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Virginia man accused of trying to go to Somalia to join terror group

By Carol Cratty, CNN
  • Zachary Chesser had exchanged e-mails with militant Yemeni-American cleric, officials say
  • He tried to take his infant son with him to Somalia as "cover," court documents say
  • After being told he was on the "no-fly list," he talked with the FBI, documents say

Washington (CNN) -- A 20-year-old U.S. citizen was arrested Wednesday, accused of attempting to travel to Somalia to join the designated terrorist group Al-Shabaab.

According to a court documents, Zachary Adam Chesser also had exchanged e-mails with Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, whose name has been linked to an attack and an attempted attack in the United States.

Chesser allegedly tried to fly to Uganda and then on to Somalia on July 10. According to an affidavit, he tried to take his infant son with him, telling his wife it was part of his "cover" to make it less likely anyone would suspect he was trying to go to Somalia to join Al-Shabaab.

Chesser had been on the FBI's radar previously and was questioned in 2009 about his Internet postings and e-mail communications with al-Awlaki. U.S. officials revealed at some point they began court-ordered electronic surveillance of Chesser.

The court documents said Chesser was not allowed to depart the country on July 10, was told by the airline he was on the "no-fly list," and was questioned by a Secret Service agent. He was not arrested and, according to the documents, he contacted an FBI agent and said he wanted to provide information about Al-Shabaab.

In subsequent interviews with the FBI, Chesser allegedly said he had been in contact with Al-Shabaab, felt he would have no problem joining the group when he reached Somalia and knew it had been designated as a terrorist group by the U.S. government.

Court documents say Chesser thought that after training he would be placed in the group's media branch but that people in that position still engage in fighting. He allegedly said he also unsuccessfully attempted to travel to Somalia in 2009.

In 2009, he allegedly told the FBI that he had sent several e-mail messages to al-Awlaki and that the cleric replied to two of them. U.S. officials say al-Awlaki also had communications with Umar Farouk AbdulMutallab, who is accused of attempting to blow up an airliner over Detroit, Michigan, on Christmas, and with Army Maj. Nidal Hasan who is accused of the shooting deaths of 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas, in November.

An FBI agent who interviewed Chesser last year said Chesser said that "although he didn't support acts of terrorism or violence, he wanted the U.S. to fail in its overseas military efforts, and he acknowledged that its failure would require many deaths." Chesser allegedly told the agent he had wanted to travel overseas to fight but changed his mind and had moderated his views.

He also allegedly told the FBI in 2009 he was not on good terms with mother "as a result of death threats that she received following postings he made on the internet regarding the South Park television show."

Chesser is being charged with providing material support for terrorism and will have his first court appearance before a magistrate judge Thursday in Alexandria, Virginia.

Neil MacBride, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia issued a statement saying, "This case exposes the disturbing reality that extreme radicalization can happen anywhere, including Northern Virginia." Chesser lives in Fairfax County, Virginia, near the District of Columbia.

"This young man is accused of seeking to join Al-Shabaab, a brutal terrorist organization with ties to al Qaeda," MacBride said. "These allegations underscore the need for continued vigilance against homegrown terror threats."