BOSTON — A Massachusetts man accused of plotting to help al-Qaida was someone who talked about waging violent jihad against the United States for years, then took steps to realize his dream by traveling to Yemen to seek training in a terrorist camp so he could later go to Iraq to kill American soldiers, prosecutors said Friday.
But defense lawyers for Tarek Mehanna said he was an aspiring scholar of Islam who went to Yemen looking for religious schools. Although he was angry about the U.S. invasion of Iraq and expressed strong anti-American sentiment in online chats presented by prosecutors during his federal trial, Mehanna never wanted to kill Americans and never planned to fight U.S. soldiers, his lawyers told jurors during closing arguments.
Mehanna, 29, an American from Sudbury, an upscale Boston suburb, faces seven charges that could send him to prison for life if convicted, including conspiracy to provide material to a designated terrorist organization, al-Qaida, conspiracy to kill in a foreign country and making false statements to the FBI.
Jurors have listened to nearly eight weeks of testimony. Prosecutors focused on hundreds of online chats on Mehanna’s computer in which they say Mehanna and his friends talk about their desire to participate in jihad. Several of those friends were called by prosecutors to testify against Mehanna, including one man who said he, Mehanna and a third friend wanted to get terrorism training i n Yemen so they could fight American soldiers in Iraq.
Prosecutors allege that when Mehanna and another man were unable to find a terrorist camp in Yemen, Mehanna returned to the United States, saw himself as part of al-Qaida’s “media wing,” and began translating and distributing online texts and videos promoting violent jihad.
Mehanna’s lawyers told jurors that prosecutors were employing scare tactics by portraying Mehanna as a would-be terrorist and were trying to punish him for his beliefs. They said Mehanna’s online activities were protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
“They never gave you the whole story of who Tarek Mehanna was and what he was about, and that distorted the facts in this case,” said attorney Janice Bassil.
“I certainly hope they can’t scare you,” she said.
But Assistant U.S. Attorney Aloke Chakravarty said Mehanna is not being prosecuted for his political views, but for the actions he took to support terrorists.
“It’s about the fact that he agreed to do the things that he had always talked about, which was to participate in jihad against U.S. soldiers,” Chakravarty said.
“The Constitution doesn’t protect that,” he said.
The defense, which built its case on the testimony of six terrorism experts, acknowledged that Mehanna expressed admiration for Osama bin Laden, but said he made it clear in his writings that he disagreed with him and other al-Qaida leaders about many things, including the use of suicide bombers and the killing of civilians. Bassil said he was kicked off an Internet forum for having views that were too moderate.
“Here’s what it boils down to: the only idea that Tarek Mehanna had in common with al-Qaida was that Muslims had the right and the obligation to defend themselves when Muslims were attacked in their own lands,” she said.
Mehanna did not testify.
The jury deliberated nearly two hours Friday afternoon after receiving final instructions from U.S. District Judge George O’Toole Jr. Deliberations will resume on Monday.
O’Toole told jurors that to find Mehanna guilty of conspiring to provide material support to al-Qaida, they must find that he worked “in coordination with or at the direction of” the organization. He said independent advocacy on behalf of the organization is not a violation of the law.
Mehanna’s lawyers focused on that theme during closing arguments.
Attorney J.W. Carney Jr. told jurors that “independent advocacy” is the most important phrase in the case against Mehanna.
“It is not material support if you are independently advocating,” he said.
“I’m not asking you to accept Tarek’s beliefs — I’m not — but I am asking you to accept his right to independently advocate them.”