UPDATE 12/20 11:30: The jury found Tarek Mehanna guilty on all counts after deliberating for ten hours.
It’s unusual for an accused terrorist to have an American fan base. But that’s the situation with Tarek Mehanna, a second-generation Egyptian American on trial in federal district court in Boston for providing material support to terrorism and other crimes. Mehanna’s supporters crowd the courtroom nearly every day of the eight-week trial – more than a hundred showed up for the closing arguments. The chasm between the competing portrayals of Tarek Mehanna is deep. His supporters say he was a loving teacher and a role model to local Muslim youths, and are convinced the government is pursuing him just for expressing his anger at U.S. foreign policy. The government says he’s the type of guy who would consider killing Americans at a mall in cold blood.
So, who is the real Tarek Mehanna? The Mehannas live in the bedroom community of Sudbury, Massachusetts. His father teaches at the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and both Tarek and his brother also graduated from there. His brother, Tamer Mehanna, told me that Tarek grew up a typical American kid. He went through various phases as a teenager in the 1990s. Comic books. Drawing. Grunge music. He was the resident Nirvana expert among their friends. “You go into my brother’s room,” Tamer said, “and he had binders of histories of the band, discographies, rare LPs. My brother always wanted to know everything about what he was interested in. And that carried into Islam as well.”
Inspired by an unlikely source
But Fundamentalist Islam was more than a phase. The transformation happened in 2000, during Tarek’s senior year in high school. And it was sparked by an unlikely source: Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of The United States. His anthropology teacher assigned the book. Zinn’s radical take on U.S. history inspired Tarek to learn more about his faith. “Because before that, we were kids, we didn’t think about the world,” says Tamer. “And neither of us had given much thought to our identity as Muslims here in America.” Soon, Tarek grew his beard and began hanging out with a close-knit group of devout Muslim men.
Tarek lived with his parents in a plush suburban home until he was taken into custody two years ago. His room, in contrast, is austere and just how he left it. Nothing but a bed. Some weights. And a wall of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, filled with leather-bound texts covered in gilded Arabic script. Tarek’s passion was translating the particulars of Islamic law from Arabic and putting them on his blog for other English-speaking Muslims. His friend Mohamed Bahe, a radiology student, got to know Tarek online. He went to his blog to read ancient texts that he otherwise wouldn’t have had access to. “And he had hundreds and hundreds of translations on marriage, prayer, dealing with fellow kinsman, friends, how to be a good Muslim,” says Bahe. “His blog dealt with all aspects of life, which is what I really liked about it.”
The War Comes Home
Tarek’s spiritual awakening happened at a difficult time for American Muslims. First there was 9/11. Then the U.S. retaliated by invading Afghanistan and Iraq. Tarek viewed the wars as an attack on Muslims. And Tarek felt Muslims had the right to defend themselves by any means necessary. Tarek began to post on a listserve called At-Tibyan Publications where English-speaking muslims praised Al Qaeda. Bahe also frequented the site. “He would always tell me, who am I, living in this comfortable house, to judge those people? One man’s terrorist is another man’s hero,” says Bahe.
Tarek took the grim news from Iraq very personally. His mother, Sawat Mehanna, remembers the day she came home to find Tarek crying. He told her that U.S. soldiers had raped a 14-year-old Iraqi girl and killed her family. “And Tarek hardly cried,” she said. “It was very difficult for him. I can’t forget that day, his dad even talked to him, to try to calm him down.”
This incident was also discussed in court. Afterwards, Tarek and his friends passed around an Al Qaeda video showing the bodies of U.S. soldiers who’d been dragged behind a truck and then set on fire in retaliation. During an online chat intercepted by the FBI, Tarek cheered the insurgents’ bloody response: “Texas BBQ is the way to go,” he wrote.
“This is America, we can say anything”
Much of the prosecutor’s evidence against Tarek came from chats with his friends. Over the years, he supplied prosecutors with a wealth of crude comments. In public forums, he was considerably more delicate, although he was not shy about sharing his controversial views. He gave a fiery speech at a Massachusetts mosque. Afterwards someone approached his father and said, “If I didn’t know he was your son, I’d think he was an extremist.” Tarek’s parents warned him to tone it down. “He was stubborn,” says Sawat Mehanna. “He would say, ‘I am not doing anything wrong, so you don’t have to worry about anything. This is America, we can say anything.’”
But according to US prosecutors, Tarek did more than just talk. He and two close friends made a trip to Yemen in 2004 and prosecutors say they intended to train with a terrorist group and then go kill Americans in Iraq. Whatever the case, Tarek came home after a couple weeks and went back to school.
But prosecutors say that failure did not dissuade him. They say he turned his attention to translating documents for Al Qaeda. According to the government’s argument, the act of translating in this context is a crime: material support of terrorism. Tarek’s lawyer says hi has the right to freedom of speech like any other American.
The FBI Visits
His mother never suspected he was in serious trouble until two FBI agents knocked on their door in 2008. “They said, ‘we met your son, and we asked to him to cooperate with us and he refused,’” says Sawat Mehanna. “They said, ‘we have a tape with a false statement, he can be charged with serious crime, and your life is going to be hell.’ I felt like they wanted to scare us, so we have to do what they want.”
Tarek had told the FBI that his friend Daniel Maldanado was in Egypt, but the FBI had secretly recorded a phone call where Daniel had told Tarek that he was in Somalia. Shortly afterwards, they arrested Tarek for lying to the feds and then released him on bail. Eight months later they arrested him again, with new charges. The government announced that Tarek and his friends had planned to go on a shooting spree in a local mall. That allegation was dropped from the indictment before trial, presumably because there was not enough evidence.
While Tarek refused to cooperate, six of his friends agreed to work with the government. One of them, Kareem Abu-zahra, who is protected under full immunity, wore a wire for the FBI. On the stand, Abu-zahra admitted to paying for Tarek’s trip to Yemen and coming up with a plot to attack Hanscom Air Force Base. He also said he tried to acquire guns for the attack on the mall. He’s currently living with his family and doing IT work at UMass Lowell. His employers were so concerned about the content of his testimony that he was suspended from work and one of the school’s top executives called prosecutors to discuss whether he was a danger.
Meanwhile, Tarek Mahenna’s been in solitary confinement for two years. And there’s quite a bit of evidence that he actually softened his views considerably by 2005. He posted online that Islamic law prohibited killing civilians and using suicide bombers, in direct contrast to the views of Al Qaeda. Bahe says that the administrators of At-Tibyan Publications finally banned Tarek from the site. “He would bring up arguments against them,” says Bahe. “Like the invasion of Iraq. He would say, ‘most of the protests that happened were not in Muslim countries. They were in western nations in Boston, New York. How are these people your enemies?’ And people on the forum started changing their minds, saying, ‘that is a legitimate point.’ And when the admins saw that, they just banned him from the group. And that’s when I left as well.”
A Community Watches
Mohamed isn’t the only person who says Tarek was a positive influence. At the Worcester Islamic Center, where Tarek taught, his students are watching the trial closely. Kareem Abdel-Kader, 17, learned Islamic studies, math and science with Tarek. If the kids finished their studies, he’d let them go play in the gym. “Everyone loved him. Everyone who had him said he was their favorite teacher,” says Abdel-Kader.
I spoke to several administrators at the Center, who told me that, in the time they knew Tarek, they saw no evidence that he was an extremist. They told me that the Mosque has had official meetings with law enforcement in the past and worry that Tarek’s prosecution could dissuade Muslims from sharing information with authorities.