Ahmed Mehanna was worried, aggravated and fearful for his son. He worried about the websites young Tarek had been visiting, the books he’d been reading. Tarek had taken a trip to Yemen his father thought might look suspicious to the authorities.
Then word got back to Ahmed that Tarek had been giving radical sermons at the Islamic Center in Sharon. “If we didn’t know he was your son,” a friend told him, “we would say he was a member of al-Qaida.”
Like many young people, Tarek thought his father’s fears weren’t justified.
“I think my dad thinks I’m part of a group,” he told a friend. “If I was actually doing something… I’d understand, but come on, man.”
Ahmed Mehanna was right to be concerned. While the family was on vacation in 2006, the feds, using “sneak and peak” powers granted under the USA Patriot Act, broke into their Sudbury home, searched for incriminating evidence and planted surveillance devices.
In 2008, Tarek Mehanna, now 29 years old, was arrested. Since then he has been in solitary confinement. In a Boston courtroom, prosecutors are now trying to prove to a jury that he actually did something worthy of life in prison.
Daniel Spaulding, who testified Tuesday, was a prosecution witness, but he didn’t seem to help their cause.
Spaulding, a friend of Mehanna’s who shared – for awhile at least – Mehanna’s religious and political beliefs, had agreed to testify under a grant of immunity. He confirmed on the witness stand what other evidence had made clear: Tarek Mehanna and some of his friends had embraced some of the concepts of radical Islam, had cheered the 9/11 attacks, goofing for pictures at Ground Zero. Mehanna had been enraged about the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and spoke of the holy obligation to oppose those who killed fellow Muslims. He shared his views in person and in online chat rooms. He translated from Arabic documents, including “39 Ways to Serve and Participate in Jihad,” and shared them with friends.
But did Tarek Mehanna actually do something that broke a law?
In Mehanna’s indictment, prosecutors alleged he conspired with friends to attack Americans at a shopping mall. Spaulding testified that the idea had come up in conversation, but that Mehanna thought it was “stupid and impractical.”
Under cross-examination, Spaulding said Mehanna never mentioned al-Qaida, and, for religious reasons, opposed the idea of attacking civilians in the U.S.
Prosecutors say Mehanna went to Yemen for training as a terrorist, though they admit he never found any. Spaulding said Mehanna was “disillusioned by Yemen,” and that his father talked him into coming home.
Prosecutors say Mehanna, an American citizen, graduate of Lincoln-Sudbury High School and the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy, who lived with his parents, returned to the U.S. to be part of al-Qaida’s “media wing.” The term certainly implies Mehanna was taking orders from al-Qaida or coordinating his propaganda efforts with the terrorist organization. But while the prosecution hasn’t finished presenting its case, it has yet to prove there were any specific contacts between Mehanna and anyone in al-Qaida.
Absent some kind of smoking gun, jurors in Mehanna’s federal court trial face a decision about the limits of dissent in post-9/11 America.
Mehanna’s defenders inside and outside of court concede he disagreed strongly with U.S. policies in Iraq and sympathized with some Islamist radicals. They know he hung out with young men his age who wanted to put those beliefs in action. One of his friends fled after being questioned by the FBI, and is now believed to be in Syria. Another ended up going to Somalia for training, and is now serving a 10-year prison sentence.
“May Allah reward you, dude,” Mehanna told the friend in a call tapped by the FBI.
The slogan at the top of the website run by Mehanna’s defenders (freetarek.com) says “Nothing to hide.” His defense attorneys take the same position. Mehanna didn’t do anything. He talked with his friends about maybe doing something. He expressed, in conversation and in writing, ideas that are unpopular with most Americans.
Yes, Mehanna translated some documents from Arabic to English, apparently of his own volition. There may be authoritarian countries where translating documents into your native tongue is a crime, but is it a crime in America?
Unpopular speech is a right protected by the First Amendment, the defense says, a principle confirmed by the Supreme Court just this year, when it upheld the right of members of the Westboro Baptist Church to protest at military funerals.
The charges against Mehanna sound serious: Providing and conspiring to provide material support to terrorists, conspiracy to kill in a foreign country, misleading investigators.
But Mehanna’s defenders raise a higher standard. Does America put people in prison because of what they think, what they believe, what they talk to their friends about doing, what they post online, what they maybe intend to do but never get around to doing?
Mehanna was surely immature, naive and wrong about a lot of things, including when he shrugged off his father’s warnings. “If I was actually doing something,” he told his friend, “I’d understand, but come on, man.”
It will be up to jurors in Boston, and perhaps judges hearing the case on appeal, to decide whether what Mehanna did was enough to punish him with life in prison.
Rick Holmes, opinion editor of the MetroWest Daily News, blogs at Holmes & Co. (blogs.wickedlocal.com/holmesandco). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.