By Tim Lister
It's not often that a terrorist suspect on trial in the United States is supported by a march to the courthouse, a website and a local pastor. But then the trial of 29-year-old Tarek Mehanna, which gets under way Thursday in U.S. District Court in Boston, is no ordinary case.
Prosecutors have charged Mehanna, a U.S. citizen who has lived in Sudbury Massachusetts, since childhood, with conspiring to provide material support to terrorists, conspiring to kill Americans in a foreign territory, and lying to FBI investigators. The prosecution argues that for nearly a decade Mehanna talked with friends about jihad and training as a terrorist.
Mehanna's lawyers say that in collecting and distributing jihadist propaganda he was doing nothing more than exercising his First Amendment right to free expression. They point out that some of the materials he translated involved mujahedeen fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan more than 20 years ago.
Mehanna's supporters plan a march from the site of Occupy Boston to the courthouse to mark the beginning of the trial. They have set up a website in his defense. Mehanna is popular in the local Muslim community and taught children at the school of a local mosque. His father was a professor at the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, where Tarek Mehanna earned a doctorate.
But another group, Americans For Peace & Tolerance, is holding a counterdemonstration at the courthouse, describing the online rhetoric of Mehanna's supporters as "exceedingly poisonous." A video posted on the group's website says: "The silence induced by political correctness must be broken in order to deal effectively with the threats posed by Islamic radicalism."
The group's president, Charles Jacobs, told CNN that Mehanna's fate is up to the court, but he takes issue with leaders of Boston's Muslim community for supporting him.
"Who are these people lionizing a man who thinks and says such awful and disgusting things about killing Americans?" Jacobs asks.
Among the videos that prosecutors will show at the trial is a speech by Osama bin Laden to which Mehanna is said to have added subtitles. He is also said to have translated and distributed a tract titled "39 Ways to Serve and Participate in Jihad." Mehanna's blog developed quite a following among English-speaking Muslims.
he defense maintains that at least some of the materials on Mehanna's computer - such as a video of the beheading of U.S. citizen Nicholas Berg - were automatically cached rather than actively downloaded by Mehanna.
At the heart of the case are these questions, according to legal experts: At what point do an individual's behavior, conversations and views amount to "material support" for a terrorist group? When does speech become an instrument to promote terror or recruit for jihad? And when can or should authorities move against someone who is allegedly engaged in "pre-terrorist" activity?
Prosecutors allege that Mehanna set out for Yemen in 2004 with two other men in an abortive attempt to receive terrorist training. They say that trip and his subsequent actions are "consistent with answering the call to act," and that statements to Customs and Border Patrol officers that the group was going to Yemen to visit religious schools were a cover story. "They never made any contact with the school and had no intention of attending," the affidavit says.
Mehanna was first interviewed by the FBI in December 2006 about his trip to Yemen. It's alleged that he made fraudulent statements about the purpose of the trip and the whereabouts of an associate, Daniel Maldonado. The affidavit says Mehanna told investigators that Maldonado was in Egypt, even though he knew he was in Somalia and had received training for jihad.
According to the indictment, phone records showed that a cell phone number he gave to federal investigators had received several calls from Somalia just days before Mehanna's interview with federal agents.
Maldonado was subsequently captured in Kenya and handed over to U.S. authorities. He is serving a 10-year jail sentence after pleading guilty to receiving military-type training from a foreign terrorist organization.
One of those traveling with Mehanna to Yemen was Ahmad Abousamra. He was also interviewed by FBI agents at the end of 2006, but left Boston on a flight to Syria two weeks later to visit his wife. He is thought to still be in Syria. The criminal complaint says he conspired with Mehanna to provide material support to terrorists.
But the third man, described in the affidavit as cooperating witness CW2, is expected to give evidence at the trial. He traveled with Mehanna and Abousamra as far as the United Arab Emirates and then backed out of the trip. Much later, beginning in late 2006, CW2 recorded a series of conversations with Abousamra and Mehanna on behalf of the FBI. In one of them, according to the affidavit, Mehanna said the trip to Yemen "was a failure, in large part because no one was around. Half the people they wanted to see were on hajj and half were in jail."
CW2's evidence may be critical to the prosecution's case that Mehanna was about more than jihadist sentiments. The affidavit, written by an FBI special agent, says that in 2003 there were "multiple conversations, discussions and preparations" involving Mehanna, Abousamra and the co-operating witness about a "plan to obtain automatic weapons, to go to a shopping mall and randomly shoot people. They were inspired by the success of the Washington, D.C., snipers."
But it was CW2 - not Mehanna - who subsequently went to meet Maldonado "in an attempt to acquire the necessary weapons," according to the affidavit. And the plot was abandoned soon afterward.
Mehanna's brother Tamer said his brother "was targeted ... because he refused to become an informant against the American-Muslim community that he grew up in, worshiped in and with whom he shares strong bonds."
"He was not shy about expressing his opinions. Because, being an American, he of course knew that this was his right; he knew that in America we honor freedom of speech," Tamer said. "And the test for the jury will be whether in America a person can still hold strong views and not be punished for them."
Another supporter, the Rev. Jason Lydon of the Community Church of Boston, said the prosecution of Mehanna is an example of "rampant Islamophobia." Lydon says Mehanna's crime was to express views that his government didn't like.
Over the course of the next several weeks, that will be the theme of defense arguments; while prosecutors will assert that Mehanna's travel and electronic paper trail will amply demonstrate that he was about much more than talk.
Mehanna would face up to life in prison if convicted.