By Denise Lavoie
BOSTON — A man charged with conspiring to help al-Qaida referred to Osama bin Laden as "my real father" and spoke in glowing terms about the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, a friend testified Thursday in the man's trial.
Tarek Mehanna, 29, is accused of trying to help the terrorist organization by traveling to Yemen to seek terrorist training and translating videos and publications promoting violent jihad.
Ali Aboubakr, 25, was the first of several friends expected to testify against Mehanna. In online chats between the two men read in court Thursday, Mehanna and Aboubakr frequently sprinkle their conversations with the word "dude" and other American slang.
Testifying under an immunity order from prosecutors, Aboubakr said that he and Mehanna, both American-born citizens from wealthy Boston suburbs, discussed their admiration for bin Laden, the Sept. 11, 2001 hijackers and suicide bombers. He also described visiting ground zero with Mehanna and another friend in late 2005 or early 2006.
Prosecutors showed the jury a photograph of the men, wearing broad smiles and pointing their index fingers in the air. When asked by Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Auerhahn why they were smiling, Aboubakr said, "The attacks of 9/11 and what had gone on there."
In one chat, Mehanna describes his respect for bin Laden.
"Then, I realized I looked to him as being my real father, in a sense," Mehanna said, according to a transcript read by Auerhahn in court.
Aboubakr was a 20-year-old University of Massachusetts-Boston student when he said he and Mehanna would chat online and watch videos at Mehanna's home in Sudbury.
Aboubakr said they watched one video that showed the beheading of American businessman Nicholas Berg in Iraq. He said they also watched videos of suicide bombers and mujahedeen fighters around the world, including in Afghanistan and Chechnya.
"Dude, I saw the coolest blood donation clip today; I want you to see it," Mehanna said to Aboubakr in 2006, according to the transcript. Aboubakr said Mehanna was referring to a suicide bomber.
Another video showed U.S. Marines being wounded or killed as a bomb explodes while they try to dismantle it.
Aboubakr said he and Mehanna wanted to fight like the people they watched in the videos.
"There was an element of trying to gain inspiration," he said.
Several times during his testimony, Aboubakr said he did not really believe the things he told Mehanna, but he agreed with Mehanna to "get his approval."
Prosecutors say Mehanna traveled to Yemen in 2004 seeking terrorist training, and when that failed he returned home to the Boston area and began translating and distributing materials promoting terrorism on the Internet.
Mehanna's lawyers deny he was promoting terrorism, and say he was exercising his free speech rights to show anger over the U.S. invasion of Iraq. They say he visited Yemen to find religious schools.
Aboubakr said Mehanna told him he had gone to a school in Yemen. He said Mehanna told him during another conversation that everyone at the school "carries around AK-47s, and that it looked more like a camp than it did a school."
During another conversation, the two men discussed going overseas to fight and Mehanna told him it would not be easy to hide such a trip from his parents.
"I tried and they found out about it, so it's not that easy to keep them out of the picture," Mehanna said, according to the transcript.
"But seriously, if I try to go again, you would come?" Mehanna said.
Mehanna was initially charged in 2008, months after he graduated from the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy, with lying to the FBI about the whereabouts of Daniel Maldonado, a New Hampshire native who was later convicted of training at an al-Qaida terrorist camp in Somalia. Maldonado is now serving a 10-year prison sentence.
More serious charges were added in 2009, when Mehanna was accused of conspiring to provide material support to al-Qaida, conspiring to kill American soldiers in Iraq and other charges.
Mehanna's lawyers are expected to cross-examine Aboubakr on Friday.
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