"The terrorists that we're prosecuting today, in many instances are American kids, who grew up in suburban high schools and you can still see them on the pages of the drama club or the skateboard club," says Neil MacBride, U.S Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia.
WASHINGTON – In 2006, Zachary Adam Chesser was a normal kid growing up in Fairfax County, Va. He was on the football and rowing teams and a member of the breakdancing club at Oakton High School.
But in February of 2011, he was sentenced to 25 years in prison. His crime was attempting to provide material support to al-Shabab, a designated foreign terrorist organization.
He had transitioned from a friendly, intelligent, polite young man into a terrorist sympathizer, joining a growing breed of terrorist.
“The 9/11 attacks involved 19 hijackers from Middle Eastern countries who showed up into the U.S. and launched a devastating and murderous attack that killed 3,000 people,” says Neil MacBride, U.S Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia.
But in the decade since the attacks took place a new, unsettling phenomenon has sprouted.
“The terrorists that we’re prosecuting today in many instances are American kids who grew up in suburban high schools, and you can still see them on the pages of the drama club or the skateboard club,” MacBride says.
MacBride says that’s what keeps him up at night.
“The known unknowns, (people and plots) those threats that we know are out there, but have not detected,” he says.
Chesser, like 23-year-old Yonathan Melaku, was born and raised in the Washington region. Melaku is awaiting an April 27 sentencing on charges of damaging property and firearm violations involving five separate shootings at military installations in Northern Virginia between October and November 2010.
And there are others, who either moved here as teenagers or young adults, and are now caught up in terrorist activity:
Jubair Ahmad, 24, a native of Pakistan and resident of Woodbridge, Va., awaits an April 13 sentencing for giving support to terror group Lashkar-e-Taiba, or LeT.
Jesse Curtis Morton, aka Younus Abdullah Mohammad, 33, of New York City, worked on the Revolution Muslim website along with Chesser and was charged in the conspiracy to incite violent jihadists to attack the creators of the South Park TV show.
Emerson Winfield Begolly, 22, of New Bethlehem, Pa. was sentenced to 20 years in prison for soliciting Islamic extremists to engage in acts of terrorism within the United States and posting bomb-making instruction materials online.
MacBride describes them all as misguided.
“Somewhere along the line these kids took a terrible U-turn and began to hate the country that raised them,” he says.
MacBride credits the FBI and other partner agencies with getting wind of their plots and orchestrating elaborate stings to stop them before they could execute their plans. But he also recognizes the wave of plots and perpetrators may continue to grow.
“This district unfortunately is a target-rich environment, symbolically as well as literally. We’re home to the Pentagon, to the CIA, to the world’s largest naval base in Norfolk,” he says. “A huge footprint of the U.S. government defense and intelligence community sits in this district and the bad guys are aware of that.”
Because of that, MacBride never takes his eye off the threat matrix.
“I am briefed regularly on threats that may occur overnight or may come up very quickly,” he says. “Many times these are threats on the intelligence side of the house versus the prosecution side of the house. We work closely with the intelligence agencies in monitoring threats and threat streams.”
In recent years, more than 50 terrorism cases have been successfully prosecuted in the U.S, the bulk of which have been in Washington, D.C., the Eastern District of Virginia, the Eastern District of New York and the Northern District of Illinois.
MacBride knows that times are changing as are terrorist organizations. Young, lone actors are now a key concern.
The one-to-two year transition period in Chesser’s life — between breakdancing and donning a robe, a beard, a radical ideology and engaging in terrorist activity — is the time that MacBride and other U.S. attorneys understand is a key window to shut down the radicalization process.
Many are influenced by foreign terror organizations like al-Qaida, LeT and the Taliban. In the past, stopping them before they arrived in the U.S. was the goal.
But now, because of the Internet, the foreign radicalization element no longer appears necessary.