As the world was glued to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, an American teen named Zachary Adam Chesser was busy trying to join Al-Shabaab, a Somali-based Islamist militant group suspected in the recent bombings in Kampala, Uganda that left 73 dead and dozens more injured as they watched the final match of World Cup at a rugby club and an Ethiopian restaurant.
Those who knew Zachary Adam Chesser said that he kept mostly to himself, and seemed like a maladjusted youth obsessed with satanic art and violent industrial music. While most of his peers knew little more about the loner than the type of music he listened to, one Jihadist researcher got a much clearer picture. According to Jarret Brachman, a counterterrorism analyst at North Dakota State University who runs an Al Qaeda monitoring blog, Chesser was a bright, clever, passionate kid, who sophomorically saw the world divided among good and bad.
Brachman learned of Chesser, when his fundamentalist pseudonym, "Abu Talhah al-Amrikee," showed up on Brachman's blog. The two maintained a back and forth chain of emails ranging from arguments about domestic policy to current trends in counterterrorism analysis. According to Brachman, not only was Chesser much smarter and more insightful than most of the Al Qaeda supporters posting comments on his blog, he was far more respectful in tone, introspective, and intellectually curious.
According to Brachman, Chesser "was positioning himself as a stand-alone al-Qaeda propaganda machine in the United States." He was as sophisticated as they come "in trying to use our own words against us, to think of and innovate new strategies," Brachman said in an interview.
"Chesser wanted to transform English-language jihadist online activism [and] narrow the gap between the rudimentary thinking of American jihadists and the more advanced thinking among Arab jihadists -- a project that threatened to make al Qaeda's ideology more accessible to more Americans in more compelling ways."
Chesser's smarts may have allowed him to succeed in achieving his goals if his youth hadn't got in the way. Most Americans associate Chesser's name with the "South Park" imbroglio, where in response to an episode ridiculing prohibitions on the portrayal of Prophet Mohammed, Chesser posted the home addresses of Trey Parker and Matt Stone on the internet and called on those offended by the show to take matters into their own hands. Needless to say, the FBI was soon familiar with Chesser's online litany of writing.
But how does someone like Zachary Chesser, someone who went to one of the best high schools in the country, played football, rowed on a crew team, and was learning Japanese, decide to join the fight against the West and wish jihad on the country of his birth?
Such a question has thrown American law enforcement and national security agencies into a maelstrom. If someone like Chesser could commit treason, couldn't anyone? The answer is disturbing. It has and will probably happen again, and with a more diverse range of threatening individuals, citizens and foreigners, law enforcements' job will certainly grow ever more daunting.
Homegrown terrorism is an emergent national security challenge, one that has been felt widely across the West. More and more threats are emanating not from abroad but from our very own backyards. With greater frequency, it is citizens of the West - who have unfettered access to their target countries' sites, elicit less suspicion, and have a great deal of time to gather intelligence on the workings and timings of their target population - who pose the gravest security dangers.
Chesser is not alone. Abdullah Minni, a 19-year old from Northern Virginia, was a bright and obedient son, who suddenly vanished from his home only to show up in Pakistan, where he and four of his friends now await trial on terrorism-related charges. Al-Qaeda apparently recruited the five men to help terrorist groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan fight against the United States. Until the day he disappeared, Abdullah was in all other respects a normal, secular, American youth who had an Obama sticker on his car and even wanted to join the American military before he decided to fight against it.
And there are plenty of other cases. Colleen LaRose, known to the media as 'Jihad Jane,' was recently charged with plotting to murder a Swedish cartoonist. Daniel Maldonado, a Texan, was convicted of trying to join a Somali Jihadist group in 2007. Tarek Mehanna, a Boston resident, has been charged with planning to attack shopping malls in the United States. Bryant Neal Vinas, a Catholic convert to Islam from Long Island, allegedly linked up with al Qaeda in Pakistan and admitted planning a bomb attack on the Long Island Railroad. While it stands to reason that these cases represent unique examples of disturbed individuals seeking comfort within the folds of radical Islam, their cases also illuminate the growing phenomenon of "domestic radicalization" in the United States. Beyond trying solely to separate militant rhetoric from plans to wage jihad, there are more macro-level actions that US intelligence can do to prevent homegrown terrorism from sprouting in the first place.
Like everyone in America, I took classes in US and world history in high school. But throughout this education, generally speaking, I was only taught the more appealing side of the American story. College offered a kind of awakening. I had a professor there named Dr. David Andrus, who felt obliged to lift the veil of the American narrative for his eager students. He emphasized the many mistakes, wrongs and horrifying injustices (many of them kept secret for as long as possible) in America's short history to persuade his students to adopt careers working to prevent future ones.
Investigation into the dark side of American history, including the secret wars we had fought, the democracies we had sabotaged, the leaders we had tried to assassinate, and the dictators we installed and supported, understandably inspired me to anger. Anger at being lied to, anger at just finding out, and anger at what my otherwise generous nation had done to others throughout the world in the name of my freedom.
