BOSTON — A Massachusetts man will learn his sentence in a Boston court after being convicted in federal court last year of conspiring to help al-Qaida.
Tarek Mehanna, 29, an American who grew up in the wealthy Boston suburb of Sudbury, was found guilty in December of traveling to Yemen to seek training in a terrorist camp with the intention of going on to Iraq to fight U.S. soldiers there.
Federal prosecutors said that when that plan failed, Mehanna returned to the United States and began translating and disseminating materials online promoting violent jihad.
At his sentencing Thursday, he could face up to life in prison for his conviction on four terror-related charges and three counts of lying to authorities. Prosecutors are recommending a 25-year prison sentence. Mehanna’s lawyers said he should get no more than six-and-a-half years.
In court filings this week, prosecutors said Mehanna lived a “double life,” appearing as a “dutiful and scholarly young man” to his family and community, but in reality, he “was a proponent of violence as a means of achieving political goals.” They also recommended that after Mehanna completes his sentence, he be placed under supervised release for as long as he remains in the United States.
Defense lawyers have painted a far different picture. They point out that Mehanna never did receive terrorist training and say his trip to Yemen at the age of 21 was “entirely unsophisticated.”
In a letter filed with his lawyers’ sentencing memo, Mehanna, a pharmacy school graduate, said he wanted to show his efforts to serve others, “the world which my heart will never leave.” He said when he was first arrested on lesser charges in the case, he was en route to a hospital job in Saudi Arabia, where he had been asked to establish a diabetes treatment clinic. While free on bail, he got a job teaching math, science and religion at a private Islamic school near his home. He called it “the most fulfilling experience of his life,” interrupted by his second arrest on upgraded charges.
During his trial, Mehanna’s attorneys portrayed him as an aspiring scholar of Islam who traveled to Yemen to look for religious schools, not to get terrorist training. They said his translation and distribution of controversial publications was free speech protected by the U.S. Constitution.
Prosecutors focused on hundreds of online chats on Mehanna’s computer in which they said he and his friends talked about their desire to participate in jihad, or holy war. Several of those friends were called by prosecutors to testify against Mehanna, including one man who said he, Mehanna and a third friend tried to get terrorism training in Yemen so they could fight American soldiers in Iraq.
Mehanna’s lawyers told jurors that prosecutors were using scare tactics by portraying Mehanna as a would-be terrorist and were trying to punish him for his beliefs.
The defense built its case on the testimony of a half-dozen terrorism experts. Mehanna did not testify.
His lawyers acknowledged that Mehanna expressed admiration for Osama bin Laden but said he disagreed with bin Laden and other al-Qaida leaders about many things, including the use of suicide bombers and the killing of civilians.