A jury in Boston began hearing testimony in the federal trial of a Massachusetts man charged with conspiring to support al-Qaeda terrorists. Prosecutors portray Tarek Mehanna of Sudbury as a terrorist in the making, a man who tried to help al-Qaeda by promoting violent jihad online and traveling to Yemen to seek training in a terrorist camp. He also is charged with lying to federal authorities.
As Mehanna goes on trial in Boston, some experts see it as a case that will test the limits of counter-terrorism laws. “Mehanna’s case is a classic example of the so-called anti-terrorism paradigm at work, which is prevent the terrorist act from occurring,” said Boston College Law School professor George Brown, who teaches national security law.
Mehanna, 29, seemed an unlikely terror suspect. He was born in the United States and grew up in Sudbury, an affluent suburb west of Boston. His father, Ahmed Mehanna, was a professor at the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences. Tarek earned a doctorate at the school and taught math and religion to children at his mosque in Worcester, Massachusetts.
terror-related charges were added against Mehanna in 2009, including conspiracy to provide material support to a designated terrorist organization and conspiracy to kill in a foreign country.
Prosecutors said Mehanna conspired with Ahmad Abousamra to promote jihad and tried to create “like-minded youth” in the Boston area and discussed going to a terrorist training camp so that they could then go to Iraq and join with others “to fight and kill United States nationals.”
Authorities say Mehanna, Abousamra and a third man flew to Yemen in 2004, but were unable to get into a training camp. Prosecutors say the men told friends they were turned down because of their nationality, ethnicity or inexperience, or that the people they’d hoped would get them in were either in jail or on a religious pilgrimage.
That’s when, according to prosecutors, Mehanna began seeing himself as being part of the “media wing” of al-Qaeda, and started translating and distributing text, videos and other media to inspire others to engage in violent jihad.
Mehanna’s lawyers have asked U.S. District Judge George O’Toole Jr. to bar prosecutors from showing certain “highly inflammatory” evidence seized from his computer, including a video of American businessman Nicholas Berg being beheaded in Iraq and another video of dead American soldiers being mutilated in Iraq. The defense said their computer expert has concluded that the materials were automatically cached on Mehanna’s computer, not downloaded by Mehanna, so showing them to the jury would be “grossly unfair.”
The defense has already won a request to bar prosecutors from referring to U.S. troops as “our soldiers.” Attorney J.W. Carney Jr. argued that the phrase could create a bond between prosecutors and the jury. The judge also ruled that Mehanna’s supporters cannot wear the yellow scarves or “Free Tarek” T-shirts they have worn to many of his court hearings. Mehanna has a group of several dozen supporters who have attended his pretrial hearings, including family, friends and some who believe he is being prosecuted because he is a Muslim.
But Mehanna’s lawyers say the case against him is “paper thin” and based largely on anti-American sentiment he articulated over the Internet. They say he went to Yemen to look for religious schools, not to get terrorist training.Some of Mehanna’s supporters believe he was targeted because he is Muslim and spoke out strongly against U.S. policy in the Middle East. “He clearly was targeted because of his views,” said the Rev. Jason Lydon, a Boston DHIMMI minister who is a member of the Tarek Mehanna Support Committee.
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