A lawyer for a man accused of conspiring to help al-Qaida suggested Wednesday that it was a key prosecution witness, not his client, who wanted to find a terrorist camp in Yemen.
Prosecutors have said Tarek Mehanna traveled to Yemen to look for a terrorist camp with the intention of later fighting against U.S. soldiers in Iraq. When he was unable to find a camp, prosecutors say, Mehanna returned home and became a member of the "media wing" of the terrorist group, translating and distributing over the Internet texts and videos promoting violent jihad.
Kareem Abu-zahra, who was once a close friend of Mehanna's, spent a third day on the witness stand Wednesday. Testifying under a grant of immunity from prosecutors, Abu-zahra described traveling to Yemen in 2004 with Mehanna and another friend, Ahmad Abousamra, with a plan by all three men to eventually go to Iraq and fight U.S. soldiers.
Abu-zahra said he never made it to Yemen but instead returned home to Massachusetts after receiving word during a stop in the United Arab Emirates that his father was ill. He testified that Mehanna and Abousamra went on to Yemen but told him later that they were unable to find any training camps there.
During cross-examination, Mehanna's lawyer, J.W. Carney Jr., repeatedly suggested that it was Abu-zahra and Abousamra, not Mehanna, who wanted to find a training camp. In his questions, Carney portrayed the 29-year-old Mehanna as a young Muslim who was a budding scholar of Islam.
Abu-zahra acknowledged that he had paid for the airline tickets to Yemen for all three men. He also said he had taken steps that showed he expected he might never return, including making a video for his two young children and giving notice to his employer that he was resigning from his job. Mehanna, he acknowledged, didn't take similar steps.
Abu-zahra also said he had learned from Abousamra that some Islamic schools in Yemen doubled as training camps and that some people would go there to study while others would receive training.
"So this would be perfect if one person had one reason to go to see the schools and another person had another reason to go to do military training?" Carney asked.
"If they wanted to stay together, yes," Abu-zahra replied.
Carney also attempted to minimize Abu-zahra's earlier testimony about discussions the men had about committing acts of domestic terrorism, including shooting people at a shopping mall, attacking Hanscom Air Force Base in Bedford and shooting former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft.
"There was never, at any time, an agreement among the three of you to actually go out and do them, was there?" Carney asked.
"There was not," Abu-zahra replied.
Abu-zahra acknowledged that Mehanna wasn't present for the discussion about Rice. He said he considered the discussions about Rice and Ashcroft a "kneejerk reaction" to what they viewed as justification by George W. Bush's administration of the oppression of Muslims.
Carney, who was sometimes sarcastic in his questions, also pointed out inconsistences between Abu-zahra's testimony before a grand jury in 2008 and his testimony during the trial. After Abu-zahra _ who has a master's degree and is working toward a doctorate in computer science _ said he couldn't understand Carney's question, the attorney quipped: "I think you might think about a refund" for his college degrees.
Abu-zahra is expected to be on the witness stand again Thursday