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#

FBI offers $50,000 reward for Mass. man facing terrorism charges; suspect may be in Syria

BOSTON — A $50,000 reward is being offered for information leading to the arrest of a Massachusetts man who is wanted on terrorism charges, the FBI said Wednesday.

The FBI said it is seeking the public’s help in locating Ahmad Abousamra, a U.S. citizen from Mansfield who authorities believe may be living in the battleground Syrian city of Aleppo with at least one child, a daughter, and extended family. He uses several aliases.

Abousamra, now 31, fled the United States in 2006, shortly after being interviewed by the FBI.

The FBI says Abousamra is an associate of Tarek Mehanna, a Sudbury man convicted on four terrorism charges and sentenced this year to 17½ years in prison.

Abousamra was indicted in 2009 after taking multiple trips to Pakistan and Yemen, where he attempted to obtain military training for the purpose of killing American soldiers overseas, the FBI said. He also traveled to Iraq in the hope of joining forces fighting against the United States, but the exact nature of his activities there is unknown, the FBI said.

Prosecutors said during Mehanna’s trial that Mehanna and Abousamra had failed to find a terrorist training camp.

The FBI said it will use traditional media and social media like Facebook and Twitter as well as its website to make photos, an audio clip of Abousamra’s voice and wanted posters in English, French and Arabic available to the public.

Abousamra was born in France, is of Syrian descent and has dual citizenship in the United States and Syria. He speaks, reads and writes fluently in English and Arabic, and has a college degree related to computer technology.

Mass. man convicted in plot to help al-Qaida sentenced to 17 1/2 years

BOSTON — A Massachusetts man convicted of conspiring to help al-Qaida was sentenced Thursday to 17½ years in prison after giving an impassioned speech in which he declared his love for Islam and said, “This is not terrorism; it’s self-defense.”

Tarek Mehanna, 29, an American who grew up in the wealthy Boston suburb of Sudbury, was found guilty in December of traveling to Yemen to seek training in a terrorist camp with the intention of going on to Iraq to fight U.S. soldiers there. Prosecutors said that when that plan failed, Mehanna returned to the United States and began translating and disseminating materials online promoting violent jihad.

Mehanna was sentenced on four terror-related charges and three counts of lying to authorities. His family and supporters gave him a standing ovation and called out “we love you” as he was led from the courtroom.

During the sentencing hearing, Mehanna gave a sweep of history and compared the suffering experienced by Muslims at the hands of Americans to the oppression inflicted on American colonists by the British. He mentioned Paul Revere, Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela, among others, and said he came to appreciate the plight of the oppressed against their oppressors as a 6-year-old boy reading comic books.

Witness in Mass. man’s trial says group discussed mall attack, shooting Ashcroft, Rice

BOSTON — A former friend of a Massachusetts man accused of conspiring to help al-Qaida testified Monday that they traveled overseas with a third friend to try to get into a terrorist training camp.

Kareem Abu-zahra, testifying in the trial of Tarek Mehanna (TEH’-rek meh-HAH’-nah), said the men also discussed shooting people at a shopping mall, attacking an Air Force base and shooting prominent U.S. officials. Abu-zahra, testifying under a grant of immunity from prosecution, said he, Mehanna and another friend, Ahmad Abousamra, made a trip overseas in 2004.

Prosecutors allege that after Mehanna tried unsuccessfully to get terrorist training in Yemen, he began translating and distributing materials over the Internet promoting violent jihad. Mehanna, 29, of Sudbury, has pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiracy to support a terrorist organization, conspiracy to kill in a foreign country and lying to the FBI.

Mehanna’s lawyers say he went to Yemen in 2004 to look for religious schools, not to seek terrorist training. They say his online activities are protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and that he never worked at the direction of al-Qaida.

Jury selection in trial of Mass. man charged with supporting terrorist group gets under way

BOSTON — As a Massachusetts man charged with conspiring to support al-Qaida went on trial Monday, potential jurors were being quizzed, likely about the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Osama bin Laden and electronic surveillance of private conversations.

