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Thursday, January 05, 2012

The Weaponization of Belief: Tarek Mehanna Guilty on 7 Terrorism Charges

Guilty on All Counts

Late last month, a federal jury in Boston, after only 10 hours of deliberations, found Tarek Mehanna guilty on all seven counts for which he had been charged. They included conspiracy to kill Americans abroad, lying to federal investigators and, most controversially, providing material support to a terrorist organization (Al Qaeda).

Two sets of acts proved central to the case against Mehanna. The first was a trip he took with another man to Yemen in 2004, allegedly to seek training at a terrorist camp. His companion continued on to Iraq and remains at large. The second was a series of documents and videos Mehanna translated from Arabic into English and posted to the internet. As most of these files were seen as serving propaganda purposes for Al Qaeda, they formed the basis for the "material support" charge.

Defense attorneys for Mehanna had requested that Judge O'Toole give the jury a special verdict form, so that the jurors would have to specify whether the elements for any charge were satisfied by the Yemen trip, the web postings, or both. The rationale for such a request was a recognition that no U.S. appellate court had yet ruled on the Constitutional question of whether speech alone could qualify as material support, as defined by the antiterrorism statute. Only by learning whether any particular conviction rested on the internet postings could the defense preserve this question for appeal. Judge O'Toole, however, failed to see the need for the special verdict form and allowed the jury to return a general verdict on all counts.

Retaliatory Prosecution?

Tarek Mehanna's brother, Tamir, was interviewed on WBUR (Boston's NPR affiliate) on the day following the verdict. In that interview, he paints a picture of his brother's development as an American and a Muslim quite at odds with what prosecutors told the jury. He remains convinced that the government only prosecuted his brother so aggressively because Tarek refused to become an informant for the justice department in 2004.

Many legal scholars have now weighed in on the First Amendment implications of Mehanna's conviction, suggesting that it has struck a devastating blow against free political speech in America. The verdict sends a message to those who would criticize our government that their words can, in fact, be used against them in a court of law.

I wonder, however, if the verdict has not sent an even more potent message regarding the 4th, 5th and 6th Amendments. When it comes to issues of national security, if you assert your rights not to cooperate with an ongoing investigation, the consequences will be dire. Suspects have long been pressured into cooperating with the government in order to avoid particularly harsh treatment. Investigators and prosecutors regularly depend on informants and coconspirators to make their cases. This case, however, feels a bit different. The government really piled on here... and they won. I am not sure that federal authorities thought that Mehanna himself was particularly dangerous. They might have thought that a culture where dissidents feel free to blow off the Feds would be particularly dangerous.

Credibility can be Key

In many of my prior posts about this case, I identified major challenges facing the defense, including poor timing, archaic jury selection procedures, adverse evidentiary rulings and the emotional climate created by any reference to terrorism.

Against all of this, I was very impressed with the defense mounted by Mehanna's team. In particular, I thought they did an excellent job of reminding the jury at every turn that almost everything cited as evidence by the prosecution turned out to be spoken or written words. The First Amendment defense, which seemed rather far-fetched as the trial opened, gained traction as the case went along.

There proved to be one major problem. Mehanna's trip to Yemen, at a time when no sane person would go there other than to be in the middle of a war, was clearly not mere talk. It was a very concrete act of someone who was clearly trying to accomplish something more than he could at home. The defense explanation was that he was seeking further Islamic education. There was scant evidence to support this contention and it frankly didn't pass the sniff test (even if it were true).

The perceived need to shoehorn this event into the free-speech-based defense strategy probably did not serve Mehanna well. I have not heard or read interviews with any of the jurors yet, but I wonder if the implausibility of this particular defense hurt the defense team's credibility with respect to the rest of the charges. If jurors thought the defense was trying to snow them about the trip to Yemen, they likely became suspicious of the rest of the defense story.

Hindsight is 20-20 (or at least usually less myopic than the present), so it is easy to speculate about "what ifs". I am sure that Mr. Carney and his team did what they thought would be most effective for their client at the time, and I do not mean to suggest that I somehow know better. The post-game analysis, however, tends to speculate about how things might have gone differently. In that spirit, I do wonder what might have happened, had Mr. Mehanna essentially fallen on his sword with respect to the ill-fated trip to Yemen.

Rather than defending the trip as an educational venture, the defense might have admitted that the trip was a stupid idea of an immature and angry young man. They might have been able to spin the story, to suggest that finding himself in the Middle East opened Mehanna's eyes to the very real conflict in the region. He came home because he realized that violence in the name of God is wrong. This story does seem to dovetail a bit better with Mehanna's subsequent decision to take his fight to the web, rather than the battlefield.

It's always the cover-up

Americans are, as a rule, very forgiving people. I am often amazed at the transgressions we are willing to overlook. The one thing that we seem to have virtually no tolerance for, however, is anyone thinking they are bigger than the system, above the law, or not subject to the same rules as the rest of us.

Juries punish arrogance. Just ask Martha Stewart. Just ask Conrad Murray. Just ask Rod Blagojevich. Just ask Raj Rajarratman.When you get caught, throw yourself on the mercy of the court and jurors will treat you fairly. Act like you are smarter or tougher or better than everyone else and they will punish you.

It is for this reason that I am so concerned that the defense of Mehanna's trip to Yemen as a pilgrimage of Islamic learning came across as arrogant. It was borderline contemptuous of the jury. I worry that some of the jurors thought, "Just how gullible do you think we are?"

Alas, it will always be relegated to speculation what might have happened had the defense team taken a different tact with respect to this one particular act. Would the jury have been more sympathetic to the free speech defense of Mehanna's other activities? Would they have deliberated longer than 10 hours? We will never know.


  1. Anonymous12:03 AM

    You hit the nail on the head! A young man does not leave to find a school in Yemen telling no one..... if his plan was to seek education would he not at least tell his parents. His friend left a video message to his family saying goodbye. There is no doubt in my mind what this young man was up to

    one of the jury

    1. Thank you for the small glimpse into what the jurors might have been thinking about this case. I would most certainly welcome the opportunity to talk with you about your experience as a juror in this case. I would, of course, protect your identity if you wish to remain anonymous. Please email me at if you are willing to give a short interview. Thanks!