Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

July 25, 2010

Could you or I have talked Zac Chesser out of violent extremism?

Filed under: Radicalization,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on July 25, 2010

A bit buried in the Metro section of the Sunday Washington Post is a piece relevant to our discussions since Thursday. It profiles a Northern Virginian arrested this week by the FBI.   No life can be reduced to a thousand words, but given the profile, is there a way that Zac — and people like Zac — could be diverted from violent extremism before the FBI needs to get involved?

Terror suspect took his desire to belong to the extreme: Converted to Islam in high school

By Tara Bahrampour

Long before 20-year-old Zachary Adam Chesser embraced the cause of jihad, he was passionate about the heavy metal music of Marilyn Manson, the anime culture of Japan and the kinetic energy of American break dancing.

Chesser spent his years at Oakton High School trying out a variety of identities, friends said, before transforming himself into the bearded, robed young man who was arrested by the FBI last week for allegedly trying to join an al-Qaeda-linked terrorist group in Somalia.

Read the rest of the story…

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Comment by Arnold Bogis

July 26, 2010 @ 4:10 pm

The short answer to the question in the title of this post: no. Not a chance. Neither you nor I could have connected with this individual in any meaningful way.

Could others? Perhaps. But do not forget that this wasn’t the only path this individual could have taken to act out whatever he needed to act out.

In other words, in another decade he might have taken up “arms” for another cause. Don’t ignore the importance of religious ideas/ideology, but also don’t forget that it wasn’t too long ago that nationalism, Marxism, anarchism, [fill in your “ism” here], was the primary driver for such activity.

The results are the same, the drivers change…

Comment by Philip J. Palin

July 26, 2010 @ 5:09 pm

Arnold, My answer is “Probably not, but there’s a small chance.” My son is two years older than Zac. If I had met him a couple of years ago through my son, I hope I would have taken some time to listen and noticed the need to engage. In my mid-and-late twenties I spent alot of time with younger men and women who certainly fit the attributes the reporter gave to Zac, and shared more than a few ontological crises and existential panics with them. But while you know the outcome of engaging, you can never be sure what might have happened if you had not engaged (except in a a couple of Frank Capra films).

Comment by Arnold Bogis

August 2, 2010 @ 12:56 pm

Perhaps I spoke (or typed, as the case may be) too quickly. You may have been able to reach him. Heck, I’ve seen Marilyn Manson twice in concert, so maybe I had a shot.

However, I still think that for cases such as his it is the people in his immediate social circle who can wield the most influence. In the larger picture, it is those within a culture, religion, [insert group here], etc. who can influence the nature of discussion taking place in that social sphere.

Zac’s story could have ended similarly, if not even more tragically, in a way similar to that of the Virginia Tech or Columbine shooters.

I fear that if we look at the problem of radicalized Islam through the lens of a conflict of ideology, government attempts to get involved in religious discussions could result in more Zacs, not less.

Comment by Arnold Bogis

August 2, 2010 @ 4:56 pm

Looking back at the previous discussion’s comments, I see I have may have typed too quickly twice.

You explicitly say the government may not be in the best position to contest ideas in this space. However, that gets lost in such noise as references to that think tank report (which calls for a significant increase in government participation in this space) as well as general references to “terrorism” and “religion” with the only examples given are those connected to radical Islam.

That is a road I worry too many in homeland security are already going down. One that leads to making the problem worse and not better in the long run.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

August 2, 2010 @ 6:21 pm

Arnold, I think the blog form is in innately inclined to “typing too quickly.” If journalism is history’s first draft, blogs are the (very) rough draft.

But I appreciate you observing the difference between the kind of engagement I was, perhaps poorly, attempting to advocate and that being pushed by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The Washington Institute authors and I perceive something close to the same problem, but offer different solutions.

In terms of Zac, your first answer continues to set-out the most likely outcome. But I perceive in your second answer a readiness to engage as you can… and we should not discount the potential of engaging one another.

Regarding the conflation of terrorism, radical extremism, religion, and Islam, I agree it is a problem. My principal reason for leading with the previous day’s post on “Immigration: A religious dimension” was an attempt to insert my own Christian faith as a source proto-terrorist tendencies, and in this way try to address the issue you have raised. I regret I was not successful.

Pingback by Homeland Security Watch » Zac Chesser pleads guilty to federal terrorism charges

October 20, 2010 @ 8:11 pm

[…] Read previous coverage and discussion by HLSWatch. Permalink | | Comment on this Post » […]

Pingback by Homeland Security Watch » Reading over two terrorists shoulders

May 3, 2012 @ 7:58 am

[…] July 2010 I posted a piece on Mr. Chesser entitled: Could you or I have talked Zac Chesser out of violent extremism? Arnold Bogis (not yet a fellow poster) and I had a quick exchange on the question.  In the Senate […]

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