After years of talking about participating in a holy war against the United States, Tarek Mehanna expressed satisfaction that he and two friends were moving closer to that goal, one of those friends testified Tuesday in Mehanna's trial.
"I just remember him saying, `We're actually doing it,' or `We're finally doing it,'" Kareem Abu-zahra said during his second day of testimony.
Abu-zahra said Mehanna made the comment during one of the legs of their planned trip to Yemen in February 2004. He said he, Mehanna and a third man, Ahmad Abousamra, had left their families and were on the way to Yemen to look for a terrorist training camp in the hope of eventually fighting against U.S. soldiers in Iraq. The only possible contact they had in Yemen was a name scrawled on a scrap of paper that Abousamra kept with him, Abu-zahra said.
Mehanna, 29, of Sudbury, is accused of conspiring to help al-Qaida. Prosecutors say that when he was unable to find a camp in Yemen, he returned to the U.S. and saw himself as a member of the terrorist group's "media wing." He then began translating and distributing on the Internet materials promoting violent jihad, or holy war, prosecutors allege.
Abu-zahra said he never made it to Yemen because he returned to his home in Massachusetts after receiving word during a layover in the United Arab Emirates that his father was ill. He said Mehanna and Abousamra traveled on, but Mehanna told him months later that they were unable to find a training camp in Yemen.
"The only thing he told me at that point was that there was nothing there," Abu-zahra said.
Abu-zahra, who testified under a grant of immunity, is a key prosecution witness because he is the only witness with direct knowledge of the Yemen trip. Abousamra fled after he was questioned by the FBI about the trip. He remains a fugitive; prosecutors have said they believe he is in Syria.
Mehanna's lawyers have repeatedly said that Mehanna went to Yemen because he wanted to find religious schools, not to seek training at a terrorist camp.
Abu-zahra, however, testified that he, Mehanna and Abousamra used religious study as a "cover story" to anyone who asked them about the trip, including their families and authorities who questioned them along the way or after the trip.
Mehanna's lawyers say that although the material he distributed might be considered controversial or objectionable to some, he was merely expressing his beliefs, which is protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Abu-zahra, of Lynnfield, is expected to continue testifying Wednesday.