BOSTON — Prosecutors portray Tarek Mehanna as a terrorist in the making, a man who tried to help al-Qaida by promoting violent jihad online and traveling to Yemen to seek training in a terrorist camp.
But Mehanna's lawyers say he was just a college kid expressing his political views the way many people do — over the Internet — and no matter how unpopular his opinions, they are protected by the First Amendment.
As Mehanna goes on trial in Boston next week, some experts see it as a case that will test the limits of counter-terrorism laws.
"Mehanna's case is a classic example of the so-called anti-terrorism paradigm at work, which is prevent the terrorist act from occurring," said professor Boston College Law School professor George Brown, who teaches national security law.
"Now how do you do that? It's this question of at what point does the person cross the line to where they can be prosecuted for this sort of pre-terrorist activity?" said Brown.
Jury selection begins Monday in U.S. District Court.
Mehanna, 29, seemed an unlikely terror suspect. He was born in the United States and grew up in Sudbury, an affluent suburb west of Boston. His father, Ahmed Mehanna, was a professor at the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences. Tarek earned a doctorate at the school and taught math and religion to children at his Worcester mosque.
Prosecutors say Mehanna "radicalized himself" over the last decade and began translating and distributing videos and textbooks intended to encourage others to participate in violent jihad, including a publication entitled "39 Ways to Serve and Participate in Jihad." They say he got together with friends who shared similar views and watched videos of Americans being beheaded and mutilated overseas.
"This is someone who enjoyed that," Assistant U.S. Attorney Aloke Chakravarty said during a court hearing.
Mehanna was first arrested in 2008, charged with lying to federal authorities about the whereabouts of Daniel Maldonado, a New Hampshire native who was later convicted of training at an al-Qaida terrorist camp in Somalia. Maldonado is now serving a 10-year prison sentence.
More serious terror-related charges were added against Mehanna in 2009, including conspiracy to provide material support to a designated terrorist organization and conspiracy to kill in a foreign country.
Prosecutors said Mehanna conspired with Ahmad Abousamra to promote jihad and tried to create "like-minded youth" in the Boston area and discussed going to a terrorist training camp so that they could then go to Iraq and join with others "to fight and kill United States nationals."
Authorities say Mehanna, Abousamra and a third man flew to Yemen in 2004, but were unable to get into a training camp. Prosecutors say the men told friends they were turned down because of their nationality, ethnicity or inexperience, or that the people they'd hoped would get them in were either in jail or an a religious pilgrimage.
That's when, according to prosecutors, Mehanna began seeing himself as being part of the "media wing" of al-Qaida, and started translating and distributing text, videos and other media to inspire others to engage in violent jihad.
Mehanna's lawyers have asked U.S. District Judge George O'Toole Jr. to bar prosecutors from showing certain "highly inflammatory" evidence seized from his computer, including a video of American businessman Nicholas Berg being beheaded in Iraq and another video of dead American soldiers being mutilated in Iraq. The defense said their computer expert has concluded that the materials were automatically cached on Mehanna's computer, not downloaded by Mehanna, so showing them to the jury would be "grossly unfair."
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