Keyboard Jihadist? Prosecuting Tarek Mehanna: First Amendment Rights in Post-9/11 America (LINK FIXED)
It’s unusual for a domestic terrorism suspect to have a fan club. But every morning of Tarek Mehanna’s eight-week trial late last year on federal terrorism charges, supporters packed the domed, ornate courtroom in downtown Boston, smiling and waving whenever Mehanna turned to face them.
Their support was unflagging, even though Mehanna was charged with crimes prosecutors called “among the most serious a person can commit,” including material support of terrorism and conspiracy to kill American soldiers in Iraq. The government had been collecting information on Mehanna, a 29-year-old second-generation Egyptian American, for more than eight years. In court, prosecutors provided transcripts from online chats in which Mehanna had praised Osama bin Laden, calling him “my real father,” and invited friends over for “movie night” to watch a video of a beheading in Iraq that he called “Head’s Up.” Most damning, the government also claimed that Mehanna had gone to Yemen to find a terrorist training camp and had translated documents and videos at the request of al-Qaeda.
None of this evidence fazed Mehanna’s defenders. They spoke about the Mehanna they knew. A passionate and caring teacher at the local mosque. A dedicated scholar of Islam who shared his passion for arcane texts. A pharmacist who had landed a job at Saudi Arabia’s top hospital before being arrested. They accused law enforcement of targeting an upstanding member of the Muslim community for speaking his mind about America’s wars in the Middle East.
This was more than just a difference in perception. The Mehanna case represented a fundamental departure from the hundreds of domestic terrorism prosecutions in post-September 11 America. Mehanna had not been caught buying weapons from an FBI informant or parking a car bomb in Times Square. The crimes he was charged with centered on what he said and wrote—and why. Mehanna, according to the government, was part of the “media wing of al-Qaeda.” Prosecutors claimed he had lived a “double life”: a “dutiful and scholarly man” whose true self was “angry, callous, and calculating.” They argued that Mehanna’s intent was to inspire jihad through his keyboard—and that, they asserted, made his translations a crime.