Tarek Mehanna: From suburban teenager to convicted terrorist

Supporters say Tarek Mehanna is a gifted teacher being targeted for his dissenting views. Prosecutors say he was aiding Al Qaeda.

By Michael May

Tarek Mehanna. (Courtesy of the Mehanna family)

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.”

Listen to Michael May’s story on Tarek Mehanna for PRI’s The World.

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.

Tamer Mehanna in front of his brother Tarek's bookshelf. (Credit: Michael May)

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.”

Tarek Mehanna and his mother. (Courtesy of the Mahenna family)

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”

The government found this photo on Tarek Mehanna's computer, and used it as evidence in his trial. Mehanna (on the right) and two of his friends, both of whom testified for the prosecution, strike a pose at Ground Zero.

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.

  • Michaelf

    Editor’s note: Here’s a link to the Reuters piece on the verdict.

    What’s your reaction? Is the right man behind bars? Or is this a blow against freedom of speech?

  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/JZYXA6MND32UZSI2REPCLRSVWE 74suited

    “This is America, we can say anything.’”

    you cant shout fire in a crowded theater, nor can you ask people to kill GIs.

    how moronic are these people! I thought a Phd required intelligence.

    • Michael May

      True, there is a limit to freedom of speech. According to a landmark Supreme Court decision, speech is protected “except where such advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.”

      Search for the documents that Mehanna translated, like the 39 Ways of Jihad. It’s quite debatable to say that it would produce imminent lawless action. These were not training manuals. They also were not written by Mehanna himself, which is significant as well.

      Here’s some interesting legal analysis of the case: http://www.citmedialaw.org/blog/2011/tarek-mehanna-and-freedom-thought-we-hate

      This case ventures into legal grey areas. Very likely to be taken up by a higher court.

      • Juror169

        did he translate or did he advocate? since I dont have video of trial or transcript , I do not know , but it seems the jury did

        • Nora

          I was in the courtroom almost every single day, even the jury didn’t get the transcript when they asked for them. Also 39 ways of jihad is 90% from the koran!

          • Michael May

            In reply to Juror169, it’s not against the law to advocate for an unpopular group, even a terrorist group. But the “material support for terrorism” law makes it a crime if you do a service in coordination with a terrorist group, in this case translating. The Supreme Court even applied it to a humanitarian nonprofit who was teaching the Tamil Tigers how to put down their arms. It’s a very controversial law that seems to trump the right to free speech . . .

            And Nora, you make a good point. Mohamed Bahe (who is quoted in story) told me that “39 Ways” was not an Al Queda document . . . he said that for Al Queda, there’s only one way of jihad — flying planes in buildings and other terrorist acts. You can find links to “39 Ways” easily on the internet, it does discuss martyrdom but also many other forms of Jihad that don’t involve killing. It does depend on how you interpret it . . .

  • Outsideus

    Poor guy hasn’t done anything except express his opinions in chat rooms and on some forums. There’s no mention of evidence of him doing anything wrong in Yemen either.
    Its all just mere conjecture.
    He’s been locked for what the prosecution thinks he might do. What happened to the rule of law that says you’re innocent until proven guilty? Is this the type of democracy America is exporting to the rest of the world?
    Its disgusting. I am pleased I don’t live in the land of no justice.

    • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/JZYXA6MND32UZSI2REPCLRSVWE 74suited

      you are full of BS , he translated calls for violence and posted them .

      in support of AQ

      now the law states support of AQ recruiting is a crime even if no one is recruited.

      like planning to sell drugs even if sell NONE!

  • Freibergdale

    This entire story of Tarek Mehanna deserves national attention. I don’t know what to think. I don’t fully trust the Federal prosecutors, but I am reluctant to say that we must always wait until a terrorist does something terrible before we stop him. Yet, where is the middle ground? Either we permit people to speak freely about unpopular ideas or we don’t. Is the law itself deeply flawed? Was the jury permitted to be manipulated by faulty judicial rulings? Or is Mehanna just what who the prosecutors say? Our civil liberties are in jeopardy here, but so is our physical safety.
    Barney Freiberg-Dale

  • Latitude News

    Here’s a thoughtful contribution to the debate around Mehanna’s conviction from lawyer and civil libertarian Wendy Kaminer writing in the Atlantic. Her piece looks at the track record of civilian versus military courts in terror cases.

    Here’s an extract: “Civil libertarians still favor civilian prosecutions, because they’re public and afford defendants some due process: If Tarek Mehanna was wrongly prosecuted and convicted, he was, at least, convicted by fellow citizens and well-represented by counsel, who will file an appeal.

    But anti-libertarians, who assume that all suspected terrorists are actual terrorists and focus on outcomes, not fair processes, should also favor civilian trials, given their record in terrorism cases and the legitimacy they confer on convictions. The tendency of civilian terror trials to end in convictions and lengthy sentences is not lost on detainees, one lawyer for Guantanamo detainees told me; given the choice, his clients would prefer to be tried before military commissions.”

    well worth reading at
    http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/12/are-military-courts-soft-on-terrorism/250295/

  • Anonymous

    The guy is Muslim so he MUST be guilty, ask anyone in the “Judeo-Christian Civilization” that feels so tremendously threatened by us “Muzlems”.

    Raymond Ibrahim has written an entire book which is a translation ot the Al-Qaeda Manifesto, he goes around the nation making presentations to the public, to the military, to the FBI and to other “Security” agencies; he is lauded as an “expert on terrorism, Islam and Mulsims”…all being the same of course.

    Raymond Ibrahim is a Christian who hates Islam and Muslims but couches his hate in a very civilized, intellectual manner, so he is everybody’s hero.

    Tarek Mehanna was naive enough to believe his “free speech” would not get him into trouble but he has obviously forgotten that “Free Speech” belongs to those in power, not to the target du jour, the Muslims.

    This is not the first time the Federal prosecutors have successfully dreamed up a “strong case” against a Muslim and won, nor, sadly, will it be the last.

    Muslims had better wake up and get involved in the politics of this country or, we will all feel the jackboots of the authorities on our collective necks.