Zachary Chesser and Paul Rockwood: latest US citizens linked to al-Awlaki

Zachary Chesser and Paul Rockwood are two American Muslims charged with plotting to commit acts of violent jihad. Both had alleged connections with Anwar al-Awlaki, the radical cleric in Yemen who may have motivated November's Fort Hood rampage.

By , Staff Writer

Federal prosecutors this week announced two different terrorism cases involving American citizens who converted to Islam and were allegedly plotting acts of violent jihad.

In one case, a Virginia man was charged with trying to travel to Somalia to join forces with Al Shabab, an Al Qaeda-linked Islamist militant group that the US has designated a terrorist organization.

In the second, Alaska resident Paul Rockwood pleaded guilty to assembling a hit list of 15 targets for assassination or bomb attacks of those within the US who had desecrated Islam. He has agreed to serve an eight-year prison sentence.

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In Virginia, Zachary Chesser, a former George Mason University student, has been charged with providing material support to the Somali-based terror group he reportedly sought to join.

The cases share a common denominator: Both men appear to have had contact with US-born militant cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who is believed to be in a remote part of Yemen and head of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. His speeches and sermons circulate internationally via a network of militant Islamic websites and blogs.

Officials suspect Mr. Awlaki was a motivating force behind the shooting rampage in November by Maj. Nidal Hasan at Fort Hood, Texas. The attack left 13 US service members dead.

Awlaki is also believed to have played a role in preparing Nigerian Umar Abdulmutallab for his attempt to blow up a jetliner near Detroit on Christmas Day. Last week, Awlaki was named by the US Treasury Department as a “specially designed global terrorist.”

While these actions and investigations suggest US officials remain vigilant against home-grown threats from militant Islam, they do not address a more fundamental question: What would cause a life-long American to apparently choose the radical Islamic side in the US battle against Al Qaeda?

Mr. Rockwell’s plea agreement says that while residing in Virginia he converted to Islam and became a “strict adherent to the violent Jihad-promoting ideology of cleric [Awlaki].”

The document adds: “This included a personal conviction that it was [Rockwood’s] religious responsibility to exact revenge by death on anyone who desecrated Islam.”

Even after he moved to King Salmon, Alaska, Rockwell still followed Awlaki’s ideology, “including devotion to [Awlaki’s] violence-promoting works, 'Constants on the Path to Jihad' and '44 Ways to Jihad.' "

According to federal court documents filed in the Virginia case, Mr. Chesser told a federal agent that he first became interested in Islam in July 2008. His conversion came via videos, discussions, and debates broadcast on the Internet.

He is said to have found Awlaki particularly persuasive. Chesser sent several e-mail messages to Awlaki, and received two replies, according to federal documents.

In one e-mail, Chesser reportedly asked Awlaki to interpret dreams he’d had. In explaining one dream, Chesser reportedly told Awlaki that he prayed to Allah to let him join Al Shabab.

Chesser also set up and ran websites dedicated to discussions about Islamic holy war and the obligations of Muslims to defend their religion.

Chesser tried to leave the US twice for Africa – once in 2009 and, most recently, two weeks ago when he attempted to board a flight to Uganda with his infant son. Chesser was refused admission to the plane and was told he was on a No-Fly list.

During questioning at the airport by an FBI agent, Chesser was asked why he posted Internet materials supportive of Awlaki when Awlaki was an enemy of the US. Chesser is said to have told the agent that he did not necessarily disagree with Awlaki.

Chesser is schedule for a hearing on Friday in US District Court in Alexandria, Va., to determine whether he should be released on bond or held in jail pending trial. He is being represented by lawyers with the federal public defender’s office.

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