A young man accused of attempting to leave the country on jihad appeared in court briefly Thursday and asked for a lawyer to be appointed for him.
Zachary Adam Chesser, 20, of Centreville, Va., went before Judge Theresa Buchanan at the U.S. Courthouse in Alexandria. He looked nothing like the images of him with a long beard and wearing a white cap in front of the White House. Chesser wore a blue button down shirt and slacks and had tousled brown hair. He was unshaven but had only the shadow of growth. In short he looked like an all-American kid.
Buchanan informed Chesser that a criminal complaint was filed charging him with providing material support to a terrorist organization -- al-Shabaab. It's punishable by a sentence of 15 years and a fine if he's was convicted, Buchanan said.
Chesser was told that he had the right to a lawyer and that if he couldn't afford a lawyer, one would be appointed for him by the court.
"Uh, you appoint one," Chesser said, the only words he's spoken publicly since he was taken into custody.
The whole proceeding took less than five minutes.
Buchanan ordered Chesser, who is being held in federal custody, to return to the courtroom Friday afternoon for a preliminary hearing with his court-appointed lawyer, federal public defender Michael Nachmanoff, who had no comment Thursday. Also appointed to Chesser was Brian Mizer, a former Navy officer who represented Salim Hamdan, the one-time driver for Osama bin Laden, in a military trial at Guantanamo Bay in 2008.
Chesser was previously known for posting a warning online to the creators of "South Park" that if they mocked the prophet Muhammad, they were risking death. He denied he was making a threat and stated, "It's just the reality."
That post is not related to this charge.
Chesser twice tried to travel to Somalia to join al-Shabaab as a fighter, FBI agents said. An FBI affidavit states that the first attempt occurred in November, when he planned to travel with his wife to Kenya and make his way to Somalia, possibly by speedboat, the Associated Press reported. But Chesser wrote in his journal that his mother-in-law took his wife's passport and wouldn't give it back.
The most recent attempt occurred on July 10, when he took his infant son with him and tried to board a flight from New York to Uganda. An FBI affidavit states that Chesser planned to take his son on the flight with him so he would appear less suspicious. He was denied entry to the flight and told he was on the no-fly list.
According to the affidavit, Chesser told FBI agents that while he intended to join al-Shabaab on July 10, he changed his mind after the July 11 bombing in Uganda that killed more than 75 people watching the World Cup. But FBI agents expressed skepticism about Chesser's purported change of heart, noting that he had renounced extremist views in FBI interviews on multiple occasions, dating to May 2009.