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Prosecutors say Mehanna answered the call to terrorism

Defense says Sudbury man not in Al Qaeda

Tarek Mehanna’s mother, Souad (middle) was surrounded by supporters outside US District Court in Boston yesterday. ELISE AMENDOLA/ASSOCIATED PRESS

It began about a decade ago, according to prosecutors, with Osama bin Laden’s call to arms against oppression, asking for Muslims to fight and kill Americans.

Tarek Mehanna was only a teenager, but he was ready to answer that call, prosecutors said in federal court yesterday.

He traveled to Yemen seeking terrorism training. And he distributed materials on the Internet promoting that jihad, including violent calls for the deaths of US soldiers, the prosecutors said.

“He began translating jihad material . . . material that would encourage others to participate in jihad, which was itself a service to Al Qaeda,’’ Assistant US Attorney Aloke Chakravarty said in opening statements in the 29-year-old Sudbury man’s terrorism trial, in US District Court in Boston.

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“This is a vital service to Al Qaeda, and it’s what the defendant did. It’s about what he tried to do to support the people who were killing Americans,’’ said Chakravarty.

But J.W. Carney Jr., one of Mehanna’s lawyers, asked jurors to keep an open mind, to wait for the “whole picture,’’ during the course of a trial that could last as long as eight weeks.

Mehanna, he said, is not a member of Al Qaeda and not a terrorist. He called his client an American citizen who never hid his criticism of US foreign policy or the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, no matter how controversial the matter, because he was exercising his First Amendment right to free speech.

“We can hold onto these views, and we can speak them, even if it’s what upsets the United States government,’’ Carney told jurors. “It’s what makes the United States so great, so strong, and so free.’’

The opening statements from prosecutors and Mehanna’s defense lawyers came with dramatics that had been expected with the highly anticipated case.

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Mehanna faces life in prison if convicted on charges of conspiracy to provide material support to a terrorist organization and to terrorists, conspiracy to kill in a foreign country, and providing false statements to federal investigators.

Chakravarty said Mehanna lied to investigators about his trip to Yemen and about discussions he had with a terrorism suspect.

He has widespread support from fellow Muslims and from non-Muslims who say he is being targeted for his dissenting views and for his refusal to spy for federal investigators on the greater Muslim community. Yesterday, court officials had to open two separate courtrooms as live-streaming viewing areas, to accommodate the turnout of friends and family members.

Outside, supporters, some who came from the Occupy Boston protesters’ staging area, held signs and shouted “free Tarek’’ in rallies before and after the proceedings.

“America is on trial . . . for what we do, and what we have,’’ said Abdullah Faaruuk of the Mosque for the Praising of Allah in Roxbury, who said he met and spoke with Mehanna on several occasions and does not see him as a terrorist.

Members of Mehanna’s family embraced the support yesterday.

“He’s well liked here in the community, in the Muslim community,’’ his brother, Tamer, said outside the courthouse.

His father, Ahmed Mehanna, added: “We’re waiting for justice. This is all free speech [covered by] the First Amendment.’’

In his hourlong remarks yesterday, Chakravarty described how Mehanna first traveled to Yemen with two associates in 2004 seeking terrorism training. When he failed to find a camp, Mehanna allegedly returned with a strengthened dedication to support Al Qaeda by promoting its propaganda, serving in what Chakravarty called the organization’s media wing.

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He translated a writing called “39 Ways to Make Jihad, which Chakravarty called “essentially training material to get ready to serve and participate in the fight.’’

Chakravarty showed jurors a photo of Mehanna giving a celebratory gesture outside Ground Zero after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, saying it exhibited Mehanna’s state of mind.

Mehanna, Chakravarty said, wrote in a poem, “On that morning, you became our hero, the day you turned the Twin Towers into ground zero.’’

“He viewed himself as part of the media wing of Al Qaeda,’’ Chakravarty said. “He was providing a service to Al Qaeda, and Osama bin Laden told you what that was. It was for jihad.’’

Chakravarty said Mehanna’s associates will testify about his ideals and plans. One key witness is Kareem Abuzahra, who started the trip to Yemen with Mehanna but who turned back when his father became ill.

Another is Daniel Maldonado, an American with Massachusetts ties who had faced life in prison after he was convicted in 2007 of undergoing terrorism training in Somalia. But he pleaded guilty and received a reduced sentence of 10 years for agreeing to testify against Mehanna. Maldonado had met Mehanna at a Lowell mosque sometime around 2003.

Carney, in his hourlong remarks, told jurors that Mehanna should not be held accountable for the work of his associates.

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Abuzahra and a third man, Ahmad Abousamra, , were the ones who wanted to undergo training, he said. Abuzahra was the one who bought Mehanna’s ticket to Yemen, he said, and Abousamra went on to Pakistan and Iraq in search of training. Abousamra is a codefendant in the case, but fled to Syria when he was first questioned by prosecutors several years ago.

Carney characterized Mehanna as a budding scholar who traveled to Yemen in search of places to study, to continue his education in Arabic and 15th-century Islamic law, and he asked jurors to hear both sides of the case.

He said Mehanna was kicked off a radical website that prosecutors said he belonged to, because he was declared too moderate for the site. While prosecutors said that one group with actual connections to Mehanna asked him to translate a jihadist document, Carney said Mehanna never responded and never did the work.

The work that Mehanna did do followed his own beliefs, which derived from scholarly texts, Carney said. “He didn’t hide his beliefs, he wore them on his sleeve.’’

The trial is slated to resume today.


Milton J. Valencia can be reached at mvalencia@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia.