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."
The defense has already won a request to bar prosecutors from referring to U.S. troops as "our soldiers." Attorney J.W. Carney Jr. argued that the phrase could create a bond between prosecutors and the jury. The judge also ruled that Mehanna's supporters cannot wear the yellow scarves or "Free Tarek" T-shirts they have worn to many of his court hearings. Mehanna has a group of several dozen supporters who have attended his pretrial hearings, included family, friends and some who believe he is being prosecuted because he is Muslim.
Boston attorney Michael D. Kendall, a former federal prosecutor, said the defense argument that Mehanna's activities are protected by the First Amendment could be effective for some of the allegations in the indictment, but may not be for others, including his trip to Yemen, allegedly to seek training in a terrorist camp, and his alleged efforts to promote terrorist activity.
"The First Amendment will protect speech in isolation, but not using speech as an instrument to achieve a terrorist goal. That's what the government alleges here," Kendall said.
"One can say you believe in jihad and be protected by the First Amendment. One cannot actively recruit people to participate in jihad and claim that's protected by the First Amendment."
But Mehanna's lawyers say the case against him is "paper thin" and based largely on anti-American sentiment he articulated over the Internet. They say he went to Yemen to look for religious schools, not to get terrorist training.
Attorney Janice Bassil said Mehanna expressed his opposition to U.S. involvement in the Middle East, particularly the war in Iraq, and made statements about his admiration for Osama bin laden. But the messages do not show that Mehanna ever planned to try to kill anyone, Bassil said during a court hearing earlier this year.
"He said things in instant messages that were crass, crude and sometimes just plain stupid, and those, too, are protected by the First Amendment," Bassil said.
Some of Mehanna's supporters believe he was targeted because he is Muslim and spoke out strongly against U.S. policy in the Middle East.
"He clearly was targeted because of his views," said the Rev. Jason Lydon, a Boston minister who is a member of the Tarek Mehanna Support Committee.
"Really, what I think he was doing was voicing and expressing anger, that he was of no danger to anybody, but was actually supporting people who are trying to make it so the U.S. would stop doing what our military was doing in the Arab world."
Mehanna faces a possible life sentence if convicted.