Tarek Mehanna outside federal court in Boston in February 2009. Federal authorities in Boston said Mehanna has been charged with conspiring with others on terror attacks against shoppers in US malls. Photo from WHDH-TV/Associated Press.
On Wednesday, Tarek Mehanna of Sudbury, Mass., was charged in federal court with conspiring to provide material support to terrorists. We’ll likely be able to learn a significant amount about his ideological leanings, motivations, and radicalization, as Mehanna kept a fascinating blog; similarly, Mehanna’s friend and ideological cohort Daniel Maldonado kept a blog that yielded some important insights into his own radicalization. This article is concerned not with Mehanna’s radicalization, however, but with what authorities have alleged in the present case.
Key players. There are five individuals who play significant roles in the affidavit in support of a criminal complaint filed by FBI Special Agent Heidi L. Williams (all page numbers in the following analysis refer to her affidavit). Tarek Mehanna is the accused in this case, a 27-year-old pharmacist from Massachusetts. Ahmed Abousamra is a 28-year-old who grew up in the Greater Boston area, whose father is described by the Boston Globe as “prominent doctor and Muslim community leader.” Daniel Maldonado is a friend of Mehanna and Abousamra who pled guilty two years ago to undergoing terrorist training in Somalia. CW2 is a cooperating witness who had known Mehanna for 15-20 years and was originally part of the conspiracy, but started cooperating with the government in 2006. Individual A is a white convert to Islam “who worked as a teacher in an Islamic School in California,” and “had received religious training in Yemen, and had also attended a terrorist training camp” (18).
Timeline of events. The criminal complaint is not written in chronological order. This section reconstructs the timeline of significant events alleged by the government. (It leaves out certain less consequential allegations, including some of those related to the false statements charges.) For Mehanna and Abousamra, it is a frustrating tale of traveling the world in search of jihad, but coming up empty-handed.
2000/2001. Mehanna introduced CW2 to Abousamra in this period, “and the three men became close friends” (13). This friendship was rooted in a “common interest with each other and with others in discussing religious topics and the role of Muslims in the United States. They also discussed the justification for certain jihadist acts. ABOUSAMRA always justified their extremist views by citing Islamic teachings. On some occasions, when the three men engaged in serious conversations about jihad, only the three would be involved. They did not trust some of their other friends with certain information” (13).
Before 9/11, the three men discussed going to terrorist training camps in Pakistan, and researched how to travel there, “but no concrete plans materialized” (14).
Apr. 4, 2002. Abousamra traveled to Pakistan.
Summer or fall 2002. According to Maldonado, he first met Abousamra during this time period, and later met Mehanna through Abousamra:
On the first day he met MEHANNA at MEHANNA’s home, they watched a jihadi videotape in MEHANNA’s living room. According to Maldonado, the video began by showing the pillaging of the Muslim world in Bosnia and Palestine. It then progressed to showing some of the uplifting victories of the mujahideen. The video included footage of people being killed. After the video was over, the group, that included MEHANNA, ABOUSAMRA and Maldonado, talked about the glory of dying for the sake of Allah. (10)
Thereafter, the three men and CW2 continued to bond over their shared desire to participate in jihad and die in battle. They discussed the possibility of fighting in Chechnya and Iraq, but thought that after 9/11 “getting into Afghanistan through Pakistan was impossible” (11).
Nov. 17, 2002. Abousamra traveled to Pakistan, his second time that year. He later told CW2 about his experiences there:
ABOUSAMRA told CW2 that he befriended a man named Abdulmajid, who he met on a bus after they discussed a jihadist slogan on a sign in Arabic. ABOUSAMRA stayed with the man in Pakistan, and Abdulmajid helped ABOUSAMRA in his attempts to find and join terrorist camps. ABOUSAMRA made contact with terrorist groups, included Lashkar e Tayyiba (“LeT” ) and the Taliban. However, because ABOUSAMRA was an Arab (not Pakistani) the LeT camp would not accept him, and because of ABOUSAMRA’s lack of experience, the Taliban camp would not accept him. (14-15)
Assuming that Abousamra’s account is accurate, it is worth noting that LeT’s training camp policies apparently changed. This can be seen by the very different experiences that Willie Brigitte and members of the “Virginia Jihad Network” would later have with LeT camps.
2003. Following Abousamra’s experiences in Pakistan, the three men (Mehanna, Abousamra, and CW2) concluded that Pakistan might not be a feasible place to receive training. They explored other options, including carrying out terrorist attacks in the U.S., and discussed the feasibility of killing two specific members of the executive branch (the complaint does not name who these potential targets were). Most of these plans “involved no more than one or more conversations,” but they did discuss in depth a plan to randomly shoot people at a mall using automatic weapons. CW2 traveled to meet Maldonado in New Hampshire to obtain the automatic weapons (CW2 believed that Maldonado had contacts with gang members prior to his conversion to Islam), but Maldonado could only provide handguns. Rather pathetically, when CW2 told this to Abousamra and Mehanna, “the plan was abandoned” (17).
2003. Around this time, Abousamra met Individual A-who had attended a terrorist training camp-on an online message board. He wanted help figuring out how to attend a training camp in Yemen, but considered the discussion too sensitive to have online. Thus, Abousamra flew to California, where Individual A “provided to ABOUSAMRA the name of a town in Yemen and the name of a person who would be able to get him into a camp” (18-19).
