In late March, as Boston emerged from winter, so did the city’s protest community. On the 24th of the month I watched as antiwar students joined forces with partisans of the Palestinian cause and Nation of Islam members in their immaculately pressed suits and distinctive bow ties, to gather in Dockser Hall at Northeastern University. The pretext was a community panel on prosecutorial misconduct at the Boston United States attorney’s office. The star of the show was disgraced Boston city councilor Chuck Turner, there to make his “last stand” before reporting to Hazelton federal prison, where he is serving a three-year sentence for public corruption. As outspoken as ever, the erstwhile civil rights hero claimed federal prosecutors in Boston had colluded with “the oligarchy” to frame him after he called for troop withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, Turner had been tagged for accepting a $1,000 wad of cash from a cooperating witness in return for assisting a Roxbury nightclub obtain a liquor license.
Turner’s case comported nicely with the larger political theme of the evening—the unjust prosecution of free-thinking citizens by a racist American government. And so -Turner’s fate wasn’t the only cause celebrated that evening. There was also the curious case of Tarek Mehanna, a 28-year-old Ph.D. who was indicted in November 2009 by a federal grand jury returning a 10-count indictment against him, alleging, inter alia, that he had conspired to provide material support to terrorists. Like Turner, however, Mehanna sees himself as a victim.
So do his supporters. Laila Murad, a young organizer with the Tarek Mehanna Support Committee, stepped to the microphone to defend Mehanna as “a devout Muslim, an educator and mentor to the youth, a scholar, a good friend, a devoted and respectful son . . . a loved and esteemed member of our local Muslim community.” Murad’s voice quivered with palpable intensity as she described Mehanna’s bravery in speaking “out against U.S. foreign policy” and his advocacy on behalf of Muslim prisoners. Federal authorities, Murad claimed, had leveled false charges against him in retaliation for his taking a principled, unpopular stance. It was Mehanna’s activism, and his dogged refusal to inform on his own community, that had made him an ideal target for the “post-9/11 campaign of repression against Muslims.”
“My crime,” Mehanna declares in a defiant poem written not long after his arrest, “is my mind, uncolonized and free / and that I’m not the house slave they want us all to be.” In another poem, Mehanna pays tribute to his own spiritual resilience, and that of the other unjustly imprisoned faithful. Visitors to Mehanna’s website can access an extensive collection of his poems, essays, and illustrations. Stilted and artless though they may be, these efforts help Mehanna come across as a prisoner of conscience, facing a long sentence simply for defending his faith against an American government bent on subjugating Muslims at home and abroad. One drawing—looking very much like a rejected piece of conceptual art from the Matrix trilogy—depicts “Uncle Thomas Laboratories,” where a grotesque machine divests American Muslims of their mental autonomy. Here, a massive tube first sucks out a young Muslim’s brain. Next, robotic arms remove the layers surrounding the brain—“dignity,” “self-respect,” and “pride for the ummah”—while others inject it with an “inferiority complex,” and an “apologetic attitude.” The final product, a “colonized mind,” is neatly wrapped in a box marked “made in U.S.A.”
Mehanna’s supporters have launched a relatively sophisticated campaign portraying him as a misunderstood, moderate Muslim dissident. And yet the “Free Tarek” initiative reaches far beyond Boston’s Muslim community. A YouTube video on the “Free Tarek” website, for example, features the Rev. Jason Lydon, a Unitarian minister and LGBT rights advocate, telling local reporters that Mehanna “is a man who expresses love of his faith and a deep commitment to justice.” He is “a known moderate in his political views [who] consistently demonstrates his peaceful response to conflict.”
Moreover, by branding Mehanna as a rights crusader, his supporters also seek backing from Boston’s African-American community. At the Northeastern event speakers drew a straight line between the black community’s valiant struggles against American apartheid in the 1960s and Mehanna’s struggle against the U.S. government’s “anti-Muslim agenda” today.
Mehanna has embraced the role of the intrepid civil rights hero—his website’s banner carries Dr. King’s warning that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” But the massive evidentiary arsenal that law enforcement agents have amassed against him paints an entirely different picture of Tarek Mehanna. It offers a fascinating psychological portrait of an Islamist undergoing an almost decade-long process of radicalization. And yet the real story here is not about the making of a homegrown Islamist militant. Rather, it’s about his supporters’ use of the well-worn lexicon of identity politics to turn a young man who is seething with hatred, sexually frustrated, and profoundly alienated from his own family into a standard-bearer for racial justice and a model American Muslim. He is neither.
Born in Pittsburgh to an Egyptian-American family, Tarek Mehanna was raised in Sudbury, an affluent suburb some 25 miles west of Boston. His father, Ahmed Mehanna, is a professor of medicinal chemistry at the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health, where Tarek obtained a doctorate in pharmacy. U.S. attorneys allege that Mehanna started absorbing radical Islamist ideology as early as 2001 and began on the path of ideological jihad before eventually attempting to wage physical jihad. Mehanna’s Internet footprint and hours of recorded conversations with alleged co-conspirators and associates tend to support this theory.
