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Tarek Mehanna guilty of terror charges

Sudbury man attempted to promote, join war against US, jury finds

Souad Mehanna, second from right, left court after her son, Tarek Mehanna, was found guilty on terror related charges.

AP

Souad Mehanna, second from right, left court after her son, Tarek Mehanna, was found guilty on terror related charges.

Tarek Mehanna, the pharmacy college graduate from the quiet, affluent suburb of Sudbury, was convicted yesterday of providing material support to Al Qaeda, in a swift and sweeping verdict that found he sought paramilitary training in Yemen so he could carry out jihad, or holy war, against US soldiers in Iraq.

Tarek Mehanna, 29, was convicted on seven charges.

AP/File

Tarek Mehanna, 29, was convicted on seven charges.

Mehanna was also convicted of using his knowledge of Arabic to translate and distribute documents promoting Al Qaeda’s ideology, to inspire others to violent jihad.

The 29-year-old remained calm and poised as the verdict of guilty was announced repeatedly in US District Court in Boston, a total of seven convictions for counts of conspiring to provide material support to terrorists, conspiring to kill in a foreign country, and of lying to authorities in a terrorism investigation.

Once the jury was discharged, he yelled out, “I love you’’ to his crying mother, Souad, to his father, Ahmed, and his younger brother, Tamer, and he thanked dozens of supporters.

He is slated to be sentenced on April 12 and faces life in prison.

His father would only say: “I’m stunned, I can’t believe it.’’

Prosecutors said the verdict was just.

“The job of law enforcement agencies and prosecutors is to bring terrorists to justice,’’ US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz told reporters after the verdict. “And it is vitally important that we prevent incidences of terrorism before they happen.’’

Richard DesLauriers, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Boston division, said: “The FBI has a clarion mission to investigate all potential threats to the United States in order to protect our community from harm. The FBI fulfilled its most important mission by stopping Mehanna’s conspiracy to support terrorism, the goal of which was an unlawful affront to our nation’s cherished ideal of peaceful dissent.’’

Mehanna continued to receive support yesterday from family members, friends, and civil rights groups who said the prosecution for his translation and distribution of documents was an infringement of his rights, as an American citizen, to free speech.

Mehanna had argued that he was devoted to his religion and the rights of Muslims to defend themselves, but said he never worked for Al Qaeda.

“It’s an incredibly sad day for us,’’ one of Mehanna’s attorneys, Janice Bassil, said after the verdict was read. “. . . It is a sad day for civil rights. It is a sad day for the First Amendment.’’

Another attorney, J.W. Carney Jr., said Mehanna knew he was innocent.

“I think innocent people sit there with a level of comfort and ease that was reflected in Tarek Mehanna,’’ Carney said. “He knew in his heart that he was not guilty of these charges. And frankly, nothing that the prosecutors say, nothing that the judge says, indeed nothing that the jury says, will change that.’’

Carney said Mehanna will appeal the verdict, in large part on the argument that prosecutors sensationalized the trial by repeatedly referring to and showing pictures and videos of Osama bin Laden and suicide bombings, as a strategy to scare and prejudice jurors.

The jury of six men and six women deliberated for about 10 hours before rendering its verdict, following 31 days of testimony by more than 40 witnesses in what both sides agree was a complex trial. Several jurors contacted by the Globe refused to comment on their deliberations.

An alternate juror told the Globe last night that he was not sure Mehanna was guilty.

“They found him guilty, so it’s possible that he is guilty, but I don’t know,’’ said Rupert McBean, 64, of Dorchester. “I still have to process it.’’

Over the course of the trial, FBI agents testified of videos of suicide bombings and of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that were found on Mehanna’s computer, following a secret search of his Sudbury home in 2006.

Mehanna also possessed videos and documents produced by Al Qaeda, and prosecutors said he used his knowledge of Arabic to translate them, following Al Qaeda’s call for followers to spread its message in the West.

Prosecutors say the information showed Mehanna’s state of mind in 2004, when he traveled to Yemen with a friend, Ahmad Abousamra. A third man, Kareem Abuzahra, joined them but returned halfway through the trip after his father had reportedly gotten ill.

Abuzahra was also investigated, but he cooperated with authorities and testified under immunity that the three of them discussed going to Yemen to seek paramilitary training, so they could fight in Iraq.

Abuzahra testified that Mehanna had told him once he returned to the United States that he failed to find a terrorist camp, and he said they agreed to tell investigators a cover story that they went to Yemen in search of schooling.

Defense attorneys sought to impeach the testimony of Abuzahra, who was seen as the government’s key witness. The lawyers got him to acknowledge that he was the one amongst his friends who inquired about obtaining weapons and who discussed the possibility of a domestic terror attack at an Air Force base or shopping mall.

But Mehanna, the defense team argued, was a budding scholar who dismissed the idea of attacking American civilians or a domestic attack, a philosophy that was at odds with Al Qaeda.

They said any views he had were rooted in his devotion to his religion and the belief that Muslims should defend themselves, particularly against foreign soldiers in Iraq. They also argued that Mehanna’s views were far more moderate than others, including those of his own friend Abousamra.

Abousamra, they agreed, sought training in Iraq, but argued that Mehanna should not be held accountable for his actions. Abousamra was charged, but fled to Syria after he was first questioned in 2006, and he remains a fugitive.

The case against Mehanna stirred much controversy within the greater Muslim community, after Mehanna said he had been threatened by FBI agents with prosecution for failing to cooperate and serve as an informant. Many who never met Mehanna rallied to his cause and attended the two-month trial.

Mehanna never fled after he was first contacted by authorities in 2006, his supporters point out. He was not charged until 2008, as he was about to board a flight to Saudi Arabia to begin a career as a pharmacist.

Ortiz said yesterday that Mehanna was charged based on his own conduct.

“We do not prosecute people for expressing their beliefs, for exercising their freedom of speech and their First Amendment rights,’’ she said. “We prosecute people for conduct and the intent that they have when they engage in certain conduct.’’

Mohamed Islaam, who described himself as a friend of Mehanna’s from New York, walked out of the courthouse convinced Mehanna had been punished for refusing to work as an informant.

Islaam also pointed out that Mehanna left the courtroom with the same sense of inner calm that he had when he entered it.

“His head was held high,’’ he said. “He’s an honorable man. He knows he’s innocent.’’

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