Federal prosecutors have charged a Boston-area man with conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists. They allege he and co-conspirators not only traveled to the Middle East to get terrorism training but also discussed attacking a shopping mall in the United States.
While authorities say an attack wasn't imminent and the suspects didn't have the weapons needed to follow through, the charges against Tarek Mehanna highlight a trend: A growing number of homegrown terrorism suspects are popping up inside the United States.
Mehanna, 27, is a pharmacy school graduate and an American citizen. Prosecutors say that when he and a handful of others allegedly discussed attacking the shopping mall — prosecutors declined to say which one — they went so far as to talk about which entrances they ought to use so they could kill the most people.
The men allegedly abandoned the idea when they couldn't get the automatic weapons they wanted for the attack. But what has terrorism officials worried is the connection Mehanna and his friends had to terrorists overseas.
"It is further alleged that Mehanna wanted to be a soldier for jihad," said acting U.S. Attorney Michael Loucks in announcing the arrest Wednesday. Loucks said Mehanna and his co-conspirators were willing to go just about anywhere to get the terrorist training they needed.
"Members of the conspiracy traveled to Pakistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen," Loucks said, "and sought training at various camps, including from the terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba and from the Taliban." Lashkar-e-Taiba is a Pakistani group thought to have been behind attacks in India last year.
Those are the kinds of links Karen Greenberg, executive director of the Center on Law and Security at New York University, finds troubling.
"The question really is: Are more homegrown Americans training in Pakistan al-Qaida training camps than before? And if so, how do we counter this?" she said. "This is what, I think, these arrests show."
To be sure, Mehanna is just the most recent example. In September, a Denver-area man was accused of getting explosives training at an al-Qaida camp in Pakistan.
Prosecutors say Najibullah Zazi planned to use what he learned to blow up targets in New York.
Another example: A Long Island man named Bryant Neal Vinas was arrested in Pakistan late last year after authorities say he trained in an al-Qaida camp there. He allegedly provided al-Qaida with details on the Long Island Rail Road system.
"We know now there are persons who law enforcement seems to be monitoring and watching," Greenberg said. "They seem to have a very good sense of people that they watch and watch, and suddenly they're able to arrest because they get the weapons they need, they design the targets. They make themselves almost operational."
No Recruitment Necessary
Mehanna's arrest in Boston seems to fit that pattern.
Until recently, this idea of homegrown terrorists was mostly a European problem. Officials there estimate as many 3,000 people in Europe have trained at al-Qaida camps and could potentially strike Western targets.
No one is sure what the number is in the United States. What is clear is that it doesn't take a recruiter to persuade someone to go to a terrorist training camp anymore.
"Clearly, there is a sense that these guys are becoming radicalized on their own," said Sam Rascoff, who used to work on the intelligence desk at the New York Police Department.
"At some point, though, they switch from being self-starting entrepreneurs to people who want to join the organization," he said. "And it is that transition that is terribly interesting, and we don't know yet enough about."
Court papers allege that Mehanna wanted to join the organization, but here's what's unusual: The organization turned him down.
Mehanna allegedly went to Yemen to try to find a jihadi camp to accept him, but he couldn't, so he came back to the United States without training. He called the trip "a failure," court documents say.
Mehanna's alleged denial may mean there are so many other Westerners streaming into these camps that terrorist trainers can pick and choose their recruits.