BOSTON — A day after a 29-year-old Sudbury man was convicted in federal court of supporting terrorism, his family says they’re confident he’ll be exonerated on appeal.
Tarek Mehanna will be sentenced in April and faces possible life in prison.
His 27-year-old brother, Tamer Mehanna, spoke with WBUR’s All Things Considered host Sacha Pfeiffer about how he and his parents are processing the verdict. Pfeiffer started by asking him if his family had anticipated the trial’s outcome, and Mehanna said they did not expect to hear “guilty” on all seven charges.
Tamer Mehanna: On the one hand, my family and all of the supporters who’ve been attending the trial, of course we all believe Tarek is innocent. But, at the same time, the prevailing climate is what it is — the political climate. So we’re not entirely surprised the jury came back with these verdicts, but what we weren’t expecting was seven guilty verdicts. That was a shock to us.
Sacha Pfeiffer: When you talk about “the prevailing climate,” the prevailing political climate, what do you mean?
We have a problem, as Americans, that we have inadequate exposure to Islam, like from an educational sense. I think many Americans are still in the dark about what Muslims believe. That’s a problem, especially when we can be sitting in a courtroom where law enforcement feels qualified to speak authoritatively about what jihad is.
Do you believe, then, that the jury’s misunderstanding of Islam influenced the way they brought down their verdict in a way that you think made it an incorrect verdict?
Absolutely, because it’s — I mean, you’re taking what’s already a very complicated case. And you’re further complicating it by steeping it in the context of this religion which is not well understood by most Americans.
As you know, your brother’s lawyers believe that prosecutors very much tried to scare the jury. They mentioned terrorism and Osama bin Laden often. Do you think that Osama bin Laden was vicariously on trial, in a sense, in this case against your brother?
Osama bin Laden, Ayman Zawahiri, Zarqawi, you name it. I mean, there were entire days that went by where my brother’s name wasn’t even mentioned. There was a tremendous amount of prejudicial evidence that was allowed into this case.
On the other hand, there was evidence that seems undisputed that your brother had been translating some Arabic documents online that appeared to support terrorism. He had also traveled to Yemen. He says that was to seek religious instruction, but prosecutors say it was to seek terrorist training. So how do you, then, assure people that if your brother was involved in those things there was still no reason to be worried about him, to think that actually he might do something that a terrorist might do?
Well, I’m going to say, first off, that he wasn’t involved in these things because keep in mind that, with Yemen, he only went to Yemen because one of the other individuals who was granted immunity by the government basically approached him and said, ‘Hey, I’ll pay for your way if you come with us.’ My brother returned from Yemen after two weeks. The other individual continued to Iraq. So what I would ask is, if my brother went there for military training, what kept him from continuing on to Iraq?
Your brother has been portrayed by prosecutors, at least, as a young Muslim who became an angry young Muslim, who became increasingly radicalized in Islam. Do you think that’s an unfair portrayal?
Oh, absolutely. I mean, my brother began to mature in his faith right around 2000, when he graduated from high school entering college. When you’re exploring your faith at such a pivotal moment as when 9/11 happens — I mean, there are questions that are inescapable. You have a lot of these — a lot of American-Muslim youth. I don’t want to say a lot, but you have American-Muslim youth who, in this post 9/11 climate, as they’re trying to learn about their religion, they’re not getting the answers that they need from their leaders about difficult questions. You know — how should I as an American-Muslim feel about the fact that the U.S. is at war in these countries? And so because their leaders are afraid to answer these questions — because, again, post-9/11 climate, they feel this paranoia about providing answers that may be perceived as extremist — these individuals, these youth, walk away from these leaders not satisfied with an answer. They go online, they find forums where they find individuals who are not the ones who should be guiding their thinking — you know, like extremist forums, for example. And they end up, like, their ideology gets swayed in directions where they do stupid things.
Is that what happened to your brother?
No. What happened with my brother was that he — because, again, he’s well-read — he was able to avoid that. And he eventually became quite critical of the establishment of leadership in the American-Muslim community for failing to provide the leadership that could prevent these individuals from falling down that trap.
As I’ve read about your brother, it seems that there may have been a point — let’s say around 2004, when he traveled to Yemen — when, as his view of Islam was evolving, he seemed to be leaning toward the radical. But then by the time 2008 rolled around — ironically, when he was arrested — it seemed that he had moderated more. For example, he was basically saying that Islam does not allow us to kill civilians; it was directly against what al-Qaida says. Do you think what we were seeing was an evolution in which he was extreme and then was becoming less extreme?
My brother at no point felt it was okay to kill civilians. There was never a point where my brother felt that. I mean, yes, there were comments that Tarek said early on. Like any young men, you know, people say crude things. I mean, when the Iraq war started, when the shock-and-awe campaign kicked off, I remember I was in my college’s lounge. And there was a semi-circle of young men, my fellow classmates, standing around the TV cheering as they’re watching Baghdad being bombed. I mean, you know people are dying there. You know it’s like a Holocaust for them there. And you’re cheering. So I don’t hold that against them any more than I hold any of my brother’s speech against him.
This case, in the eyes of many people, was a stretch for the government. They rolled the dice and they won. Why do you think prosecutors targeted your brother?
Prosecutors targeted my brother for one reason, which was that since ’04, since late ’04, they’ve been placing tremendous pressure on him to agree to become an informant — the same way that these individuals who rolled over and testified against him, despite the fact [that] we all grew up together. My brother was the first one they approached. And I don’t think the FBI is used to people that it approaches in that manner telling them no. He didn’t want to do something that he felt was morally reprehensible, and so he refused to collaborate with them.
I understand that you talked to Tarek last night after the verdict. What did he say?
He was confident. Like us, he knows that he’s innocent. We’re ready, and he is ready, to take it to the Supreme Court. And we’re happy to know that the defense team is very much committed to helping us move forward with this as far as it needs to go.