A pharmacy college graduate made a defiant appearance in federal court Wednesday, hours after being charged with conspiring with two other men in a terror plot to kill two prominent U.S. politicians and carry out a holy war by attacking shoppers in U.S. malls and American troops in Iraq.
Authorities say the men's plans - in which they used code words like "peanut butter and jelly" for fighting in Somalia and "culinary school" for terrorist camps - were thwarted in part when they could not find training and were unable to buy automatic weapons, authorities said.
Tarek Mehanna, 27, was arrested Wednesday morning at his parents' home in Sudbury, an upscale suburb 20 miles west of Boston, and appeared for a brief hearing later in the day. When ordered by the judge to stand to hear the charge against him, he refused. He finally did stand - tossing his chair loudly to the floor - only after his father urged him to do so.
"This really, really is a show," his father, Ahmed Mehanna, said afterward. When asked if he believed the charges against his son, he said, "No, definitely not."
Prosecutors say Tarek Mehanna worked with two men from 2001 to May 2008 on the conspiracy to "kill, kidnap, maim or injure" soldiers and two politicians who were members of the executive branch but are no longer in office. Authorities refused to identify the politicians.
Mehanna - a graduate of the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy in Boston, where his father is a professor - conspired with Ahmad Abousamra, who authorities say is now in Syria, and an unnamed man, who is cooperating in the investigation, according to authorities.
The three men often discussed their desire to participate in "violent jihad against American interests" and talked about "their desire to die on the battlefield," prosecutors said. But when they were unable to join terror groups in Iraq, Yemen and Pakistan, they found inspiration in the Washington-area sniper shootings and turned their interests to domestic terror pursuits while they plotted the attack on shopping malls, authorities said.
"The indictment is curious for what it doesn't allege," says CBS News legal analyst Andrew Cohen. "For example, it claims this group sought terror training in the Middle East but it doesn't say that they actually received that training; the document alleges plenty of conversations about violence but few concrete actions designed to implement their plan.
"This is another example of the feds swooping in and busting up an alleged terror ring before many meaningful steps were taken by the alleged conspirators in furtherance of their plan. And the record shows that jurors and judges are fairly receptive when these cases come to trial."
Mehanna had "multiple conversations about obtaining automatic weapons and randomly shooting people in shopping malls," Acting U.S. Attorney Michael Loucks said. Prosecutors would not say which malls had been targeted.
Loucks said the men justified attacks because U.S. civilians pay taxes to support the U.S. government and because they are "nonbelievers."
The mall plan was abandoned after the men failed to track down automatic weapons, Loucks said.
Mehanna's attorney, J.W. Carney Jr., would not comment on the allegations. Mehanna is being held until his next court appearance on Oct. 30.
Court documents filed by the government say that in 2002 or 2003, Abousamra became frustrated after repeatedly being rejected to join terror groups in Pakistan - first Lashkar e Tayyiba, then the Taliban.
"Because Abousamra was an Arab (not Pakistani) the LeT camp would not accept him, and because of Abousamra's lack of experience, the Taliban camp would not accept him," Williams wrote in the affidavit.
Mehanna and Abousamra traveled to Yemen in 2004 in an attempt to join a terrorist training camp.
Mehanna allegedly told a friend, the third conspirator who is now cooperating with authorities, that their trip was a failure because they were unable to reach people affiliated with the camps. The men, who had allegedly received tips on whom to meet from a person identified in court documents as "Individual A," said half the people they wanted to see were on "hajj," referring to the pilgrimage to Mecca in Islam, and half were in jail.
"They traveled all over the country looking for the people Individual A told them to meet," authorities allege in the criminal complaint.
Abousamra was rejected by a terror group when he sought training in Iraq because he was American, authorities said.
The men later decided they were not going to be able to get terror training in Pakistan and "began exploring other options, including terrorist acts in the United States," the affidavit said.
Mehanna, a U.S. citizen, was arrested in November and charged with lying to the FBI in December 2006 when asked the whereabouts of Daniel Maldonado, who is now serving a 10-year prison sentence for training with al Qaeda to overthrow the Somali government.
Mehanna told the FBI that Maldonado was living in Egypt and working for a Web site. But authorities said Maldonado had called Mehanna from Somalia urging him to join him in "training for jihad."
Authorities said Wednesday that Mehanna and his conspirators had contacted Maldonado about getting automatic weapons for their planned mall attacks.
Carney, who represented Mehanna in the previous case, said at the time: "If this is the FBI's idea of a terrorist, they are using a net that is designed to catch minnows instead of sharks."
After his arrest, Mehanna developed a cult following among Muslim civil rights groups and Web sites that believed Mehanna was wrongly arrested. Web sites like the London-based cageprisoners.com, a human rights group that advocates for prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and other detainees as part of the U.S. war on terror, asked supporters to write Mehanna in prison to keep up his spirits.
The site MuslimMatters.org asked supporters to pray for his release and published a letter they said Mehanna wrote from prison.
In the letter, Mehanna thanked supporters and said he was being treated well.
"I can only think of the countless imprisoned Muslims in the jails of tyrants around the globe and hope that if it is not Allah's Decree to free them in the near future, that they taste the sweetness that Allah has placed them in prison to taste," Mehanna wrote.
He signed the letter, "Your brother in the green jumpsuit."