According to the government, Mehanna’s parents were aware of his radical Islamist leanings, which they did not share, long before his arrest. But they did not “control his actions or influence his beliefs.” (Nor did they hesitate to spring to his support once he was indicted.) Alarmed congregants at a Sharon, Massachusetts, mosque, for example, had approached his father Ahmed with their concerns after Mehanna shared his extremist views there. “[I]f we didn’t know he was [your] son,” one worried, “we would say he was a member of al Qaeda.” Subsequently, a disagreement apparently broke out between father and son. “I can’t speak anymore,” Mehanna told “D.S.,” an online associate. “I have to pack up all my books.” This was in 2006, almost two years prior to his first arrest for making false statements to the Joint Terrorism Task Force. (He was eventually released on bail before being rearrested on the material support charges.)
Ahmed Mehanna’s disapproval, the government argues, did not deter his son from pursuing jihad. Not long after the mosque incident, Mehanna shared his profound admiration for Osama bin Laden with “Aab,” another online associate: “[T]he way they were describing him [in the book Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama bin Laden] made me realize . . . how much he truly gave up . . . and why he gave it up.” At that point, Mehanna “realized that I look to [bin Laden] as being my real father, in a sense.” Indeed, it was bin Laden whose example started Mehanna down the path that ultimately led to his arrest. “I love [bin Laden] more than I did before,” Mehanna told “Aab.” “I have been following him for over six [years] now. . . .
[F]rom the moment I saw him . . . the hair on my arms . . . stood on end. . . . [H]e’s the reason . . . I started practicing.”
Mehanna’s affinity for al Qaeda and his spiritual father Osama bin Laden was matched only by his deep antipathy for the American government and non-Muslim individuals and institutions generally. Mehanna’s hatred was on full display, for example, during a June 2006 online conversation with associate “M.” concerning the September 11 atrocities. “[P]eople . . . say for Allah to have mercy upon the kuffar [infidels] who were in it,” Mehanna sneers. “[S]o I say . . . may Allah have mercy on just the buildings . . . not the kuffar who were in it . . . as at least the buildings weren’t kuffar.” Federal investigators also found two photographs on Mehanna’s computer harddrive of him and two associates standing in front of Ground Zero. Mehanna is smiling mischievously while pointing upward to the empty New York skyline.
In another online conversation in January 2006, Mehanna commented on the plight of Jill Carroll, the Christian Science Monitor journalist who was taken hostage by Iraqi followers of al Qaeda lieutenant Abu Musab al Zarqawi and kept captive for over 80 days. “Iraqis, man,” quipped Mehanna, “they know how to treat a woman.” Later, in May 2006, Mehanna and D.S. planned a movie night to watch video of Zarqawi beheading the 26-year-old American businessman Nicholas Berg:
Mehanna: we can have a movie night
D.S.: what movie? . . . “State of the Ummah?”
Mehanna: ni . . . no . . . Heads Up
D.S.: lol . . . Heads Up?
Mehanna: hehe joke
D.S.: does it star Mr. Z [Zarqawi]?
D.S.: it should be Heads Off
Mehanna: hehe yeah
Mehanna’s extremism found an outlet in his Internet and media-related activities, which form part of the basis for the material support indictment. Mehanna’s crowning achievement in this regard was his English translation of a pro-terror tract called 39 Ways to Serve and Participate in Jihad, which, the grand jury charged, “was intended to inspire individuals to participate in violent jihad.” As counterterrorism analyst Jarret Brachman testified before the House Armed Services Committee’s Subcommittee on Terrorism, Unconventional Threats and Capabilities,
The book’s author introduces a variety of ways in which Muslims, who may not be able to fight on the frontlines because they are too young or too sick, for instance, could still prepare for and support active jihadi insurgent campaigns around the world. Some of those ways include urging women to socialize their children with a jihadi mindset from an earlier age by reading them bedtime stories of the great jihadi fighters or playing them videos of successful attacks against American forces.
Mehanna, the government alleges, took great pride in providing Anglophone Muslims with access to 39 Ways. Indeed, he and his associates eventually came to view themselves as Al Qaeda in Iraq’s “English wing.” Mehanna’s pride was tempered only by his sense of inadequacy compared with his al Qaeda idols (“maybe . . . if we are lucky . . . we get to clean their toilets”).
Mehanna supported the cause in other, more creative ways, as well. Federal prosecutors credit Mehanna with authorship of a popular Islamist poem titled “Make Martyrdom What You Seek.” This poem is much more direct than Mehanna’s relatively tame prison writings. As its title suggests, the poem encourages the faithful to leave the comforts of the material world behind and wage jihad: “Make your path none other than Islam’s high peak / Whose mountain is climbed by making death what you seek!” Also worth noting is the bizarre, erotic dimension to the poem, arising from the poet’s description of the buxom virgins offered martyrdom-seekers. In the martyr’s paradise,
You turn and behold! The voices are singing
Coming from Maidens so fair and enchanting,
These are the Hoorees with round and firm chests
Pure untouched virgins, they’re better than the best,
Seventy-two in all, with large eyes of dark hue
Each one created especially for you.
