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Tuesday, October 27, 2009
How FBI traced Tarek Mehanna in his quest to become a jihadi
Tarek Mehanna of Sudbury, Massachusetts, is seen in this image from a video footage taken in Boston, Massachusetts, on February 11. Mehanna was arrested at his home Wednesday morning, and US federal prosecutors have charged him with conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists.
How FBI traced Tarek Mehanna in his quest to become a jihadi
Informants helped the FBI track Tarek Mehanna to the Middle East in search of terrorist training, according to government documents. Agents also copied his computer hard drive.
By Mark Clayton | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
from the October 22, 2009 edition
ties allege. Arrested by the FBI Wednesday and charged with providing "material support" to terrorists, his history and footsteps took twists that led his group of three conspirators as far afield as Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, according to a criminal complaint filed in US District Court.
What follows is a time line of Mr. Mehanna's and his group's alleged actions from before the 9/11 attacks in 2001 up to 2008, according to the FBI's complaint and an affidavit supporting a search warrant:
• 2000-2001 – Tarek Mehanna, who has known "CW2" (a conspirator who in late 2006 agreed to cooperate with the FBI) for 15 to 20 years, introduces him to Ahmad Abousamra, and the three men become close friends. Common interests include talking about religion and Muslims' role in the United States and justification for certain jihadist acts.
• Pre-Sept. 11, 2001 – Mehanna, Abousamra, and CW2 talk about going to terrorist training camps in Pakistan, searching the Internet for logistical information for locations and travel, but no solid plans materialize.
• After Sept. 11, 2001 – Mehanna, Abousamra, and CW2 express support for the attacks.
• April 4, 2002 – Abousamra travels to Pakistan in search of terrorist training, but apparently doesn't find it, returning home.
• Fall 2002 – Mehanna meets Daniel Maldonado through Abousamra. At Mehanna's home, they watch jihadi videos showing pillaging of the Muslim world in Bosnia and the Palestinian territories. Later, the video shows mujahideen victories and footage of people being killed. Afterward, Mehanna, Abousamra, and Maldonado talk about the glory of dying for Allah.
• Nov. 17, 2002 – Abousamra travels again to Pakistan, where he connects with a man who helps him find a Taliban camp and another run by a Lashkar e Tayyiba group. But, as he later tells CW2, he was rejected by the former for being too inexperienced and by the latter for not being Pakistani.
• 2003 – Mehanna, Abousamra, and CW2 determine Pakistan is not a feasible place to get terrorist training. Frustrated, they begin exploring other options, including committing domestic terrorist acts. One topic of discussion: the feasibility of shooting a member of the executive branch of government. In another discussion, killing a second member of the executive branch is debated.
• Second half of 2003 – Inspired by the 2002 sniper attacks in Washington, D.C., Mehanna, Abousamra, and CW2 discuss a plan to get automatic weapons, go to a shopping mall, and randomly shoot people. Abousamra says civilians aren't innocent because they pay taxes to the government and because they are Kufar (nonbelievers).
• October 2003 – Abousamra flies to California to meet with "Individual A," who tells him whom to see and where to go to find terrorist training camps in Yemen.
• Late 2003 – Discussion of the mall attack plan continues, including types of weapons needed, number of attackers involved, and coordinating the attack across different entrances. Attacking emergency responders is debated. CW2 travels to New Hampshire to meet with Maldonado, a former gang member, who is believed to have access to automatic weapons. But Maldonado says all he can get is handguns. Lacking firepower, the plan is abandoned.
• Late 2003 – Mehanna, Abousamra, and CW2 begin planning a trip to Yemen to attend a jihadist training camp or training in southern Jordan. Traveling to Iraq is discussed and of particular interest because of the opportunity to fight US forces and because it is more accessible than other jihad conflicts around the world.
• February 2004 – CW2 hides video of his actions that he expects to tell family about later by e-mail. Mehanna, Abousamra, and CW2 debate the permissibility of suicide bombings. Abousamra agrees. CW2 does not; he and Mehanna want to be soldiers for jihad, not suicide bombers.
• Feb. 4, 2004 – Mehanna, Abousamra, and CW2 pull together $13,000 and travel to Yemen seeking admission to a terrorist training camp. They divide the cash three ways to avoid currency reporting requirements. They also discuss a cover story to tell authorities in case they are questioned: that they are attending religious study at Dar al Mustafa school, a Yemeni school they found online. None of the three makes contact with the school. On arrival in Yemen, checking e-mail, CW2's family tells him to return, and he does. Mehanna and Abousamra continue on.
• Feb. 4-10 2004 – Mehanna and Abousamra travel Yemen looking for the people "Individual A" told them to meet. According to a later recorded conversation between Mehanna and CW2, Mehanna explains that they met a huge man, with long hair and long beard, wearing a turban. Another man with him tells them concerning training camps that "all that stuff is gone ever since the planes hit the Twin Towers."
• Feb. 11, 2004 – Mehanna and Abousamra leave Yemen for United Arab Emirates (UAE). Abousamra goes on to Jordan and, two days later, enters Iraq, where he is thought to stay about 15 days. Mehanna returns home.
• November 2005 – Maldonado travels to Egypt.
• Summer 2006 – Mehanna visits Egypt and meets with Maldonado, who moved there.
