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All-American Al-Qaeda

"You just took a shocking leap from a high-school athlete to a highly energized traitor to your country. It's startling." 

—U.S. district judge Liam O’Grady, sentencing Zachary  Chesser to twenty-five years in prison on February 24, 2011

At the age of nine Zachary Chesser could name every major battle of the American Civil War, which generals participated, how many soldiers had died, and which side had won. When he was a kid, Zac’s greatest desire was to be a U.S. Army general. His grandfather was career army; he had gone to West Point and then fought in Vietnam, retiring as a colonel. Zac’s mother, Barbara, says that her father inculcated an atmosphere of intense patriotism in her household: “Loyal, loyal, loyal American.”

David Chesser met his future wife in the mid-1980s, when both were working part-time at the Pierce Street Annex bar in downtown Washington, DC. David was studying for his master’s in economics at nearby George Washington University; Barbara worked in human resources. After they were married they moved down to Charlottesville, Virginia, so that David could pursue his PhD at the University of Virginia. Their first son, Zachary, was born three days before Christmas 1989, and another son followed three years later.

The Chessers moved to Missouri, where David taught at the University of Missouri and Barbara obtained a law degree, but eight years later they headed back east. Fairfax County, an affluent suburb of DC, is the kind of place that puts the white in white bread, where comfortably middle-class subdivisions sprawl for miles in every direction, home to hosts of civil servants and government contractors. David worked as an economist for the Department of Transportation, and Barbara was a prosecutor for the DC government in Washington.

By the time of their move back east, David and Barbara’s marriage was unraveling. When Zac’s parents divorced, his mother moved in with her partner, Stacy Anderson, also a government lawyer.

Zac was eleven on September 11, 2001. He and his school friends made up songs about torturing and killing Osama bin Laden. A teacher who overheard them singing these songs didn’t discourage them; after all, their school was only a dozen or so miles away from the still-smoldering Pentagon. Zac wrote a poem about the attacks:

America will stand proud and tall

No matter how hard she’s shaken she will not fall, America’s the finest out of every country,

No matter how hard she’s shaken she’ ll always be free, Everyone’s love combines into one giant heart,

But no matter how hard she’s shaken she won’t fall apart.

Zac was a clever boy, reading at a sixth-grade level by age six and thriving in the “gifted and talented” program in elementary and middle school. Like many clever boys, he acquired a number of obsessional interests. At age eight he refused to wear leather shoes because he worried about cruelty to animals. A year later he was boycotting Nike products because the company ran sweatshops. By his early teens he was a long-haired, vocal pacifist and a vegetarian in protest of the slaughterhouse system. He dabbled in Buddhism and had discussions with his father about how best to end poverty. He learned to draw well and played the guitar. He studied Latin, and then Japanese for four years.

His mother says, “He had a tendency to find something he felt like he was really good at and then dig his teeth in and go full force. He might not have been the best at it, but when he thought of himself as one of the best at it, he kept with it.” Zac devoured books about history, particularly the Civil War, but like any other teen boy, he also played video games and watched TV; a favorite was the animated series South Park, of which he was a “ginormous” fan.

Standing six foot one by his mid-teens, Zac was also something of a jock. He played youth basketball and soccer, rowed crew, and in eleventh grade even began break-dancing with a group of Korean American students. He was well-rounded, finding sports and calculus equally manageable, and he largely stayed out of trouble.

In twelfth grade Zac fell hard for a Muslim girl, Fatimah, the daughter of Somali immigrants. He was dating Fatimah behind her father’s back—he didn’t approve of his daughter dating—so they had to sneak out to the prom together. Never one to do anything by half measures, Zac threw himself into learning everything he could about Islam. “I became Muslim after reading the first four chapters of a translation of the Koran,” he says. He started playing on a football team organized by a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir, a fundamentalist but nonviolent organization that aims to install sharia law around the Muslim world. In the summer of 2008, Zac formally converted to Islam. He was eighteen.

