Digital Version of November/December 2014 Print Edition
Senate study provides insight into radicalized U.S. Islamist, recommends more coordinated response
The Internet and social media are integral ingredients in the rapid radicalization of homegrown terrorists, said a staff study by the Senate homeland security committee that recommended a coordinated government response to counter online radical propaganda and help communities intervene in the radicalization process.
The report, released on Feb. 27 by the staff of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, was based on the close study of the personal writings of Zachary Chesser, the Bristow, VA man now serving a 25-year sentence for threatening the writers of the South Park television show, soliciting violent jihadists to desensitize law enforcement, and attempting to provide material support to Al-Shabaab.
The study also provides some unique detail into Chesser’s motivations and personality.
The Senate staff said Chesser’s case was a classic case study of how quickly online radicalization can occur compared to the traditional process of face to face contact between an aspirant and an established terrorist group.
Chesser’s trajectory from high school graduate to incarcerated felon occurred in just two years and he may be the harbinger of more young men following a similar path, it said. Samir Khan, the producer of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s English-language Inspire online magazine who grew up in Queens, NY, took a similar path as Chesser, said the study. Khan created his own website and YouTube videos and spread the violent Islamist narrative online wherever he could find an audience. Khan was killed in a U.S. drone strike last September that also claimed the life of AQAP’s notorious online recruiter Anwar Al Awlaki.
“Chesser represents a growing breed of young Americans who have such comfort and facility with social media that they can self radicalize to violent Islamist extremism in an accelerated time period, compared to more traditional routes to radicalization,” the report said.
Chesser’s “prolific online writings and written correspondence with Committee staff provide a window into his thinking, and in turn, may shed light on the thinking of other like-minded individuals who may follow in his destructive path of radicalization toward violent Islamist extremism.”
The report said the committee staff corresponded with Chesser over a three-month period between August and October 2011 and included four of his hand-written letters in the report.
It also closely analyzed Chesser’s extensive online writings, adding that he was a member of and contributed to at least six terrorist online sites, created three YouTube terrorist propaganda channels, managed at least two Twitter accounts and a Facebook page, and authored two blogs advocating violent Islamist extremism.
In his letters written to the committee in pen on lined notebook paper, Chesser is both flip and apparently sincere. In one letter, he kids about endorsing various committee members in the next election, saying Sen. Daniel Akaka a Democrat from Hawaii was planning to establish sharia law in the U.S. with President Obama and Rep. Michelle Bachman (R-MN) shared some of his strict religious leanings.
He states he became interested in jihad out of a desire to “alleviate suffering” in the Muslim world. He adds that asking what interested him in the Internet is like asking the past generation “what interested you in the phone?” He added, however, that in-person meetings with Islamists played an equal role in his radicalization.
He also disputes law enforcements’ assertion that he intended to travel to Somalia to join Al Shabaab, saying the U.S. agents who interrogated him at JFK airport misinterpreted his responses. He said he hedged his answers and intentionally provided no specifics as to his travel plans.
He likened American Muslim’s experience to that of the persecuted character in George Orwell’s 1984, saying that character was also entrapped in a government sting operation.
For its part, the report called current U.S. government efforts to combat online radicalization “haphazard.” It said the federal government should develop a coordinated strategy aimed specifically at global internet radicalization and propaganda. A comprehensive Internet strategy to address online radicalization should integrate activities across the State Department, the Defense Department, the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, and other agencies into a single, coherent approach, it said. The effort, however, should “vigilantly respect” First Amendment rights, it added.
The report also recommended the federal government develop a “whole of society” approach to countering violent Islamist radicalization that includes “how to facilitate community intervention by family, friends, and community and religious leaders supported by federal, state, and local government resources. In addition, the U.S. government should strengthen its ability to assist Muslim American communities seeking to address and counter radicalization online.”