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In Boston Terrorism Trial, A Free Speech Defense

Opening statements are expected to begin Thursday in an unusual terrorism trial, involving a young Massachusetts man named Tarek Mehanna. What makes this case unusual isn't the alleged terrorist's plot. It's his defense: the First Amendment.

Mehanna's lawyers asked the judge Wednesday to instruct the jury about free-speech rights under the U.S. Constitution. Prosecutors say 29-year-old Mehanna tried to help al-Qaida by promoting its cause in an online blog. Mehanna's attorneys say he was just exercising his right to free speech — and isn't a terrorist at all.

When Mehanna was arrested two years ago, the charges against him sounded serious. Prosecutors said he traveled to Yemen in 2004 to train in a terrorist camp and conspired to kill U.S. soldiers in Iraq. (Although Mehanna never actually found a camp or trained in one.) The part of this case that people seem to remember most, though, is what Mehanna allegedly wanted to do after he returned to Boston: shoot up a shopping mall.

Alleged Mall Plot

"It is alleged that there were multiple conversations about obtaining weapons and randomly shooting people in a shopping mall," acting U.S. Attorney Michael Loucks said in announcing the charges two years ago. "This mall assault planning consisted of the logistics of a malls attack, the coordination of an assault from different entrances, weapons needed for such an assault and the possibility of attacking emergency responders."

But that plot, randomly shooting people at a shopping mall, never happened. It fact, everyone seems to agree it never got much past the discussion stage and just how much Mehanna was involved in that plot is in dispute, too. What makes this case different from the roster of terrorism cases that have gone to trial in recent months is the two issues around which it revolves: First, whether talking about terrorism, but not acting on it amounts to a crime and, second, if posting something on a blog can amount to supporting a terrorist group.

"There is a huge amount of potential for abuse in those kinds of inchoate crimes, meaning crimes that are planned or thought about but nothing has actually happened yet," said Boise attorney David Nevin, who defended a client in a similar terrorism case in Idaho in 2004. "So whenever you have law enforcement doing that kind of work, you have potential for abuse."

Born In America

Mehanna seems an unlikely terrorist suspect. He was born in Pittsburgh and grew up in the affluent suburb of Sudbury, just outside Boston. He has a doctorate from the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, where his father is a professor. But prosecutors say over the past decade Mehanna began to embrace a more radical form of Islam. He began translating and distributing violent writings on his blog.

"Find me one spot anywhere on my brother's blog where he condones violence," said Tamer Mehanna, Tarik's younger brother. "Find me one word that my brother wrote."

He says his brother is on trial because of one of the books he translated: "39 Ways to Serve and Participate in Jihad." The book is considered an al-Qaida tract that teaches readers how to become homegrown terrorists.

"We live in a country where the First Amendment is supposed to allow us to say these things," Tamer Mehanna said. "We're supposed to be able to talk about our views and share. I should be able to translate a text and not worry about being charged with terrorism. How is this not ridiculous?"

There may be another reason why Mehanna is facing seven charges, including conspiracy to provide material support to a terrorist organization and conspiracy to kill in a foreign country. His blog had a good-sized following, particularly among Muslim converts; and because he speaks English, law enforcement officials told NPR they were worried he might inspire a whole new set of young men to violence. If that sounds familiar, it should. That's what worried U.S. officials about Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born radical imam who was killed in a U.S. drone attack in Yemen last month.

Tarek Mehanna's trial is expected to last eight weeks. He faces up to life in prison.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Dina Temple-Raston is a correspondent on NPR's Investigations team focusing on breaking news stories and national security, technology and social justice.