan or failing to adequately respond to a domestic catastrophe; 2) Self-styled jihadi intelligence analysts, like Chesser, read the coverage and start spinning it to their advantage, either to prove how bad Americans are or to give their movement a heads-up about an impending shift in U.S. approach; 3) America's al Qaeda media-monitoring machine spots those jihadi analysts talking about us and writes about it, spinning up the U.S. government; 4) The jihadists, who monitor us monitoring them, then post links and/or translations about us watching them watching us.
In short, they watch us, we watch them, and then they watch us watching them. Rinse, repeat. This is the new al Qaeda.