Assistant U.S. Attorney Aloke Chakravarty surveyed a Boston courtroom packed with supporters of a Massachusetts man convicted of providing material support to terrorists and conspiring to commit murder in a foreign country.
The defendant, Tarek Mehanna, was found guilty of helping al-Qaeda by promoting holy war online. His supporters heard tough words last April from the prosecutor, who asked for a 25-year prison term to deter Muslims from turning radical.
“They’re watching this case because what the defendant represents is the harm of homegrown violent extremism,” Chakravarty said. “It’s the metastasization of this perverted interpretation of a great faith to motivate other people to take up arms against a country who is providing them protection.”
Today, Mehanna is serving a 17 1/2-year sentence, as Chakravarty begins the prosecution of Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Tsarnaev, 19, is charged with joining his older brother Tamerlan, 26, both immigrants of Chechen descent, in planting two bombs near the finish line on April 15, killing three people and injuring more than 260. The elder brother died after a police shootout. Dzhokhar was captured after a daylong manhunt that shut down Boston.
Chakravarty, born in the U.S. of Indian descent and a co-leader of the team prosecuting Tsarnaev, also works outside the courtroom to foster better relations between the government and Muslims.
The Tsarnaevs were schooled online in radical Islam and terrorist bomb-making, said Maryland Representative C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.
The brothers found bomb-making information in Inspire, an online magazine affiliated with the al-Qaeda terrorist organization, according to Ruppersberger. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, wounded in the throat, communicated “through writing and nodding,” in his hospital bed, the congressman told reporters.
Tsarnaev told investigators he and his brother intended to drive to New York to set off more explosives in Times Square, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said April 25. Bloomberg is the majority owner of Bloomberg LP, parent of Bloomberg News.
Chakravarty, 40, was at Tsarnaev’s bedside for the formal notification of the charges against him, including using weapons of mass destruction.
Another assistant U.S. attorney prosecuting the case, William Weinreb, spoke on the government’s behalf. Both men work under Carmen Ortiz, the Massachusetts U.S. attorney, in the anti-terrorism and national security unit.
If convicted, Tsarnaev might face execution under federal law. Any federal cases that include potential capital crimes are reviewed by U.S. prosecutors, and eventually by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.
Chakravarty, known as Al, has joined other officials in meeting with Muslims through a program known as “Bridges,” which seeks to use monthly dialogue to open channels of communication.
“Al’s a talented guy, he’s a committed guy,” said Kurt Schwartz, the Massachusetts undersecretary of homeland security and emergency management. “A human side to a prosecutor who understands the world and relationships is a good thing.”
Edward Davis, Boston’s police commissioner, said that since the bombings he has been contacted “by many Muslim families who are concerned about how people are perceiving this.”
“This is not a situation where people should be vilified,” he said. “This is the acts of people who are fringe players.”
Chakravarty, Davis said, “was in the middle of this right from the get-go. He was at the command post every time I walked in there. I don’t think he slept at all.”
Investigators are examining whether the brothers were prompted by people or organizations outside the U.S. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were a motivating factor behind the Boston attack, said a U.S. official briefed on Tsarnaev’s interrogation.
The older brother traveled for six months in Russia last year and visited the republics of Dagestan and Chechnya, where Islamic separatist movements oppose the government in Moscow. U.S. investigators traveled to the region this week.
Chakravarty is a graduate of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and Emory University School of Law in Atlanta. He previously was a prosecutor in Middlesex County, Massachusetts, the state attorney general’s office and the Justice Department in Washington.
He also previously served as a prosecutor for the United Nations at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. At the Justice Department, Chakravarty was an assistant general counsel at the Federal Bureau of Investigation and an adviser at the Office of Intelligence Policy and Review.
Chakravarty declined to comment for this story through Christina Sterling, a spokeswoman for Ortiz.