Sexual frustration appears to have been a significant factor in much of Mehanna’s “activism.” It rears its head, for example, in numerous telephone conversations between Mehanna and Daniel Maldonado, a Muslim convert and Mehanna associate who eventually pled guilty to terrorism charges. In late 2006, Maldonado sought to lure Mehanna to Somalia, where he was staying at the time, so that the two could attend “culinary school” and “make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches” together—code language, the government alleges, for undergoing terrorism training. (Mehanna was apparently prevented from doing so by financial constraints.)
“Dude, what about like marriage and stuff?” Mehanna asked Maldonado on one such call. “Marriage is so easy, brother,” Maldonado responded. Later in the same call, Mehanna brought up the topic of marriage once more, asking Maldonado whether he plans on “getting a number two,” i.e., a second wife. Maldonado responded that in Somalia “light skin” men are popular among the ladies. “I could have a wife waiting for you [in Somalia],” Maldonado promised Mehanna. “That’s what I want, that’s what I’m there for,” Mehanna replied. Maldonado also mentioned that a comrade named Omar “was almost married in two days to a real good sister.” “Whatever Allah wills,” Mehanna laughed.
Mehanna at this stage did not even have a “number one” let alone a “number two.” Thus, the prospect of an Islamist Somalia—where even smoking is illegal, as Maldonado boasted—and brimming with eager Muslim brides must have been attractive. But Mehanna was not just another horny twentysomething looking for love and adventure abroad. If even a fraction of the factual allegations the government is about to marshal against him are true, then Mehanna could well have turned out to be the next devastatingly successful homegrown holy warrior—that is, if not for his Islamist cohort’s utter incompetence at waging physical jihad.
For example, prosecutors allege that, as early as 2003, Mehanna, Ahmad Abousamra, a Boston-based Islamist who later disappeared to Syria, and a cooperating witness (“CW2”) planned to shoot up dozens of civilians at a mall and assassinate two members of “the executive branch”—a designation the indictment does not further specify. The task of securing the needed automatic weapons was given to the then recent convert Maldonado, who the other three believed might be able to obtain them through gang contacts in New Hampshire. Maldonado was only able to secure handguns, though, so the plan was soon abandoned. A year later, according to the government’s account, Mehanna, Abousamra, and CW2 traveled to Yemen in search of terrorist training. Once again, however, their hopes of waging jihad were dashed. No one was around, Mehanna would later tell CW2, who had backed out of the trip at the halfway-point in the Emirates. The individuals they were supposed to meet were all either jailed or on pilgrimage.
His lawyers suggest that Mehanna’s damning online statements in support of al Qaeda should be viewed within a broader politico-theological context. “The context of the discovery in this case does not lend itself to objective evaluation,” they write in opposition to the government’s motion for pretrial detention. “[T]erms such as ‘jihad’ and ‘martyr’ can mean different things; to some, they indicate terrorism, to others, they indicate completely nonviolent and traditional aspects of Islam.” As to his truly revolting comments, defense counsel reminded the court that they were made by a “juvenile” transmitting thousands of instant messages to other young men. Finally, Mehanna’s lawyers argue that the First Amendment protects his right to make these comments—however reprehensible the court may find them.
These arguments failed to move the court to release Mehanna pending trial. However, Mehanna has not yet had his day in court, where a jury may still acquit him. His supporters also harp on the fact that the lead prosecutor in this case, Jeffrey Auerhahn, is facing a bar disciplinary proceeding for having failed to disclose a witness’s exculpatory statement to the defendant in a 1989 gangland case. (An internal Justice Department investigation ended with Auerhahn receiving a private reprimand.) But even assuming for the sake of argument the—preposterous—notion that federal prosecutors are “framing” him, the fact remains that Mehanna is a deeply hateful, misogynistic, and misanthropic young man.
In turning Mehanna into a civil rights hero, his supporters compound their mendacity by characterizing him as a “tolerant,” “moderate” Muslim. Actual moderates in the Muslim community daily risk the wrath of the Mehannas of the world to speak out against radical Islamism. For example, when in 2006 he learned that Farzana Hassan-Shahid of the Canadian Muslim Congress had called on fellow Muslims to “be more proactive” in confronting the extremists in their midst, Mehanna sent a chilling instant message to Abousamra: “She needs to be raped . . . with a broomstick.” To call Mehanna tolerant, then, is to undermine actually existing moderates like Hassan-Shahid. It is also to do violence to the very ideal of tolerance, distorting it beyond all recognition.
Sohrab Ahmari’s work has appeared in the Boston Globe and Commentary, among other publications.