Terrorism Trials & Investigations

David Cole on Tarek Mehanna

By Benjamin Wittes
Thursday, April 19, 2012, 8:23 PM

Georgetown law professor David Cole has this disturbing article in the New York Review of Books Blog on the Tarek Mehanna case. I have not followed this case carefully in the district court, but this article suggests that perhaps Lawfare needs to keep a closer eye on it on appeal. Cole writes:

Google “39 Ways to Serve and Participate in Jihad” and you’ll get over 590,000 hits. You’ll find full-text English language translations of this Arabic document on the Internet Archive, an Internet library; on 4Shared Desktop, a file-sharing site; and on numerous Islamic sites. You will find it cited and discussed in a US Senate Committee staff report and Congressional testimony. Feel free to read it. Just don’t try to make your own translation from the original, which was written in Arabic in Saudi Arabia in 2003. Because if you look a little further on Google you will find multiple news accounts reporting that on April 12, a 29-year old citizen from Sudbury, Massachusetts named Tarek Mehanna was sentenced to seventeen and a half years in prison for translating “39 Ways” and helping to distribute it online.

As Anthony Lewis was wont to ask in his New York Times columns, “Is this America?” Seventeen and a half years for translating a document? Granted, it’s an extremist text. Among the “39 ways” it advocates include “Truthfully Ask Allah for Martyrdom,” “Go for Jihad Yourself,” “Giving Shelter to the Mujahedin,” and “Have Enmity Towards the Disbelievers.” (Other “ways to serve,” however, include, “Learn to Swim and Ride Horses,” “Get Physically Fit,” “Stand in Opposition to the Disbelievers,” and “Expose the Hypocrites and Traitors.”) But surely we have not come to the point where we lock people up for nearly two decades for translating a widely available document? After all, news organizations and scholars routinely translate and publicize jihadist texts; think, for example, of the many reports about messages from Osama bin Laden.

In 2009, Tarek Mehanna, who has no prior criminal record, was arrested and placed in maximum security confinement on “terrorism” charges. The case against him rested on allegations that as a 21-year old he had traveled with friends to Yemen in 2004 in an unsuccessful search for a jihadist training camp in order to fight in Iraq, and that he had translated several jihadist tracts and videos into English for distribution on the Internet, allegedly to spur readers on to jihad. After a two-month trial, he was convicted of conspiring to provide material support to a terrorist organization. The jury did not specify whether it found him guilty for his aborted trip to Yemen—which resulted in no known contacts with jihadists—or for his translations, so under established law, the conviction cannot stand unless it’s permissible to penalize him for his speech. Mehanna is appealing.

Under traditional (read “pre-9/11”) First Amendment doctrine, Mehanna could not have been convicted even if he had written “39 Ways” himself, unless the government could shoulder the heavy burden of demonstrating that the document was “intended and likely to incite imminent lawless action,” a standard virtually impossible to meet for written texts. In 1969, in Brandenburg v. Ohio, the Supreme Court established that standard in ruling that the First Amendment protected a Ku Klux Klansman who made a speech to a Klan gathering advocating “revengeance” against “niggers” and “Jews.” It did so only after years of experience with federal and state governments using laws prohibiting advocacy of crime as a tool to target political dissidents (anarchists, anti-war protesters, and Communists, to name a few).

But in Mehanna’s case, the government never tried to satisfy that standard. It didn’t show that any violent act was caused by the document or its translation, much less that Mehanna intended to incite imminent criminal conduct and was likely, through the translation, to do so. In fact, it accused Mehanna of no violent act of any kind. Instead, the prosecutor successfully argued that Mehanna’s translation was intended to aid al-Qaeda, by inspiring readers to pursue jihad themselves, and therefore constituted “material support” to a “terrorist organization.”