The United States v. Tarek Mehanna

By NATE HOMAN  |  September 28, 2011

Yet no matter how distasteful or extreme some might find Mehanna's views, this is protected speech under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Waging jihad may be criminal, but what about just talking jihad?

Disputes about the limits of free speech are nothing new in the annals of federal trials — although there are a host of precedents that would appear to favorably apply to Mehanna's case.

What is new and disturbing is that, in cases such as Mehanna's, the defendant does not have the right to face his accusers. A review of the government's indictment shows that much of the case against Mehanna rests on the word of anonymous informants identified only by initials such as "K," "I," and "S."

By denying Mehanna bail for the two years before his trial — and thus denying him maximum access to his lawyers — and by releasing reams of material only weeks before the trial was scheduled to begin, the Department of Justice has made it extremely difficult for Mehanna to defend himself.

That, however, may be the point. Mehanna's supporters allege that his current troubles stem from his steadfast refusal to become an FBI source. The message? Play ball or else, because if we the government say you are guilty, then you probably are. It's called a chilling effect, and like a page out of Kafka, it can send a shiver up your spine.


Tarek Mehanna's parents, Ahmed and Souad, were born in Egypt and emigrated to the United States in 1980. Tarek was born in Pittsburgh; the family moved to Sudbury in 1993, and Tarek's father took a job teaching at Massachusetts College of Pharmacy. According to his younger brother, Tamer Mehanna, Tarek was a typical kid who liked comic books, drawing, and music. He enjoyed playing basketball and was a fan of grunge-metal bands including Nirvana, Tool, System of a Down, and Local H. He attended several Ozzfests.

As a student at Lincoln-Sudbury High School, Tarek's interests began to change. He started to study Islam and blogged about his ideals as a new and devout Muslim. He taught himself Arabic and became fluent enough to read and translate material he found on Islamic Web sites.

By 2006, Mehanna entered the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy's six-year doctorate program. He began teaching religion, math, and history at the Alhuda Academy, a private Islamic day school that adjoins the Worcester Islamic Center. He was also talking to other radicalized American Muslims about jihad, and traveling to known terrorist hotspots in the Middle East, including Egypt and Yemen. And, perhaps inevitably, he had attracted the attention of the FBI.

In August of that year, armed with a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, agents searched Mehanna's bedroom and copied his hard drive; they discovered photos of him at Ground Zero, smiling and pointing at the sky; other photos, plus video and audio files, were found, as were numerous documents, including an Arabic-to-English translation Mehanna had done of the treatise "39 Ways To Serve and Participate in Jihad."

Four months later, two members of the Joint Terrorism Task Force interviewed Mehanna about a trip he'd taken with two friends to Yemen in 2004. He was also asked about a friend, Daniel Maldonado of Methuen, and when they had last spoken.

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  •   THE UNITED STATES V. TAREK MEHANNA  |  September 28, 2011
    On a late-fall day in 2008, a 26-year-old Massachusetts College of Pharmacy PhD named Tarek Mehanna left his parents' Sudbury home to start a new life in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where he had received a prestigious appointment in the diabetes department at the King Fahad Medical City. He didn't make it.
    ... in the Boston Phoenix archives

 See all articles by: NATE HOMAN