In a month, Maldonado would be captured on the border of Somalia and Kenya and turned over to the FBI. Four months after that, he would plead guilty to receiving military training from a foreign terrorist organization and begin serving a 10-year prison sentence.
The FBI say that when they asked Mehanna about Maldonado's whereabouts, he lied to them. Mehanna, they say, was well on his way to becoming a terrorist, too.
But his supporters tell a different story. yes, they say, he was angry at American policy and jeered at American suffering, but he never committed a crime: his only mistake was that he rebuffed the FBI's offer to become an informant.
According to Mehanna, the FBI had started to recruit him in early 2005. By 2008, they were playing hard ball. That summer, Mehanna sat next to his father in defense attorney J.W. Carney's office with the Boston FBI on speaker phone. When Carney asked what it was they wanted from Tarek, their answer was simple. "If your client does not collaborate with us, we will make his life a living hell."
HEALING, NOT HATE
This summer, I visited Mehanna's younger brother, Tamer, in his Boston apartment near Kenmore Square. Laila Marud, one of the creators of freetarek.com, was also there. Both were eager to talk about the Mehanna they knew. "His only crime was speaking out against US foreign policy," says Marud, "advocating for Muslims worldwide, and refusing to inform on his own community."
Tamer paints a picture of a community-minded healer who was railroaded by authorities desperate for allies in the Islamic world.
"Tarek could have been making a six-figure salary as a pharmacist. But he cared a lot about the community, so instead of that, he went and taught at the academy," says Tamer. "He did really well all throughout school. But then in pharmacy school, he wasn't feeling it because the FBI was putting so much pressure on him.
"They saw Tarek as a valuable prize to have on their side because he was so well known in the community," Tamer adds. When Tarek refused to cooperate, FBI agents issued an ultimatum: help us out, or we will find a way to punish you.
"My brother has a doctorate in pharmaceuticals. He's trying to heal people, not hurt them," Tamer says. "But in the hearing, they said that he went to school so he could make chemical bombs for jihad and so he could be a medic for jihadist. Really? At 18, that's what my brother was thinking about?"
According to the FBI, in that fateful interview in December 2006, Mehanna told investigators he hadn't spoken to Maldonado in weeks — when in fact Maldonado had called him four days prior, from Somalia.
His 2009 charge — "conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists" — sounds more ominous, but a look at the Justice Department's complaint affidavit comes up a bit short on most-wanted-list material. According to the document, Mehanna and his friends "would talk about fighting jihad, and how wonderful it would be to die on the battlefield" and "would watch jihadi videos" — VHS and downloaded from the Internet. "The men discussed their desire to take some kind of action in furtherance of jihad," the complaint reads, "but did not know how to accomplish this objective."