Is pro-terrorist speech a crime? Massachusetts says so

In 2012, Tarek Mehanna was sentenced to 17 and a half years in prison by a US court for conspiring to provide support to terrorists, writes Jeff Howard.

The case

Tarek Mehanna is a 29-year-old American citizen and pharmacologist who was raised in Sudbury, a quiet suburb of Boston, Massachusetts in the US. Trouble began for Mehanna in 2004, when he travelled to Yemen. Mehanna insists his trip was a personal journey to deepen his Muslim faith – specifically, to search for a school where he could learn classical Islamic law. The US district court in Massachusetts disagreed, contending that Mehanna was in search of a terrorist training camp. The court ruled that while Mehanna never found a camp, he was guilty of conspiring to murder Americans overseas. On April 12 2012, it sentenced him to 17 and a half years in prison.

Conspiracy to murder Americans overseas was not the only crime of which Mehanna was convicted. Additionally, the court found him guilty of a further crime: conspiring to “provide material support” to terrorists. When Mehanna returned from his unsuccessful trip to Yemen, he launched a website on which he provided English translation of “pro-jihad” documents. One such document, 39 Ways to Serve and Participate in Jihad, explains the various paths Muslims can take to defend their fellow Muslims, from participating in wars against foreign aggressors to taking care of widows and children.

As further evidence of Mehanna’s participation in a conspiracy to support terrorists, the prosecution (to name some examples flagged by the Yale political scientist Andrew March) explained how he “watched jihadi videos”, “discussed efforts to create like-minded youth”, “discussed” the “religious justification” for certain violent acts like suicide bombings, “created and/or translated, accepted credit for authoring and distributed text, videos and other media to inspire others to engage in violent jihad”, “sought out online Internet links to tribute videos”, and spoke of “admiration and love for Osama bin Laden”.

In an impassioned speech delivered at his sentencing, Mehanna explained that his actions did nothing but register general support for, and facilitate discussion about, attempts to resist the killing of Muslims in their own lands by foreign powers. “This trial was not about my position on Muslims killing American civilians,” Mehanna declared, saying he had never translated, edited, or authored documents suggesting that the murder of innocent Americans in “shopping malls” would be justified. Rather, he continued, “It was about my position on Americans killing Muslim civilians, which is that Muslims should defend their lands from foreign invaders.”

Author opinion

There is a strong case for saying Mehanna's speech is protected by the first amendment. While the supreme court has ruled that supporting terrorists by communicating expert information is legitimately criminalised, Mehanna's web materials did not constitute expert information. They expressed his viewpoint that America's wars in Muslim countries over the past decade were unjust wars. And by definition, an unjust war is one that is legitimately resisted by the invaded population. One need not agree with Mehanna's moral diagnosis – and I do not – to see that it is essentially a claim about matters of principle. Such speech is at the core of what the first amendment protects.

- Jeff Howard

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Comments (6)

Automated machine translations are provided by Google Translate. They should give you a rough idea of what the contributor has said, but cannot be relied on to give an accurate, nuanced translation. Please read them with this in mind.

  1. Terorizem vsekakor je obsodbe vredno dejanje in ustrahovanje ljudi, pa naj bo v skladu s kakršnimi koli interesi, mnenji ali nasprotji, ne sme biti dopuščeno. Sam iz povedanega v članku nisem povsem prepričan, ali je šlo res za terorizem, vendar pa se zdi nekako jasno, da je za to obstajal utemeljen sum, saj je navsezadnje Tarek goreč vernik, ki je zabredel na občutljivo področje – politični in medrasni konflikt, in je tako z vidika Američanov predstavljal grožnjo. Toda predstavljal je grožnjo, kaj pa je dejansko zagrešil? Če obstajajo trdni dokazi, potem je edino prav, da je obsojen in za zapahi, če pa je tam zgolj za voljo “preventive”, potem je sistem naredil napako. In zna se zgoditi, da tak sistem večkrat naredi napako…

  2. I agree that terrorism is something that should not happen in the world but, what is terrorism in fact is a real question and what is a terrorism support speech. People differently perceive the events caused by various leaders or groups in the world therefore who is to say that, say, a leader of a western state publicly supports and implements “terror” upon a nation which does not support the west, isn’t that terrorism as well?! if it should be prevented and punished shouldn’t this kind of speech be suctioned on all levels and all sides.

  3. I can’t see what makes you think he constitutes a danger and a threat to anyone. And going to Yemen certainly constitutes an attempt to get out of the little bubble of suburban Boston. How did he not show respect to other religions? He simply showed a questionable loyalty to those in other countries who share his beliefs, and a questionable but widely held belief that armed aggression should be resisted.

  4. This man, and others with similar views, should be locked up away from society. They are a danger and a threat to the American people and have been brain washed all their lives. Anyone who is so ignorant and closed minded about other people’s views really need to experience the world outside of their little arrogant bubble. Even if one does not agree with the views of another religion, one should still be human enough to have a little RESPECT.

  5. I don’t agree with sentencing him to prison, however. I do agree that terrorist actions, whether independent or state supported pose a threat to society as a whole. Maybe I don’t care so much about the country it’s self. But I do care about my friends and family, so if I knew someone was doing something to hard them, I would have a hard time deciding my course of action. This must be decided as a nation, not just on an individual basis. Because it is quite possible(not in this case) that those prosecuted are innocent

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Free Speech Debate is a research project of the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom at St Antony's College in the University of Oxford. www.freespeechdebate.ox.ac.uk

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