If the government is right, Tarek Mehanna might be dead now. If he really did plan to kill Americans abroad, he probably would not have lived to see the end of the Islamic State. If the FBI got his intentions wrong, Mehanna’s 17.5 year jail sentence (essentially for blogging) not only damages the First Amendment along with the credibility of American justice, but his prosecution created a martyr.
If Mehanna moved to Saudi Arabia in the fall of 2009 as he had planned, if the FBI is right, he might have thrown in his lot with the burgeoning Islamic State. In that case, they should have tracked him. They could have killed him abroad. Putting him on ice postponed a potent problem, but it also created an opportunity. If Eric Holder saved Tarek Mehanna’s life by putting him in jail in 2011, Mehanna’s voice will matter to The Global War on Terror when he is released in 2024.
As the fingers of American justice withdraw from the Middle East, Mehanna’s story matters more. Our instinct to ignore this narrative of “One War Everywhere” motivating Theistic Monomaniacs into international violence will make it difficult to stop future mass-casualty attacks. We may prefer to focus on the mental health issues that drive people into violent behavior, but religious narratives provide a cruch to those dealing with violent thoughts. You cannot know a person by looking deep into their eyes.
Tarek Mehanna went to jail for 17.5 years for blogging. The FBI considered Mehanna’s translation work Material Aid to Terrorism. They also say he also lied about his activities in Yemen. He says the FBI tried to recruit him, that he refused and he believes that dismay within the FBI prompted his trial. Even if that is the case, I suspect that Eric Holder’s effort to push for his conviction may have saved his life. It put him in jail, off the playing table at a decisive moment in the Global War on Terror.
Tarek had translated a disturbing pamphlet called 39 Ways to Serve and Participate in the Jihad, which appeared online in English before Anwar Awlaki’s more readable 44 Ways to Serve the Jihad. When Mehanna was arrested in 2008, he had plane tickets to Saudi Arabia. He said that he was planning to work there as a pharmacist. He had just finished pharmacy school. At that time the war in Iraq seemed to be winding down and Anwar Awlaki lived in Yemen.
39 Ways to Serve and Participate in the Jihad
Published in Arabic by Al Qaeda in 2003, 39 Ways to Serve and Participate in Jihad is a tedious 65 page recruitment tract that calls readers to "a clear and intense war void of any rest or mercy - until the Command of Allāh arrives.” The introduction asserts, “There is nothing more obligatory upon the Muslims after having belief in Allāh than Jihād and repelling the invader who has occupied the lands of the Muslims.” In style and phrasing it reads like a ritual chant, often repeating Qur'anic passages and pious phrases like, “may Allah be pleased with him.”
The text might have been written, copied, revised, and distributed by mountain men and warlords over hundreds of years, through the series of inter-generational military campaigns leading up to this moment in Afghan politics, for all we know. It reads like a 15th century relic with a medieval level of insight into theology, philosophy, logistics and weaponry. Its periodic references to modern politics and media seem tangential to the overall thrust of the work. 39 Ways includes a variety of the ancient guilt tripping methods, still used by American military recruiters.
Authorship attributed to Muhammad bin Ahmad as-Salim (‘Isa al-‘Awshin), 39 Ways takes the form of a religious devotional. It cherry picks verses from the Qur’an, Hadith, and quotes from scholars, and assembles them into emotionally manipulative brain fog, designed to provoke cognitive dissonance: “Having the intention with one's self to go fight removes a characteristic of hypocrisy from a person.”
It threatens and persuades with rhythmic assertions, while employing several cunning traps for the religious. It celebrates martyrs, condemns hypocrites, and challenges faith, compelling the faithful to reconsider their beliefs in light of a tougher doctrine, for fear of being labeled an apostate. Exploiting its readers' fear, guilt, pride, compassion, and fealty, all 39 ways are relatively redundant celebrations of a violent style of jihad. It is a call for justice through the venture of warfare.
Because of its evil premise, that jihad is warfare in the most corporal sense, taken to an extreme by ISIL with the additional imperialist doctrines of expansion, procreation, pillaging, and enslavement, 39 Ways cannot be dismissed as nincompoopery. It still circulates online, through forums, available for download.
Most of the links that come up through my internet searches take the Western perspective, calling it terrorist literature. The most recent sincere recommendation of the book I found on Twitter, @jihadbook, by Musa Kahn, provided a link on October 2, 2013. Contemporary American jurisprudence is that it is illegal to spread the ideas expressed in 39 Ways. An American appeals court judge compared the book to the “bubonic plague,” and its English translator, Tarek Mehanna, is now in prison for his effort.
I interviewed Mehanna’s brother Tamer Mehanna in the fall of 2011 at a mutual friend's apartment, and our conversation stirred up righteous anger at the injustice of a man being imprisoned in America because of his speech. Later that evening, at home, I downloaded a PDF of 39 Ways, and read it with increasing distress.
[caption id="attachment_141" align="alignright" width="300"] Tarek is serving 17.5 years in prison for intellectual efforts characterized by the U.S. government as material aid to terrorists, including his translation of 39 Ways to Serve and Participate in Jihad. For more information visit freetarek.wordpress.com.[/caption]
The book is a potpourri of war mongering disguised as scripture. I can imagine how it could coerce a young mind struggling with existential questions about death, sex, and purpose, into a violent struggle against the U.S. military and police force. Teenagers love to play the martyr, and 39 Ways offers a cause. I can't support Tarek Mehanna's ideas, but I have faith in the principle of freedom of speech. Imprisoning someone for writing is unjust. The world is not perfect, but I think we can make it better without violence, by not imprisoning people for speaking their minds, by discussing ideas openly.
This website is an evolving response to the idea that jihad can only mean holy warfare. It examines justifications for killing individuals for the sins of a community, and conversely rationals for invading communities for the sins of a few individuals. Ultimately I want to familiarize readers with the meaning and history of the word jihad, defined as a holy struggle, and also to discuss the reasons for the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East. In posts on this site, I offer reflections on how we might jihad for social justice.
39 Ways to Serve and Participate in Jihad circulates online in several versions. There's a similar book with a slightly less catchy title, 44 Ways to Support Jihad, written by the late Anwar Al-Awlaki, also an American citizen, struck by a drone on 30 September 2011. Gang justice. Violence begets violence, and Al-Awlaki put himself in an awkward spot with his violent rhetoric. I explore the ethics of execution, torture and imprisonment, along with the meaning of terrorism, freedom of speech, "material support" and the objects of warfare. But what I'm really interested in is how we each might struggle to live our one life well.