Opening statements are set to begin Thursday in Boston at the trial of Tarek Mehanna, a 29-year-old American charged in U.S. District Court with conspiracy and providing material support to al-Qaida, as well as planning to attend training camps abroad and making false statements to authorities. He faces a possible life sentence if convicted. His co-defendant, Ahmad Abousamra, also of Massachusetts, is a fugitive, allegedly fleeing to Syria after being questioned by the FBI.
Prosecutors allege that when the young men traveled to Yemen in 2004, they intended to get training to fight against the U.S. in Iraq. Mehanna's lawyers contend his intention was religious training. When the plans fell through, the pair returned to the Boston suburbs, where Mehanna pursued studies leading to a PhD in pharmacy, became active in online forums and maintained a blog, Iskandrani, where he was known as Abu Sabaya. He allegedly translated radical texts and shared violent jihadist videos.
A prosecution court filing enumerates nearly 800 items authorities say they discovered on Mehanna's computer files, including messages, photos, videos and text translations. His lawyers argue that the online activities are protected by the First Amendment and today asked Judge George O'Toole to instruct the jury on Mehanna's free speech rights.
Mehanna's arrest in 2008 is tied to allegations that he lied to the FBI when questioned about his communications with Daniel Maldonado, a convert to Islam from New Hampshire now serving a 10-year sentence for training at a terrorist camp in Somalia. Maldonado is likely to be called as a witness against Mehanna, as are other Boston area Muslim men who were friends or acquaintances. Two of them agreed to act as cooperating witnesses and recordings of their conversations with Mehanna will be evidence at the trial.
Mehanna's supporters say that the criminal charges are punishment for his refusal to act as an informant in the community for the FBI.
Recently, defense attorneys requested evidence that before his arrest, an New York Police Department undercover agent approached Mehanna with a plan to commit a violent attack that Mehanna refused. Judge O'Toole ruled against the relevance of the incident.
(Margot Williams is a database editor with NPR Investigations.)