Feb. 1, 2004. Abousamra, Mehanna, and CW2 left Boston to fly to the UAE through London. The three men took a number of security precautions prior to the trip in order to avoid detection by the authorities:
Prior to leaving, they pooled their resources and divided the cash three ways, in order to avoid scrutiny at the airport, and so that no currency report would have to be filed. They also discussed a cover story to tell law enforcement in case they were questioned. ABOUSAMRA did research online and found the name of a school, Dar al Mustafa, that they would say was where they intended to study religious studies. (19)
However, when they arrived in UAE, CW2 “received an e-mail from his family urging him to return” (20). He used this as an excuse, and backed out. He thought that he would never see either Abousamra or Mehanna again. Abousamra and Mehanna continued from UAE to Yemen around Feb. 4, but returned to UAE around Feb. 11. Later Mehanna would tell CW2 that the Yemen trip had failed “in large part, because no one was around. Half the people they wanted to see were on hajj, and half were in jail” (24). Of particular interest is their interaction with an Egyptian whom Individual A said they should meet:
They knocked on the door of what MEHANNA described as a mud hut, and a young boy answered. MEHANNA and ABOUSAMRA asked for the boy’s father. The boy said that they hadn’t seen him in three years, since September 11 . They decided to tell the boy the truth and told him exactly why there were there, [that is, to train for jihad]. He listened and then excused himself. He returned about 10 minutes later carrying an AK-47, with his father behind him. Another man walked in, who was huge, had long hair, a long beard and wore a turban. The father, referring to why they were in Yemen, told them “all that stuff is gone ever since the planes hit the Twin Towers.” (24)
Feb. 13, 2004. Abousamra entered Iraq and stayed for about 15 days. He later claimed that he liaised with mujahidin there, but that they wouldn’t allow him to join them in combat because he was American.
Around Mar. 2004: CW2 was surprised to see Mehanna at a party; Abousamra also returned sometime thereafter.
Fall 2005. Daniel Maldonado moved to Egypt. “In the summer of 2006, MEHANNA visited Egypt and met with Maldonado on several occasions. Maldonado discussed with MEHANNA Maldonado’s desire to go to Somalia” (12).
Nov. 2006. Maldonado moved from Egypt to Somalia, along with his wife and three children, following the Islamic Courts Union’s takeover of Mogadishu and key strategic Somali cities.
Dec. 2006. Maldonado called Mehanna early in the month. During this call, Maldonado spoke to Mehanna in code: they had prearranged that Maldonado would speak of “peanut butter and jelly” when referring to jihad over the telephone or Internet. Maldonado told Mehanna he was in “culinary school,” where he was making peanut butter and jelly. The complaint notes: “The phrase ‘culinary school’ was made up by Maldonado on the spot; he assumed that MEHANNA would understand that he was receiving jihad training” (12-13). Maldonado then gave Mehanna “detailed instructions on how to get to Somalia to join him” (13).
Dec. 12, 2006. Members of the Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) begin interviewing Abousamra and Mehanna about their activities. (They also almost certainly interviewed and applied pressure to CW2; one can infer that this is what caused him to start cooperating in this time period.) Abousamra was interviewed on Dec. 12, and lied to authorities about his travel to Yemen and Iraq.
Dec. 15, 2006. By Dec. 15, CW2 had begun cooperating with the government. On that date, he recorded a conversation with Abousamra.
Dec. 16, 2006. Mehanna was interviewed by two JTTF members, much of the discussion concerning his 2004 trip to Yemen. Mehanna “provided false information and made fraudulent and fictitious statements about the purpose of that trip” (3). He also lied about Daniel Maldonado, claiming that he last heard that Maldonado was in Egypt and had not heard from him in two weeks. (Even before the present charges, Mehanna had already been indicted, in January 2009, for making false statements to federal authorities.)
Dec. 26, 2006. Apparently feeling the heat following his interview with JTTF members, Abousamra left Boston for Syria: “He told CBP Officers that he was going to Syria to visit his wife. He was scheduled to return on January 20, 2007, but has still not returned” (8).
Jan. 2007. Maldonado was arrested. He told the FBI a great deal: He admitted that he had gone to Somalia to fight jihad and live in an Islamic state. He stated that he received training in the use of weapons and explosives. Maldonado also admitted that, while in the southern part of Somalia, he (Maldonado) called TAREK MEHANNA and, using code, urged MEHANNA to join him in fighting” (9).
As previously noted, this was a frustrating tale for the would-be jihadists involved, in that they never received the training or other opportunities for which they so desperately searched. This was nicely expressed in a conversation between Mehanna and CW2 in January 2007, who bemoaned the fact that they were “handicapped” within the jihadist movement because they were Americans. Speaking of how Abousamra had traveled to many countries in order to join the mujahidin, CW2 asked: “All those places and what did they [the mujahidin] tell him?”
Mehanna: “We don’t need you.”
The charges. Based on the above series of events, the government alleges that from 2001 until about May 2008, Mehanna conspired with Abousamra “to provide material support and resources, that is, property, services, currency and monetary instruments, training, expert advice and assistance, facilities and personnel, and to conceal and disguise the nature, location, source, and ownership of such material support and resources, knowing and intending that the material support and resources were to be used in preparation for and in carrying out violations of Title 18, United States Code, Section 956 (conspiracy to kill, kidnap, maim, or injure persons or damage property in a foreign country), and Section 2332 (extraterritorial homicide of a U.S. national).”