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Friend In Mehanna Trial: We Went To Yemen For Terrorist Training

A former friend of the Sudbury man accused of conspiring to support terrorists testified in U.S. District Court Monday that they traveled to Yemen in 2004 to find a terrorist training camp.

“Eventually,” Kareem Abu-zahra, the former friend of Tarek Mehanna, said, “the goal was getting to Iraq.”

Abu-zahra, a key prosecution witness, testified under a grant of immunity that he, Mehanna and another friend discussed a cover story before their trip. “The story was that we were going to Yemen to explore some Islamic schools there, some language schools,” Abu-zahra said.

Defense attorneys contend that Mehanna went to Yemen for the sole purpose of studying. The 29 year old is charged with lying to federal agents, conspiring to support al-Qaida, and conspiring to kill U.S. troops in a foreign country.

Abu-zahra repeatedly referred to Mehanna as “the defendant” Monday. Abu-zahra is a Ph.D. student at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, where he works as a computer programmer.

Mehanna and Abu-zahra were family friends growing up, but never became close. Then, in 2000, Abu-zahra says he spotted Mehanna coming out of a mosque.  He recognized Mehanna, like himself, had “found religion again” when he saw Mehanna’s large, untrimmed beard.

They started meeting about once a week, and later that year Mehanna introduced Abu-zahra to Ahmed Abousamra.  Abousamra is a co-defendant in the case, but fled the U.S. after he was questioned by the FBI in 2005.

Abu-zahra says that he, Mehanna, Abousamra and another friend, Hassan Masood, met frequently to discuss jihad.

Although it is unclear who was present during the discussions, Abu-zahra says that at some point, the assassinations of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft were debated by members of the group, as well as attacks on Hanscom Air Force Base in Bedford and a shopping mall. Mehanna was not present when Abu-zahra and Abousamra discussed killing Rice, according to Abu-zahra’s testimony.

A prosecutor asked Abu-zahra why they were interested in targeting the Bush-era cabinet members.  “They were kind of the mouthpieces of the war against Islam,” he replied.

He did not say, nor was he asked by government prosecutors, whether Mehanna was present in any of the other conversations. Mehanna defense attorney J.W. Carney has repeatedly challenged such claims.

Abu-zahra testified that he and Mehanna “weren’t really interested in participating” in jihad before the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. But after, Abu-zahra said that he and Mehanna decided to act. “It’s like, ‘OK, this is a war against Islam, we have to go do something about it.’ ”

“When you say you had to do something,” asked a federal prosecutor, “what did you mean?”

“Participate in jihad against the U.S.,” Abu-zahra replied.

He testified that he remembered looking at a map of Iraq in a Papa Ginos restaurant, discussing possible ways to enter the country with Mehanna. They agreed Jordan was better than Iraq or Turkey.

Prosecutors will continue to question Kareem Abu-zahra Tuesday.

This program aired on November 28, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.

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