• Aug. 10-11, 2006 – FBI agents search Mehanna's bedroom and copy the hard drive of Mehanna's laptop computer on authority of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. Forensic analysis shows many gigabytes of data, including hundreds of megabytes of data with evidentiary value, including video, audio, and image files, as well as documents and stored messages. Mehanna's online identities and websites are revealed, along with a February 2006 discussion in which Mehanna and another discuss their desire to be the "media wing" for Al Qaeda in Iraq.
Agents also discover that Mehanna has translated from Arabic to English, and then published on a website, a tract entitled: "39 Ways to Serve and Participate in Jihad." Another picture from the hard drive shows Mehanna at ground zero in New York, smiling and pointing to the sky.
• Late 2006 – CW2 agrees to cooperate with FBI.
• November 2006 – Maldonado moves from Egypt to Somalia with his wife and three children. The country is then under "sharia," or Islamic law.
• Dec. 12, 2006 – Maldonado phones Mehanna from Somalia and tells him he is participating in "culinary school" and making "peanut butter and jelly" – code words referring to jihad, Mehanna later explains to an informant who is fitted with a recording device.
• Dec. 12, 2006 – Abousamra is interviewed by the Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF). He says he went to Yemen in 2004 to study Arabic language and religious studies.
• Dec. 15, 2006 – CW2 records a conversation with Abousamra. By the time of their meeting, both men had been interviewed by the FBI about their 2004 trip to Yemen. They discuss what each told the FBI and what the FBI asked, including whether they knew Daniel Maldonado.
• Dec. 16, 2006 – Mehanna is interviewed by two members of the JTTF, focusing on a trip he and two others took to Yemen in 2004. Asked about one of those friends, Daniel Maldonado, he says they had known each other since 2002 or 2003, but haven't spoken for two weeks. But Maldonado had called him just four days earlier from Somalia – and FBI says recorded conversations show Mehanna knew Maldonado was not in Egypt, but in Somalia for military-type training.
• Dec. 26, 2006 – Abousamra leaves Boston's Logan Airport to fly to Syria, telling customs and border patrol officers he is going to visit his wife and will return Jan. 20, 2007. He has not returned.
• Early January 2007 – Maldonado flees Kenya in face of attacks by Ethiopian forces and is captured by Kenyan military, who turn him over to the FBI. He tells agents that he called Mehanna from Somalia and urged him to join him in fighting.
• Jan. 12, 2007 – Mehanna, in a recorded conversation with CW2, talks about being interviewed by the JTTF and about his 2004 trip to Yemen. He tells CW2 the trip failed because no one was around. Half were on hajj and half were in jail. They traveled all over the country looking for the people "Individual A" told them to meet. Mehanna tells CW2 about the large man and boy with the AK-47. He reassures CW2 that although many people know the real reasons for their trip to Yemen, nobody was specifically told. Mehanna says once he has finished his degree he plans to move overseas.
• Feb. 14 2007 – Reports begin appearing of Maldonado's arrest at the Somali border and a telephone conversation he had with someone in the US. CW2 sends Mehanna an e-mail saying: "You read the news?" referring to Maldonado being charged for receiving terrorist training from Al Qaeda while in Somalia.
• Feb. 25, 2007 – In a recorded phone conversation, Mehanna tells CW2 he is the person Maldonado called from Somalia and discusses who might be providing information to the FBI. They talk about Abousamra, who "fled the country" after FBI questioning. Mehanna explains that "PB&J" is code that means, generally, "I'm here fighting." He tells CW2 that lying to the FBI about the call from Maldonado is a problem for him and that he isn't sure how to handle it. Mehanna advises CW2 to leave the country – and says the only thing keeping him in the US is the need to finish his degree.
• April 19, 2007 – Maldonado pleads guilty to military-type training from a foreign terrorist organization and is sentenced to 10 years imprisonment.
• April 23, 2007 – Mehanna gives a compact disc with a handwritten label on it to CW1 (another FBI cooperating witness) that contains computer video files of jihad training downloaded from the Internet.
• Sept. 7, 2007 – Mehanna sends e-mail to CW1 with caption "An interesting read" with attached blog entry purportedly by and about Maldonado's travels to Egypt and Somalia.
• May 8, 2008 – A report from the US Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs notes that "39 Ways to Serve and Participate in Jihad" in English (which FBI contends Mehanna translated) is a popular text on the Internet that describes ways to support violent Islamist ideology and aid the movement with fundraising and electronic jihad, including chat rooms, disseminating propaganda, and attacking enemy websites.
• Nov. 8, 2008 – JTTF obtains consent from a Mehanna family member to search another computer Mehanna used.
• Nov. 8, 2008 – Mehanna is arrested at Boston's Logan airport. He is later charged in a complaint with lying to members of the JTTF concerning his statements about Maldonado's phone call to him from Somalia in December 2006 and other statements. He is released on bail.
• April 4, 2009 – Mehanna is active online, sending messages with contact information for Aafia Siddiqui, a defendant detained in New York on terrorism charges.
• Oct. 14, 2009 – Mehanna posts another entry on his blog, which the FBI says is a collection of reflections on religious doctrine and English translations of various works by influential advocates of jihad in Afghanistan and Iraq.
• Oct. 20, 2009 – FBI petitions for a search warrant, noting a poem it attributes to Mehanna that is widely available on the Internet: "Make Martyrdom what you Seek."
• Oct. 21, 2009 – Mehanna is arrested and charged by the FBI with providing "material support" to terrorists.
Terrorist plots uncovered in the US since 9/11: a chronology