As his mother and lawyers wept, a U.S.-born man was convicted Tuesday of conspiring to help Al Qaeda by translating and distributing publications and of plotting to kill US soldiers in Iraq.
A federal jury in Massachusetts convicted Tarek Mehanna on four terror-related charges and three charges of lying to authorities.
Prosecutors said the 24-year-old Mehanna and two friends conspired to go to Yemen so they could receive training at a terrorist camp with the intention of going to Iraq to fight against U.S. soldiers there. Prosecutors said when they couldn't find a camp, Mehanna returned home and began to see himself as part of the Al Qaeda "media wing," translating and distributing publications to promote violent jihad.
Mehanna's lawyers 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 First Amendment.
Mehanna will be sentenced April 12 and could be sent to prison for the rest of his life. His mother, Souad Mehanna, sobbed after the verdict was read. Mehanna's lawyers also wept.
"I can't even think," said Mehanna's father, Ahmed, a professor at the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences. "It was political."
Mehanna attorney J.W. Carney Jr. said the defense team will appeal. He said he was upset with what he called the extraordinary leeway prosecutors had to present evidence the defense considered prejudicial, including references to Al Qaeda and the Sept. 11 attacks.
"The charges scare people. The charges scared us," Carney said. "The more that we looked at the evidence, the more we got to know our client, Tarek, the more we believed in his innocence."
U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz disputed that the evidence was inflammatory.
"The heart of the case is really this: Did Mr. Mehanna conspire to support terrorists, conspire to kill in a foreign country and then did he lie to federal investigators?" she said. "Today a jury of his peers concluded that he did that."
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 did not testify. His lawyers acknowledged that he expressed admiration for Osama bin Laden, but said he disagreed with bin Laden and other Al Qaeda leaders about many things, including the use of suicide bombers and the killing of civilians.
Jurors began deliberating Friday. In his instructions to them, U.S. District Judge George O'Toole Jr. told jurors that in order to find Mehanna guilty of conspiracy to provide material support to Al Qaeda, they must find that he worked "in coordination with or at the direction of" the terrorist organization. He said independent advocacy on behalf of the organization is not a violation of the law.