Tarek Mehanna, 29, of Sudbury, an affluent suburb west of Boston, is accused of plotting to get training in a terrorist camp and to kill U.S. troops in Iraq. Prosecutors allege that after Mehanna was unable to get into a terror training camp in Yemen, he began seeing himself as part of the “media wing” of al-Qaida, and started translating and distributing text and videos over the Internet in an attempt to inspire others to engage in violent jihad.

Mehanna’s lawyers say he went to Yemen to seek religious study, not terrorist training. They argue that his online activities amount to free speech protected by the First Amendment.

Why Yasir Qadhi Wants to Talk About Jihad

To many young Muslims wrestling with conflicts between faith and country, Yasir Qadhi is a rock star. To law-enforcement agents, he is also a figure of interest, given his prominence in a community considered vulnerable to radicalization. Some officials, noting his message of nonviolence, also see him as an ally. Others were wary, recalling a time when Qadhi spouted a much harder, less tolerant line.

Qadhi’s platform is the AlMaghrib Institute, where he serves as academic dean. Founded in 2002 by Muhammad Alshareef, a Canadian cleric then living in Alexandria, Va., AlMaghrib is now an international enterprise, offering seminars in the United States, Canada and Britain. It reported nearly $1.2 million in revenue in 2009 and aspires to become a full-time Islamic seminary, albeit with an air of corporate America.

In the spectrum of the global Salafi movement, Qadhi, who is 36, speaks for the nonmilitant majority. Yet even as he has denounced Islamist violence — too late, some say — a handful of AlMaghrib’s former students have heeded the call. In addition to the underwear-bomb suspect, the 36,000 current and former students of Qadhi’s institute include Daniel Maldonado, a New Hampshire convert who was convicted in 2007 of training with an Al Qaeda-linked militia in Somalia; Tarek Mehanna, a 28-year-old pharmacist arrested for conspiring to attack Americans; and two young Virginia men held in Pakistan in 2009 for seeking to train with militants.

There are several kinds of jihad, which is translated to mean “striving in the path of God.” While progressive Muslims emphasize the spiritual form, Qadhi and other conservatives say that the majority of the Koran’s references to jihad are to military struggle. Qadhi’s interpretation makes him neither a hardline militant nor a pure pacifist. While he unequivocally denounces violence against civilians, he believes Muslims have the right to defend themselves from attack. But he says “offensive jihad”— the spread of the Islamic state by force — is permissible only when ordered by a legitimate caliph, or global Muslim ruler, which is nonexistent in today’s world.

Boston area Muslim leader asks Muslim community to remain vigilant against radicalism

In light of this week’s arrest of Tarek Mehanna, an alleged terrorist with plans to attack Massachusetts malls and executive members of the federal government, a Boston-area Muslim leader has called on local Muslims to help “root out” radicals in their communities.

“As Muslims, we condemn the planning or committing of any acts of violence or terrorism,” Kaleem added. “We are particularly appalled by the prospect of random violence against our families, our friends and our neighbors in public areas.”

“If anybody senses imminent danger, they should alert the proper authorities,” said Kaleem, when asked if Muslims should call the cops on hate groups.

He added the Muslim community must show it’s more about civic pride and “pluralism.”

Massachussetts man arrested in terrorism case

A pharmacist living with his parents in the suburbs of Boston was arrested on Wednesday on federal terrorism charges. He was accused of conspiring to attack people at a shopping mall in the United States, and to attack two members of the executive branch of the federal government.

The man, Tarek Mehanna, 27, was charged with conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists. The conspiracy occurred from 2001 to 2008, the acting United States attorney, Michael K. Loucks, said at a news conference in Boston Wednesday.

But prosecutors said Mr. Mehanna, born and raised in Massachusetts, was unsuccessful in acquiring weapons to carry out the attack, and was also repeatedly rejected by terrorist groups in his efforts to join them.