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 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.
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.
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.