Investigators secretly searched Tarek Mehanna’s Sudbury home in August 2006, while he and his family were vacationing in Egypt, and found materials promoting violent jihad, a member of an investigative task force told a jury yesterday in Mehanna’s federal trial on terrorism charges.
The “clandestine” search, which began at dusk and continued through that late summer night, years before Mehanna, a 29-year-old American citizen, was ever charged, was approved by a court, said State Trooper Thomas Sarrouf, who was assigned to the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force.
During the search, investigators found documents supporting jihad as well as a transcript of what he called an unreleased interview with Osama bin Laden, who says, “The battle has moved to inside America, we will continue this battle, God willing, until victory or we meet God.”
According to Sarrouf’s account, bin Laden also says, “If inciting people to do terrorism and killing people who kill our sons is terrorism, then … we are terrorists,”
In addition, Sarrouf said, investigators found videos urging Muslims to engage in violent jihadand showing combat scenes in Bosnia, Chechnya, and Iraq.
“They depicted jihadist scenes, combat scenes, in areas of conflict around the globe,” Sarrouf said.
No objects were taken during the search, only photographed, and investigators made a copy of Mehanna’s computer hard drive.
“My role in this case was to look at and identify any object of potential intelligence,” he said.
Sarrouf was the first witness to testify in Mehanna’s trial in US District Court in Boston on charges of conspiring to support Al Qaeda and conspiring to kill in a foreign country, and lying to federal investigators. He faces life in prison.
Prosecutors say Mehanna traveled to Yemen in 2004 seeking terrorism training, but failed to find what he was looking for. When he returned, he started to translate and distribute Al Qaeda propaganda on the Internet, which prosecutors said was in response to the terrorist organization’s call to spread its message of jihad.
Defense lawyers argue that Mehanna only traveled to Yemen to look for schools to further his education of Arabic laws and history. They did not deny that Mehanna translated documents and wrote about them on the Internet, saying he had a First Amendment right to speak about his beliefs – no matter how controversial.
The defense lawyers argue, however, that at no time did Mehanna do anything in cooperation with or at the direction of Al Qaeda, the standard required for a federal crime. At one point, they said, he refused a request by an Al Qaeda-related group to translate a document promoting jihad.
Defense lawyer Sejal Patel yesterday peppered an FBI cyber security agent, who also testified yesterday, with questions about computer technology, trying to establish that some of the materials found on Mehanna’s computer may have been attached to the websites he visited, even if he never downloaded them.
Two other witnesses testified about how the FBI extracted information from Mehanna’s computer, though they did not specify what was found.
During Sarrouf’s testimony, defense attorney Janice Bassil questioned the manner in which the search of Mehanna’s home was carried out. She has said in previous hearings that the warrant for the search was authorized by a secret court, and that it was known as a “sneak and peek” search. The Mehanna family never knew anyone was in the home.
In pre-trial proceedings, lawyers and prosecutors revealed that a secret court was used under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which allows for the secret surveillance and search of people during national security investigations.
Bassil sought to establish that many of the items Mehanna had in his home were general Arabic writings and materials.
“Do you remember if they were books in Arabic on theology and law?” she asked.Sarrouf said he did not.
Sarrouf also said he did not know that a massive flag hanging in Mehanna’s home was the flag of Saudi Arabia, a country, the defense argues, that Al Qaeda opposes.