BOSTON – A Massachusetts man and two friends tried and failed to get into terrorist training camps and then plotted to kill two prominent U.S. politicians and randomly shoot people at American shopping malls, authorities said Wednesday.
Tarek Mehanna, who recently taught at a Muslim school in Worcester, was arrested early Wednesday at his parents' suburban Boston home. Mehanna was charged with conspiring with two other men — an American now in Syria and another man who is cooperating with authorities — to provide support to terrorists.
Ultimately, the trio never came close to pulling off an attack. Authorities say they never got the terrorist training they sought — that the men told friends they were turned down because of their nationality, ethnicity or inexperience, or that the people they'd hoped would get them into such camps were either in jail or on a religious pilgrimage.
The men abandoned the mall attack plans after their weapons contact said he could find only handguns, not automatic weapons.
The men used code words such as "peanut butter and jelly" for fighting in Somalia and "culinary school" for terrorist camps, and talked extensively of their desire to "die on the battlefield," according to court documents.
Mehanna, who has taught math and religion at Alhuda Academy, made a defiant court appearance hours after his arrest. He refused to stand to hear the charge against him and finally did — 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 as his son was being led away in handcuffs. When asked if he believed the charges against his son, he said, "No, definitely not."
Prosecutors said Mehanna worked with two men from 2001 to May 2008 on the conspiracy that, over time, intended 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 and said they were never in danger.
Acting U.S. Attorney Michael Loucks said the men justified the planned attacks on malls because U.S. civilians pay taxes to support the U.S. government and because they are "nonbelievers," Loucks said. He refused to identify the targeted malls.
Mehanna — who received a doctorate in 2008 from the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy in Boston, where his father is a professor — allegedly conspired with Ahmad Abousamra, who authorities say is now in Syria.
Mehanna, 27, is being held without bail until his next court appearance on Oct. 30.
"I'm confident that the American people will put aside their fears and instead rely on the fairness guaranteed by our Constitution," said his attorney, J.W. Carney Jr. "Mr. Mehanna is entitled to that."
Rola Yaghmour, 20, of Shrewsbury and her family are friends with the Mehannas and she said she couldn't believe the new charges against Mehanna, calling him a "good man."
"He's not going to go crazy in a mall. There's no way he would do something like that," she said. "I read it and I was laughing, and I was like, 'They have to be kidding.' Because there's no way he would do something like that. It makes no sense. I was in shock. That's not like him at all nor his family, nothing of them at all."
Mehanna first 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-Qaida to overthrow the Somali government.
Authorities said Wednesday that Mehanna and his conspirators had contacted Maldonado about getting automatic weapons for their planned mall attacks, but he told them he could only get handguns.
Court documents filed by the government say that in 2002, 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, according to court documents.
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.
Abousamra said he was rejected by a terror group when he sought training in Iraq because he was American, authorities said.