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Boston-area man charged in alleged terrorist plot

Authorities say Tarek Mehanna and associates discussed attacking two prominent U.S. politicians, shopping malls and American troops serving in Iraq.

October 22, 2009|Josh Meyer

WASHINGTON — A Boston-area man was arrested Wednesday and charged with conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists as part of what authorities said was a long-running plot to "kill, kidnap, maim or injure" people -- including U.S. officials -- overseas and in the United States.

Prosecutors and FBI agents said that from 2001 to 2008, Tarek Mehanna, 27, of Sudbury, Mass., conspired with at least two other men to carry out an Islamist holy war, or jihad.

Their plans included discussions about killing two prominent, unidentified U.S. government officials overseas, attacking American troops in Iraq, and shooting at shoppers in U.S. malls and the emergency personnel who would come to their rescue, according to those authorities and FBI affidavits unsealed in connection with the case.

But one law enforcement official said the alleged conspiracy was not as serious as some other recent cases.

Mehanna, a pharmacy college graduate and a U.S. citizen, was arrested at his parents' home in Sudbury, an upscale Boston suburb. A federal judge ordered him held until an Oct. 30 hearing.

The three men discussed their desire to participate in "violent jihad against American interests" and "to die on the battlefield," prosecutors said.

Mehanna had "multiple conversations about obtaining automatic weapons and randomly shooting people in shopping malls," said Michael K. Loucks, acting U.S. attorney for Massachusetts. The men's plan was thwarted when they could not get the kind of automatic weapons they thought necessary for a mall attack, Loucks said.

One senior federal law enforcement official said the alleged planning was not nearly as far along as in a case in which a Colorado man is charged with conspiring to detonate homemade explosive devices on U.S. soil, possibly New York-area transit hubs. Afghan native Najibullah Zazi, 24, was arrested last month. He is also charged with training with Al Qaeda in Pakistan.

Mehanna's situation was different, the law enforcement official said.

"It's very aspirational -- hopes and dreams," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because both investigations are classified and ongoing. "It's nothing like the Zazi case."

Loucks said authorities were "satisfied" that they had identified all participants in the alleged plot.

Mehanna's arrest followed several other cases in which the FBI arrested men in Texas and Illinois after lengthy investigations that closely monitored the suspects' activities.

Two senior Bush administration counter-terrorism officials said Mehanna's case in particular showed that the FBI had learned in the years since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks not to rush investigations when it was clear that there was no imminent threat.

"It shows that the FBI is becoming more patient and investing long-term resources into these investigations, which is what is required," said Frances Fragos Townsend, a former senior counter-terrorism and Homeland Security advisor to President George W. Bush. "This is the sort of long-term investigation that shows that the FBI has changed its mind-set and culture, and that it sees itself not just as a law enforcement agency but as an intelligence and counter-terrorism agency that has the mandate to prevent the next attack and not simply investigate it after it occurred."

Juan Zarate, Bush's deputy national security advisor for counter-terrorism, said Mehanna's arrest underscored the troubling trend in recent years of American citizens and nationals who seek to travel overseas and receive training.

Zarate said he had not seen a sharp uptick in such cases, but "enough for authorities to be worried across the board about the problem of homegrown or self-actualized violent extremism."

"The good news," he said, "is the FBI has done a good job of using the tools and resources at its command to help uncover and infiltrate most of these plots."

Federal authorities said the Mehanna investigation was also part of a hunt for individuals in this country who were going to Somalia to fight with Al Qaeda-linked militants trying to overthrow the U.S.-backed government.

Dozens of men, mostly Somali nationals, are suspected of supporting that effort, either through funding and recruitment or by traveling to Somalia to engage in combat and guerrilla activities, several senior FBI and Justice Department officials have said recently.

If convicted on the material support charge, Mehanna faces up to 15 years in prison. His attorney, J.W. Carney Jr., did not return calls seeking comment.

Neighbors told TV camera crews outside the Mehannas' home that he was a quiet and friendly man who did nothing to cause suspicion.

Authorities alleged that Mehanna and two associates traveled to the Middle East in February 2004, unsuccessfully seeking military-type training at a terrorist camp that would prepare them for armed jihad against U.S. interests, including U.S. and allied forces in Iraq. Ahman Abousamra, who authorities say is one of the associates, made two similar trips to Pakistan in 2002.

Authorities did not identify the man believed to be the third associate; court documents suggest he is cooperating with investigators.

Mehanna was arrested last November as he was about to board a flight for the Middle East at Logan International Airport in Boston, Loucks said. He was charged with lying to the FBI in its 2006 investigation of Daniel Joseph Maldonado, an American convicted of training alongside Al Qaeda militants in Somalia.

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josh.meyer@latimes.com

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