How Tarek Mehanna Went to Prison for a Thought Crime

December 31, 2014

By Amna Akbar

 

As the government embraces a “counter-radicalization” approach to counterterrorism, prosecutors are turning radical beliefs into criminal acts.

Since 9/11, the Department of Justice has prosecuted more than 500 terrorism cases, yet there remains scant public understanding of what these federal cases have actually looked like and the impact they have had on communities and families. Published by The Nation in collaboration with Educators for Civil Liberties, the America After 9/11 series features contributions from scholars, researchers and advocates to provide a systematic look at the patterns of civil rights abuses in the United States’ domestic “war on terror.”

From mosques to Muslim Student Association offices, American Muslim community spaces have been emptied of their politics, leeched of their dynamism as centers for religious and political debate. This new normal is the result of ten years of post-9/11 scrutiny combined with our government’s more recent embrace of “counter-radicalization” and “countering violent extremism” programs, which subject Muslim communities’ religious and political practices to aggressive surveillance, regulation and criminalization.

In the United States, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the New York Police Department helped seed radicalization theory, giving rise to an elaborate lattice of counterterrorism practices that touch on all aspects of Muslim life. From the NYPD’s infamous Demographics Unit, which created maps of Muslim communities in New York and New Jersey, to the FBI’s aggressive use of informants in mosques and community institutions, to the White House’s push for community engagement with Muslims, and the Department of Justice’s increasing emphasis on prosecuting speech activity, counter-radicalization and countering violent extremism, these policies have warped the basic currents of Muslim experience, turning them into threat indicators for the nation’s security.

Governments, including our own, laud these programs as soft counterterrorism measures. But this framing misses the shadowy side of these all-encompassing programs: the way counter-radicalization distends the government’s reach into the sacred and vulnerable turf of difference, debate, and democracy.

The rise of counter-radicalization and fall of the First Amendment

In recent years, journalists, advocates and Muslim community activists have helped expose part of the raw underbelly of the government’s counter-radicalization and countering violent extremism programs. But one area that has gone largely unexplored is the Justice Department’s growing embrace of a counter-radicalization ethos to prosecute national security cases. In framing expressions of political and religious belief as precursors to, and even evidence of, terrorism, these cases represent some of the most dramatic and alarming challenges in decades to the First Amendment’s core protections of free speech and freedom of religion.

The government’s prosecution of Tarek Mehanna is not the only case where prosecutors focused on speech the government finds unsavory. Zachary Chesser and Jesse Morton were two Muslim converts—Chesser in his early 20s from Virginia, and Morton in his early 30s from Brooklyn—charged in 2010 and 2012 with material support, conspiracy, and Internet-use-related charges, for posts to RevolutionMuslim.com and other Muslim-run websites; the government was centrally concerned with web ranting against South Park’s depiction of Muhammad. In 2011, Jubair Ahmad, a 24-year-old Pakistani-born US legal permanent resident living in Virginia, was charged with material support for preparing a video containing a prayer in support of jihad on behalf of Lashkar-i-Taiba, a South Asia–based designated terrorist organization.

 

The Nation: http://www.thenation.com/article/177750/how-tarek-mehanna-went-prison-thought-crime#

Man who used Web site to “warn” ‘South Park’ creators sentenced to nearly 12 years

One of the men who had issued “warnings” to the creators of Comedy Central’s “South Park” back in 2010 — saying they risked death if they showed the prophet Muhammad in a bear costume — has been sentenced to nearly 12 years in prison.

Jesse Curtis Morton founded the now-defunct Revolution Muslim Website which he and another defendant, Zachary Chesser, used to deliver threats against Matt Stone and Trey Parker over their show’s 200th and 201st episodes, in which viewers were led to believe Muhammad was disguised in a bear suit — only it turned out to be Saint Nicholas in the costume

Comedy Central censored the episodes when they were telecast in April of 2010, clumsily wiping out the cartoon bear-suited Santa Claus from its scenes. This, in turn, caused Stone and Parker to issue an angry statement complaining of the censorship, which the Viacom-network did after Chesser and Morton posted that the cartoon satirists would likely be killed for their depiction (or not) of Muhammad.

Prosecutor Gordon Kromberg said Morton’s stiff sentence was necessary because his site inspired a variety of would-be jihadis, including “Jihad Jane” Colleen LaRose; Antonio Benjamin Martinez, who plotted to bomb a military recruiting station; and Jose Pimental, who plotted to assassinate members of the U.S. military returning from Afghanistan and Iraq, the AP added.

Operator of radical Muslim site that posted threats to ‘South Park’ creators pleads guilty

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — A Muslim convert from Brooklyn who ran a website that posted threats against the creators of the television show ‘South Park’ for supposedly insulting the prophet Muhammad has entered a guilty plea.

Jesse Curtis Morton, also known as Younus Abdullah Mohammad, was charged last year with communicating threats and has been in custody since his arrest in Morocco in October.

At plea hearing Thursday in federal court in Alexandria, Morton pleaded guilty to conspiracy, communicating threats and using the Internet to intimidate.

Last year another operator of the Revolution Muslim website, Zachary Chesser, was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

Virginia man who tried to join terrorists gets 25 years

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — A college dropout and Muslim convert who threatened the creators of the “South Park” cartoon series and then tried to join an al-Qaida-linked terror group in Somalia was sentenced Thursday to 25 years in prison.

Zachary A. Chesser, 21, of Bristow, Va., pleaded guilty last year to supporting the al-Shabab terrorist group in Somalia and posting online threats against the “South Park” creators for an episode that he perceived as insulting to the prophet Muhammad.

Chesser’s lawyer portrayed his client as a drifting teenager who latched on to activities and philosophies with a freakish intensity. Before Chesser converted to Islam, he participated in high school sports and later joined a Korean breakdancing team at his school. He spent years as a vegetarian and dabbled in Buddhism. He became so fascinated with Japanese anime that he spent four years studying Japanese and traveled to Japan on a school trip.

And, when he became infatuated during his senior year with a Muslim girl, he converted to Islam. He quickly drifted toward a radical, fundamentalist interpretation of the religion.

South Park Mohammad episode censored

Following warnings of violence, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the creator of South Park, censored an episode about religious figures including prophet Muhammad. Prior to the airing of the episode, a posting on the website of a US-based group, Revolution Muslim, had warned the creators of South Park that they might face the same fate as Theo van Gogh, a Dutch filmmaker who was murdered by an Islamic militant in 2004. Van Gogh had made a movie in which Islam was accused of violence against women. Comedy Central has declined to comment on the issue.