By all accounts, Tarek Mehanna seems an unlikely aspiring terrorist. He grew up in the Boston suburb of Sudbury, went to private schools, and, following in his father’s footsteps, earned a Ph.D. in pharmacology. Given all the advantages of wealth, education, and freedom afforded in America, Tarek Mehanna had a bright future.
But a federal complaint against Mehanna describes aspirations of killing former President George W. Bush, mowing down shoppers with automatic weapons at a mall, and failed efforts at joining the ranks of terrorists abroad.
A former religious teacher described him as a “fun-loving, ordinary, typical American kid.” Mehanna would bring comics to class and was a big fan of Superman. A friend laughed at the notion that Mehanna could ever be a terrorist. At his court appearance on Wednesday, Mehanna’s father claimed that the charges against his son were “a show.”
An online acquaintance of Mehanna argued with me, saying that the charges had no merit. Mehanna, he claimed, was a “moderate” Muslim who had always argued against the killing of innocents. His arrest, his acquaintance told me, was evidence that Muslims in America are guilty until proven innocent — inferring that Mehanna’s arrest was just another in a larger, anti-Muslim conspiracy.
The shock of Mehanna’s friends and family is typical. Those acquainted with terrorists often insist that the accused was shy, polite, helpful, or empathetic. It juxtaposes with our natural inclination to want to believe that people aspiring to evil deeds should somehow manifest the true nature of their characters in their day-to-day behavior. That such people aren’t typically raving lunatics, overtly sociopathic, or belligerent fanatics doesn’t dawn on most. It makes us feel safer to assume that a potential terrorist will give us some sort of warning sign.
But in Mehanna’s case there were warning signs. If his friends’ shock is real, then Tarek Mehanna was living a compartmentalized and double life. For the Tarek Mehanna I knew online was not the “moderate” that his apologists portray him as. He was a fanatical Islamist, devoted to the same ideas as al-Qaeda. He spent countless hours translating Arabic texts into English in order to inspire others to become violent jihadists.
Mehanna went by the handle “Abu Sayaba” online. In addition to frequently commenting at radical forums and online discussion groups, “Abu Sayaba” also ran his own blog. His Iskandari blog posted translations of Arabic texts. Typical of the writings he posted were calls for the establishment of an Islamic state and Islamic law. He also encouraged violent jihad as a means of attaining these two goals.
Tarek Mehanna may seem to have been an unlikely terrorist candidate to some, but given his online support for violent jihad revealed through his “Abu Sayaba” persona, should it really come as a surprise that he would aspire to become a violent jihadist himself?
Online, Mehanna reveals that the arrest of Aafia Siddiqui — a woman married to Khalid Sheik Mohammed’s nephew — caused him so much anger that he felt obligated to make the trip to New York City to attend one of her hearings.
Ironically, Mehanna went to her hearing because he claimed to believe that she was innocent — a victim of the perceived vast conspiracy against Muslims. She must be innocent, he claimed, because those who knew her described her as a “very small, quiet, polite, and shy woman.”
If Mehanna’s online activities as “Abu Sayaba” were unknown to friends and family — and therefore an excuse for their ignorance about his extremism — then unless he was living a very compartmentalized life, it is difficult to see how his real-world activities wouldn’t raise alarms.
Among the unsavory characters in Mehanna’s clique is another homegrown jihad aspirant, Daniel Maldonado. Maldonado, who changed his name to “Al-Jughaifi” upon his conversion to Islam, is serving a 10-year sentence in a federal penitentiary. Like Mehanna, Maldonado also had an active online life. He worked at an Islamic forum giving advice to young people. Some of them followed that advice and are now serving prison sentences here in the U.S. and Canada.