On a sunny morning in March, thousands of anti-war protesters converged on Washington – carrying banners with slogans like "No to War; Yes to Peace." Many groups joined the demonstration across from the White House; some well-established and others less so.
One was RevolutionMuslim, a New York based group whose leaders have in the past voiced support for the 9/11 attacks and al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. Among its supporters at the event were two young men – one from Virginia and one from New Jersey. Within weeks both would be arrested on terrorism charges, and their alleged links to others in militant Islamic circles would begin to surface.
The backgrounds of these men and how they allegedly met and communicated illuminate the growing phenomenon of 'domestic radicalization" in the United States, and the daunting task facing US intelligence in separating militant rhetoric from plans to wage jihad.
One of them called himself Abu Talhah al Amrikee. Outside the White House, he directed his ire at President Obama. "You weaseled your way to the Oval office and now sit as the head of the American empire," al Amrikee pronounced. "However now that your promises and rhetoric are being recognized as what they were: simple deception."
Al Amrikee's real name is Zachary Chesser. According to authorities, last week, as he planned to leave for East Africa, the 20-year old was arrested and charged with providing material support to terrorists. It is alleged he planned to join al Qaeda affiliate Shabab in Somalia. Chesser has not yet entered a plea.
Also at the event outside the White House: Mohamed Mahmood Alessa from New Jersey. He too was arrested weeks later at JFK airport – his alleged destination: Somalia . He and another New Jersey man, Carlos Almonte are charged with conspiring to kill, maim and kidnap persons outside the United States. The same day Alessa was at the DC protest, Almonte was buying his ticket for Cairo , Egypt – the first stage of their route to Somalia. Neither has entered a plea.
Videos of the White House event were shot by RevolutionMuslim and another radical group, the Islamic Thinkers Society, but subsequently downloaded by the Anti-Defamation League and provided to CNN.
Another in the same circle was Charlotte resident Samir Khan. Counter-terrorism officials say Khan had attended meetings of the Islamic Thinkers Society while living in New York. He then moved to North Carolina, where he produced a militant blog called Jihad Recollections. Khan vanished last year after buying a round-trip ticket to Yemen.. Counter-terrorism officials suspect he is still in Yemen and was involved in editing the new online al Qaeda magazine "Inspire."
In September 2009, Khan introduced Chesser as a new blogger on his site. A month later, Khan was gone.
Almost all of them had converted to Islam just a few years before their alleged terrorist activity. Most had troubled upbringings or were easily manipulated. Alessa had repeated visits to psychiatrists as a child and his family says he was teased at school. Several appear to have romanticized their role and "mission". According to an FBI agent who met him earlier this month, "Chesser stated that he was an influential person in the Jihadi community, and could be considered one of the top individuals in this area."
Chesser attended Fairfax Co. High School in Virginia and was on the rowing team. He converted to Islam in his late teens and according to the criminal complaint against him told an FBI agent in 2009 that he "became very interested in Islam sometime in July 2008."
Chesser and others were drawn to the website of RevolutionMuslim. A senior counter-terrorism official says Chesser communicated online and in person with members of both groups. In the indictment against him, he is also alleged to have communicated via e-mail with fugitive Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al Awlaki.
Chesser himself posted a commentary on the portrayal of the Prophet Mohammed in an episode of South Park that was widely perceived as a threat to the show's creators. He told CNN at the time that providing the addresses was not intended as a threat but to give people the opportunity to protest.
A few weeks earlier he posted a message online saying [FBI Director] "Robert Mueller said he is 'absolutely' afraid that more heroes like [them] ... will answer the call of Jihad."
A posting on an Islamic forum last weekend under the name of Younes Abdullah Muhammad, one of the organization's founders, suggested that Chesser was well known to Revolution Muslim leaders. The posting said he had grown restless with what he saw as the restraint of their rhetoric. "I had many conversations with Abu Talha about the platform for spreading Islam," the posting stated. "He felt that some of what I was saying was passive to a degree and moved on. I have not been in contact with him for several months and he has not been participating on RM [Revolution Muslim] since the South Park Affair."
NYPD Director of Intelligence Analysis Mitch Silber told CNN earlier this year: "The pattern that we see is a lot of these individuals that are attracted to the bug light at a certain point realize that these groups are just talkers. They're not going do more than just demonstrate..And those who are serious about the Jihad will leave these groups."
Counter-terrorism officials say Colleen LaRose, the Pennsylvania woman charged this year with plotting to murder a Swedish cartoonist, was also a follower of the RevolutionMuslim YouTube channel, using the online name Jihad Jane. LaRose has pled not guilty to charges of conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists and conspiracy to kill in a foreign country.
Others believed to be associated with RevolutionMuslim or the Islamic Thinkers Society include:
*Daniel Maldonado, a Texas resident convicted in 2007 for traveling to fight with a Somali Jihadist group.
*Tarek Mehanna, a Boston resident, charged last year with planning violent jihad in the United States - including planning to attack shopping malls. Mehanna has not entered a plea. His trial is due to begin in October next year.
*Bryant Neal Vinas, a Catholic convert to Islam from Long Island, moved in Islamic Thinkers Society circles in New York before he left the United States . He allegedly linked up with al Qaeda in Pakistan and admitted planning a bomb attack on the Long Island railroad.
After a rally in New York in April, the spokesman of the Islamic Thinkers Society, Abu Mujaddid, told CNN that the group plans to step up its activities in New York and was successfully recruiting supporters.
On its website, the Islamic Thinkers Society says: "Our struggle is always intellectual & political non-violent means." It has not responded to several requests for comment. Counter-terrorism officials say it is not the target of any criminal investigation but its activities are monitored.
"As much as the Islamic Thinkers Society might put out an extremist message, it seems they go right up to the line of the First Amendment," Mitch Silber says. "For the most part they, themselves as a group, aren't acting."
Terrorism experts believe that groups such as Revolution Muslim and the Islamic Thinkers Society pose a threat nonetheless. According to Marc Sageman, a former Scholar in Residence at the NYPD, "Even if they do not have the connections to help [young radicals] go further they articulate the glory of fighting Jihad, the glory of doing something, of being active and this very much inspires young people."