I was a sophomore in 2001, and shortly after 9/11, I joined a number of anti-war organizations such as the Blue Triangle Organization, which tried in vain to keep track of the many deportations occurring at that time. It was a normal and non-violent response to that intoxicating concoction of youth, hormones, college living, and upending, morally troubling new information.
Zachary's trajectory to train in terrorism represents the other side of that spectrum: an extreme reaction to his own personal conflicts and those he saw between what America pretends to be and what it often really is. There is something the government can do to mute such angst, which, in its most extreme, can present a with a national security threat.
America will never be able to thwart every attack against its citizens or interests. While America's defense and intelligence communities do a fairly good job of stopping most attackers, doing so within one's borders and with regard to American citizens will inevitably encroach the civil liberties the country is ultimately trying to defend. Countries such as America are increasingly feeling pressure to ensure the safety of their citizens while simultaneously protecting the civil liberties of their citizens. It was Benjamin Franklin who said that, "those who would give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety." Can a nation enjoy both? Yes, but only by coming clean. Instead of bravely fighting fire with fire, it may prove far more effective to cut off the fire's oxygen supply. Curtailing the rise of homegrown extremism necessitates breaking with the inequities of the past.
America must acknowledge and apologize for the horrendous and violent atrocities it has committed throughout its history. In doing so, passionate objectors, maladjusted adolescents, and disillusioned immigrants may be more readily dissuaded to lay down their rage, their righteous frustration, and their stupefaction at the dark shadow of American history. Finding out what America's covert forces had really done in places like the Philippines in the 1940s, Iran, Syria, and other Middle Eastern countries in the 1950s, Southeast Asia in the 1960s, Latin America in the 1970s, Libya and Afghanistan in the 1980s - the sad list goes on and on - in college is apt to make an identity seeking, hormonally imbalanced, young person unhinged. William Blum, a former State Department employee, breathtakingly documents the character of America's dark underbelly in his book Killing Hope, which chronicles every covert operation the CIA has been engaged in since World War II. While many know that America went places and fought wars big and small, most Americans have no clue of the human toll our campaigns have wrought. It is hard for many Americans to see these events as anything but earnest attempts to secure American prosperity, freedom and liberty. But America's liberty has had a price, and the time has come to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. The truth in this case will truly set us free.
We may well be paying our share of the price now, as anti-American sentiment enraptures an entire generation. Today leagues of youth only see the cruelty of America's wars, incarceration philosophies, empty rhetoric about rights and conventions. Our actions have often cheated our ideals. It is important, not just for ourselves, but for the safe world we want to impart to our progeny, to admit the dual nature of our history.
This solution will take immense moral courage, and while it has been attempted in the past, it has also often been summarily thwarted. Repentance seemed possible in the mid-nineties as a wave of apologizing swept prominent figures and leaders. In 1994, Pope John Paul II offered an apology to non-Catholics for past sins committed by the church against them. In the summer of 1995, 15 million Southern Baptists voted to express a resolution of repentance, in which they lamented and repudiated historic acts of evil such as slavery. British Prime Minister Tony Blair apologized for England's indifference to the Irish plight during the Potato Famine, and the Canadian government formally apologized for its historic mistreatment of indigenous peoples. Then, President Bill Clinton apologized for the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study on African-Americans, and seriously considered the possibility of apologizing for slavery itself. Yet reactions to the President's mea culpa ranged from contempt, to accusations that looking back was counter-productive, to calling a formal apology a huge mistake as it would necessitate reparations and compensation. Because America has an adversarial legal system, admission of guilt is fertile ground for lawsuits.
While I recommend the following strategy for reducing homegrown disaffection, I do not believe that fear of having to pay reparations should dissuade us from rethinking our national security approach. What fiscal watchdogs often miss is that while remuneration is important to those who have suffered by our hands, it is not the most important thing. Psychological and symbolic admission can lift the veil for youngsters across the country sooner. That way, learning about our wrongs won't hit them like a locomotive during one the most turbulent periods in their lives.
As early as middle school, children are ready to learn the truth about America. Instead of teaching our kids, as the Texas' Board of Education has chosen to, that America's history is an exemplar of virtue, we must reconstruct our national historical curriculum to more truthfully mirror our past. There are plenty of books and perspectives that reflect a more honest version of American history; Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, and Amy Goodman must be introduced to our youth far sooner than college. What threatens our future more than any tribe in Afghanistan is a past that strengthens recruitment for Al Qaeda and creates boys like Zachary Chesser. Our selective denial stokes the very embers we have been trying to put out for nearly a decade in place where empires go to die. What America needs more than anything else right now are friends and sympathetic audiences. From radicals at the far reaches of the world, to the maligned newcomer, to the wealthy 20-year unable to successfully adjust to social and academic life in college, we need enemies and future enemies to believe in our ability to change, repent, and make amends.
Zachary Chesser might have gone to grad school instead of prison; may have dabbled with various religions instead of extremely misunderstanding one, and may have become an activist writer who truly believed that the pen was mightier than the sword. Unfortunately, in a way his future was written in part by a country that, with too many enemies to count, is also paying the extremely high price of self-delusion and silence.
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