A Virginia man pleaded guilty Wednesday to supporting an al-Qaida-linked terrorist group in Somalia and posting online threats to the creators of "South Park" for what he perceived as insults to the prophet Muhammad.
Zachary A. Chesser, 20, of Bristow, Va., is expected to receive a prison term of at least 20 years when he is sentenced in February.
Chesser struck a plea bargain in U.S. District Court, admitting that tried twice to travel to Somalia in the last year to join the al-Shabab terror network and engage in holy war. He was thwarted the first time because his mother-in-law would not relinquish the passport of his wife, who intended to travel with him.
His second attempt failed because he had been placed on the no-fly list. He made it as far as JFK Airport in New York, and planned to take his infant son with him on a flight to Uganda to appear less threatening.
He also admitted posting online propaganda on behalf of al-Shabab. On several occasions, Chesser posted speeches by radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki that said killing those who insult Muhammad was justified. Al-Awlaki, who praised the shootings last year at Fort Hood in which 13 people were killed, has been designated a terrorist by the U.S. government.
Chesser said little during a 30-minute plea hearing. He wore a green prison jumpsuit and was shorn of the long beard he wore in online videos where he appeared under the name Abu Talhah Al-Amrikee, which designates his American heritage.
His attorney, federal public defender Michael Nachmanoff, said Chesser is "deeply remorseful" for his actions.
"This case is very different from some of the recent terrorism cases that have been in the news," Nachmanoff said after the hearing. "Mr. Chesser has renounced violent jihad and he's accepted responsibility."
Indeed, before Chesser was arrested, he met with the FBI and told them that while he had intended to join al-Shabab when he went to JFK Airport on July 10, he changed his views shortly thereafter. The change came when al-Shabab claimed responsibility for a July 11 bombing in his wife's home country of Uganda that killed more than 75 people watching soccer's World Cup.
Chesser offered to provide information to the FBI, but they were skeptical about his change of heart because he had similar renouncements in the past. He was arrested July 22.
In addition to providing support to al-Shabab, Chesser pleaded guilty to communicating threats to the creators of the cartoon "South Park," Trey Parker and Matt Stone. Upset about an episode in which a character in bear costume was linked to the prophet Muhammad, Chesser posted Internet messages calling for death to those who defamed Muhammad and links designed to help readers identify Stone and Parker's Colorado residence.
Chesser admitted as part of the plea bargain that his postings were designed to incite others to attack Stone and Parker. The threat charge wasn't part of the initial criminal complaint from July that contained the other charges.
A third charge convicts Chesser of soliciting violence by suggesting that people should leave suspicious packages in public places to desensitize law enforcement to the threat of package bombs.
Chesser could face up to 30 years in prison. As a practical matter, he is likely to receive at least 20 years because the plea agreement bars the defense from seeking a term of less than 20 years from U.S. District Judge Liam O'Grady.
The plea bargain spares Chesser's wife, Proscovia Kampire Nzabanita, from being prosecuted as Chesser's accomplice, although she is expected to plead guilty to lesser charges of giving false statements to authorities.
Chesser's parents, who were in court for Wednesday's hearing, declined comment.
In a statement, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia Neil MacBride said: "Zachary Chesser seriously endangered the lives of innocent people who will remain at risk for many years to come. His solicitation of extremists to murder U.S. citizens also caused people throughout the country to fear speaking out _ even in jest _ lest they also be labeled as enemies who deserved to be killed."