He secured convictions in cases including that of Muhammed Mubayyid, a software engineer from Shrewsbury, Massachusetts. A jury convicted Mubayyid of concealing the nature of a tax-exempt charity used to promote Islamic jihad and fighters known as mujahedeen. He was sentenced to 11 months in prison.
Michael C. Andrews, Mubayyid’s attorney, continues to litigate with Chakravarty after an appeals court reinstated a jury's conviction on one count that the judge had reversed.
“He has a pleasant, easygoing manner outside the courtroom, but he’s a true believer and he’s very aggressive in his prosecutions,” Andrews said.
Chakravarty also prosecuted Muhammad Masood, the onetime spiritual leader of the Islamic Center of New England. Masood, a native of Pakistan, was sentenced to probation after pleading guilty to lying to immigration officials while trying to obtain permanent residency in the U.S. His attorney, Norman Zalkind, declined to comment on Chakravarty.
Mehanna was convicted at a two-month trial that included informant testimony and evidence from his computer and online postings. Prosecutors said he translated terrorist materials from Arabic into English, including a manual titled “39 Ways to Serve and Participate in Jihad.”
Mehanna traveled to Yemen in 2004 in a failed mission for training to kill U.S. soldiers, prosecutors said.
At Mehanna’s sentencing hearing, Chakravarty quoted a letter to the judge from a friend of Mehanna who said Massachusetts Muslims worship in 40 mosques, Islamic centers and prayer halls served by only two resident scholars, or imams.
The imams are immigrants who don’t fully understand U.S. society, leading many Muslims to seek Internet guidance from scholars in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Yemen, the letter-writer said.
“Some scholars are mainstream; others walk a dangerous path,” according to the letter. “It’s very hard for some to distinguish between the two because some scholars present a moderate view of Islam and slowly pull people into a more radical version.”
At the hearing, Mehanna, then 29, denied he was a terrorist and said he was exercising his constitutional right to free speech in criticizing U.S. treatment of Muslims abroad. He showed a photo of a 14-year-old girl he said was raped and killed by U.S. soldiers and asserted they were the terrorists.
Mehanna is appealing his conviction. His supporters say that the prosecutors improperly criminalized his religious and political speech because of his support of violent Islamic insurgencies overseas.
Mehanna said the Federal Bureau of Investigation tried to turn him into an informant and he refused -- prompting Chakravarty to show his combative side.
“What the defendant just said about having been approached by the FBI on multiple occasions and his characterizations are categorically false,” Chakravarty told the judge.
“You’re a liar,” Mehanna said. “Sit down. You’re a liar. You’re a liar.”
“I’ll let your honor assess his contrition,” Chakravarty said.
“You’re a liar,” Mehanna said. “Sit down.”
“Mr. Mehanna, why don’t you tell us who these people are who were attempting to --” Chakravarty said. The judge interrupted.
“Sorry, your honor,” Chakravarty said. “But to highlight the position, he still possesses information that he is trying to reinvent his own story.”
Mehanna’s lawyer, J.W. Carney, objected, saying, “This is not the forum for this.”
Recess, Then Sentence
The judge agreed. He took a recess before returning to sentence Mehanna, noting his “apparent absence of remorse.”
Mehanna, he said, “expressed concern about violence to those whom he regarded as truly innocent, but it was also plain that he had no qualms about the killing by explosive device or by beheading of persons whom he regarded as supporting” U.S. military action in Muslim countries.
The friend of Mehanna who wrote the letter was Mazen Ramadan, 30, an electronic medical records specialist whose father built the Worcester Islamic Center in Massachusetts.
Chakravarty “kind of took what I was saying out of context,” he said.
“He had a point that he was trying to prove, and he was really trying to drive that point home,” Ramadan said. “He is very good at what he does. To me, he was just a lawyer doing what he was doing. He absolutely brought a lot of energy and fervor to the courtroom.”
The case is U.S. v. Tsarnaev, 13-mj-02106, U.S. District Court, District of Massachusetts (Boston).