Prosecutors Wednesday played secretly recorded conversations of the Sudbury man accused of terrorism, and a defense attorney assailed the character of the key government witness who wore the recording device.
"The way we did it was very hasty and immature," said defendant Tarek Mehanna about his trip his 2004 trip to Yemen in one of the recordings, "but not the idea itself."
Government witness Kareem Abu-zahra has testified that he, Mehanna and Ahmad Abousamra traveled to Yemen in 2004 with the intention of training at a terrorist camp, but had no luck. Prosecutors say the group intended to continue on to Iraq to fight U.S. troops. Only Abousamra made it to Iraq, according to testimony by Customs and Border Patrol agents.
Abousamra and Mehanna are co-defendants, charged with conspiracy to kill in a foreign country, conspiracy to support terrorists, and lying to federal agents. Abousamra fled the U.S. after he was approached by federal agents. He remains at-large.
Prosecutors Say Mehanna Is A Militant Extremist
Prosecutors say that when Mehanna could not find any training, he returned to the U.S. and was a member of the “media wing” of al-Qaida, translating and distributing jihadist literature on the Internet.
Abu-zahra, a 31-year-old computer programmer and Ph.D. student at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, decided to turn back before they reached Yemen. His friendships with Abousamra and Mehanna quickly deteriorated.
The federal government recorded the conversations between Mehanna and Abu-zahra in early 2007, after the government had questioned Mehanna and arranged an immunity deal with Abu-zahra.
In the recordings, Mehanna tells Abu-zahra that he and Abousamra went “all over the whole country,” including to the cities of Sana'a, Makala and Shihr. The buses they traveled on were stopped four times by “bandit tribes” looking to rob foreigners.
"Yemen is prehistoric," Mehanna told Abu-zahra in a recording.
“I was in a very bad psychological state,” Mehanna told his ex-friend in another conversation. “Half of them are in jail, half of them on Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca),” Mehanna recounted, describing possible contacts to help with admission to terror training camps. “We went at the worst possible time.”
The only contact they found, Mehanna said in one recording, was an Egyptian man who “was on the run.”
They had no help from the man. He told them, “All that stuff is gone, ever since planes hit the Twin Towers — forget about it,” according to Mehanna the recording.
“At that point,” Mehanna said, “I snapped. I told Ahmad [Abousamra], ‘This is it? I’ve left my life behind.' "
Mehanna’s attorneys have repeatedly portrayed Abousamra as the ringleader of the Yemen trip, and in one recording Abu-zahra told Mehanna, “I think it was Ahmad who pushed me too much.”
“What did Ahmad have to lose?" Mehanna responded, "He was divorced, he didn’t have to finish school.”
In another recording, Mehanna told Abu-zahra of his interrogation by federal agents. He told agents, "If we were really going to [Yemen to] do what you were saying, we wouldn't come back," according to a conversation with Abu-zahra.
Even after questioning, Mehanna continued to praise the trip to Yemen. “I didn’t regret it for a second,” he said, “how could you? Those are the best two weeks of my life. For once, I’m not sitting on my butt... telling people to do something I'm not doing.”
Defense Says Mehanna Is A 'Budding Scholar'
In cross-examination, defense attorney J.W. Carney took aim at Abu-zahra’s character, suggesting that he bankrolled the trip and proposed domestic terror targets.
Abu-zahra admitted that he paid for the entirety of Mehanna’s round trip airfare to Yemen.
"And you didn't ask him to pay you back, did you?" Carney asked.
"No," Abu-zahra replied.
Carney asked Abu-zahra several times whether he was the first person to suggest a shooting at a mall.
“It was something we discussed as a group,” Abu-zahra responded. He admitted that an attack on Hanscom Air Force Base in Bedford was his idea.
Abu-zahra said that only he and Abousamra discussed shooting former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, not Mehanna.
But when Carney asked him if it was just the two of them at a conversation about gunning down former Attorney General John Ashcroft as he walked out of church, Abu-zahra responded, “I believe Tarek was there as well.”
Abu-zahra said he went to New Hampshire in an attempt to buy unlicensed guns for some sort of domestic attack, but never ended up buying them.
Carney has repeatedly portrayed Mehanna as a budding Islamic scholar who traveled to Yemen for study.
“He was trying to figure out what it means to be a good Muslim in America, correct?” Carney asked Abu-zahra.
But Carney took aim at the character of the witness, citing drug and alcohol abuse as the reason Abu-zahra transferred away from his freshman year of college.
He jabbed at Abu-zahra, “You wouldn’t call yourself a scholar of Islam, would you?”
Federal prosecutors expect to rest their case next week. They indicated Wednesday that they expect to call two more witnesses: a terrorism consultant and a federal agent to read electronic transcripts.
This program aired on December 1, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.