Zac immediately set out to be the best Muslim he could be: “I had very little exposure to religious knowledge growing up, so when I learned anything about Islam, I immediately adopted it and tried to practice completely. I did not do a lot of critical thinking about what I learned. I just felt like I had to do everything to the fullest extent, whether it was how I dressed, who I spoke to, or how I prayed.” After three months of practicing Islam, Zac was given a copy of some lectures by Anwar al- Awlaki. “They had an element of radicalism to them which served as a gateway for me to other more extreme beliefs,” says Zac.

Zac soon told Fatimah that he wanted to travel to Yemen or to her native Somalia to study Islam. Fatimah had no nostalgia for Somalia, telling him, “I’ve been there, and I know what it’s like and I’m not going back.” The relationship ended shortly afterward, when Zac announced that “Islam does not allow paramours.”

Now Zac started ranting to his family that the Koran demanded that he not use toilet paper. Though he had recently signed up to help with the Obama presidential campaign, he suddenly said he couldn’t even vote because it was supposedly against Islam. He told his mother that his religious beliefs prevented him from having health insurance. When his mother checked this with a local imam and he assured her it was nonsense, Zac scoffed: “That imam, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”

One day Zac came home wearing the full-length robes worn by men in the Gulf States. Soon he was wearing them all the time, as well as a kufi, or Islamic cap, and he kept his pant legs well above his shoes. He grew a beard, started adopting an odd, slightly foreign accent, and soon quit his job at Blockbuster Video, refusing to work at a place that rented out videotapes showing women in stages of undress. He stopped going out to dance clubs and made it clear that he didn’t want to take part in any family Christmas festivities or gift giving when the holiday season came around. He told his mother that he could no longer be around her partner, Stacy, as she was an unmarried female outside his family. To Stacy he said flatly, “My religion precludes me from being in the same room with you.”

Zac spent more and more time in his room watching jihadist propaganda online. He would stare at his computer screen for hours, seemingly frozen in place. Zac’s stepmother, Meg, thought that some of the lectures sounded like rants delivered by Hitler. She and Zac’s father were now in a bit of a panic, particularly because Zac would soon be living by himself in a dorm room at George Mason University. They explored intervention options but learned there wasn’t much they could do now that Zac was eighteen. Increasingly worried, Zac’s father tried to sound out his son about his views on the 9/11 attacks. Zac assured his father, “I don’t believe in violence.”

As a freshman at George Mason, Zac associated exclusively with members of the Muslim Student Association. He hung out most often with students from Saudi Arabia and Somalia, many of whom shared his increasingly militant beliefs about jihad. He found it all very exciting. Because of his beard and Arab-style robes, some students took to referring to him as “Jesus.”

Zac’s mother was becoming more and more concerned about her son. One day, during the spring of 2010, Zac told her over coffee that he knew one of the five kids from northern Virginia who had recently traveled to Pakistan and attempted to join the Taliban (before being arrested by the Pakistani authorities). Barbara, a no-nonsense prosecutor, asked her son, “You’re not hanging out with bad people, are you?” In her heart she felt she knew the answer. Zac assured her, “I’m not hanging out with bad people.”

It was true that Chesser was not literally “hanging out” with most of the bad people he knew. Instead, he was spending time with a virtual community of like-minded militants on the Internet, who reinforced his own increasingly radical ideas. Chesser was part of the generation of militants that emerged in the decade after 9/11 who proved not to need face-to-face contact with fellow radicals to radicalize, rather self- radicalizing solely through the materials they read and watched on the Internet, just as Sageman had predicted in Leaderless Jihad. These militants in turn began creating their own websites in English, expanding a corpus long available only in Arabic, to help radicalize others. If you wanted to imbibe al-Qaeda’s philosophy, it was no longer necessary to do so at a militant mosque or at a dusty training camp halfway around the world; thanks to this new generation of English-speaking, Internet-savvy jihadists, all of it was now a mouse click away.

Chesser would soon be among their leaders.

Reprinted from UNITED STATES OF JIHAD. Copyright © 2016 by Peter Bergen. Published by Crown, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. 


Peter Bergen is a journalist, documentary producer, vice president at New America, CNN national security analyst, professor of practice at Arizona State University, and the author or editor of seven books, three of which were New York Times bestsellers and four of which were named among the best non-fiction books of the year by The Washington Post.