By James Vicini
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A 20-year-old Virginia man was arrested on Wednesday on charges of providing material support to al Shabaab, an extremist group based in Somalia with ties to al Qaeda, the U.S. Justice Department said.
The defendant, Zachary Adam Chesser, a U.S. citizen living in Fairfax County in Virginia, told federal agents that he attempted twice to travel to Somalia to join al Shabaab as a foreign fighter, the department said.
After he was prevented from boarding a flight from New York to Uganda on July 10, Chesser admitted to the agents that he intended to travel from Uganda to Somalia, according to an FBI affidavit filed in federal court in Virginia.
Chesser said he had planned to join al Shabaab, but that he had a change of heart after learning about the deadly bombings in Uganda earlier this month for which the group has claimed responsibility. One American was among the 73 that were killed in the attack.
In 2008, the U.S. State Department designated al Shabaab as a foreign terrorist organization, describing it as a violent extremist group. U.S. officials have said many of the group's senior leaders are believed to have trained and fought with al Qaeda in Afghanistan.
In interviews with law enforcement agents dating back to last year, Chesser said he maintained several online profiles and that he posted pro-jihad messages and videos online, according to the affidavit.
Chesser also told the agents he had been in e-mail contact with the U.S.-born Muslim cleric, Anwar al-Awlaki, who has been linked to al Qaeda and is believed to be hiding in the south of Yemen.
Asked by one agent why he continued to post lectures and other materials related to Awlaki after he was known to be an enemy of the United states, Chesser replied he did not necessarily disagree with Awlaki, according to the affidavit.
Chesser told agents that he was no longer on speaking terms with his parents and that his mother had received death threats after postings he made on the Internet about the "South Park" satirical animated television show.
The irreverent show on the cable channel Comedy Central in April showed the Prophet Muhammad in a bear outfit, which offended a U.S. Muslim group. Most Muslims consider any depiction of the founder of Islam as offensive.
Chesser told agents he became interested in Islam in July of 2008. Chesser said he did not support acts of terrorism or violence, but that he wanted the United States to fail in its overseas military efforts.
"This case exposes the disturbing reality that extreme radicalization can happen anywhere, including northern Virginia," U.S. Attorney Neil MacBride said.
(Editing by Philip Barbara)