Free speech or terrorism?

Mugshot of Benjamin A. Carpenter of Knoxville, accused by the federal government of attempting to provide material support to a foreign terrorist group. He’s being held behind bars in Laurel County, Ky., pending trial, reportedly due to the Knox County Detention Facility being full. Source: Laurel County (Ky.) Jail.

Until last month, Denise Carpenter and her adult son, Benjamin, were living a relatively quiet existence in the house they shared on a secluded residential street in North Knoxville.

Ben Carpenter was 31 years old, but his mother liked the arrangement and was relieved to have him living with her.  His part-time animal-sitting business and work as an occasional handyman was all they needed, and as a retired senior citizen it was anything but a burden for Denise to spend time with her son.

Their relaxed existence ended March 24 when federal agents took Ben away in handcuffs. Since then, Denise has battled unsuccessfully to have him released from jail pending trial. She has coped with the worry any mother feels when her child is threatened, and she’s had to deal with the knowledge that in the eyes of many in Knoxville he’s been branded, of all things, a terrorist.

It’ll be seven weeks at the earliest before Ben stands trial before a jury of his peers. A dozen East Tennessee men and women will be tasked with deciding if the long-haired Knoxville man who loves trout fishing and wandering the East Tennessee mountains has led a double life as the agent of a terrorist group from the Middle East. In the process, they may also have to decide on the limits of free speech or what constitutes unlawful entrapment.

They may also decide whether Denise will ever again see her son in anything other than a prison uniform.

From Inskip to ISIS

The Inskip neighborhood where the Carpenters live makes it hard to reconcile their surroundings with the accusations leveled in federal court.

Their meticulous, split-level brick house sits on the kind of quiet, tree-lined street that Fountain City and its surrounding communities are known for; their front yard fairly explodes in bright pinks and whites as a half-dozen azalea bushes and dogwood trees greet the return of springtime. It seems reasonable to assume that Ben spent a lot of time caring for this place.

There’s no hint of sand or desert winds. There are no nearby mosques calling the faithful to  prayer five times a day. None of the homes on this street have ever been bombed, and it’s a fair guess that none of the dogs on this street have ever feasted on a human corpse.

Yet federal authorities claim there is a direct connection between the two disparate landscapes: the worldwide system of electronic communications that makes up the internet and provides people squatting in the ruins of Syria with an easy way to talk to — and even recruit — men and women living in the heart of North America. 

At some point as a young man, Ben Carpenter became so entranced by Islam that he taught himself Arabic in order to better study the religion’s holy texts.  But he seemed drawn to the more radical, violently anti-Western strands of the faith, and by 2015 his online correspondences with groups like ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham) had managed to attract the attention of the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI and other intelligence agencies. In fact, federal prosecutors claim that Carpenter also goes by the name “Abu Hamza” and is the architect of Ahlut-Tawhid Publications (ATP), an international organization dedicated to the translation and publication of pro-ISIS and official ISIS propaganda in English. 

Despite being watched by federal authorities for several years, Ben wasn’t arrested until he agreed to translate an ISIS video called “Bleeding Campaigns” for an undercover FBI agent. The video “documents ISIS’s military operations against Egyptian troops, including ISIS fighters engaging in battle, executing a suicide bombing, and capturing and executing three individuals,” according to a recent ruling by U.S. Magistrate Judge Debra C. Poplin.

Ben Carpenter smiles at the camera in this undated picture of him taking a hike. Photo provided by Denise Carpenter.

Ben’s prior criminal history apparently consisted only of getting caught with marijuana as a teenager.  There was no contraband like firearms, explosives or other weapons found in his home, but he is facing up to 20 years in federal prison if convicted of attempting to provide material assistance to a designated foreign terrorist organization. 

A FBI spokesperson declined to comment Sunday, citing rules that prohibit officials from making statements about ongoing investigations. He referred questions to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which didn’t respond to an email seeking comment.

“It’s still a free country”

This much, at least, is clear: Denise Carpenter is angry. 

She’s angry because she believes the federal government has come after her son for essentially disagreeing with U.S. foreign policy.

Ben was arrested for translating Arabic words into English words, and she can’t think of a single criminal law that he broke by doing so.

“I’m told Google can do the same thing — translate — by the way,” she commented bitterly while discussing the charges against her son.

Denise, 70, initially began her Saturday conversation with Hard Knox Wire by saying via text message that she didn’t want to speak with the media. 

“I do not wish to do any interview of any kind,” she said. “If you will send me your email address, I’ll forward to you what I’ve written to friends who are concerned for me.”

Within minutes she’d sent a 300-word letter in which she discussed her side of the story.  But then, unsolicited, she began to slowly reveal bits and pieces of her son’s life through a series of terse messages. 

Between her texts, her letter, federal court documents and other sources, it was possible to assemble the following account of Ben’s life and his mother’s thoughts on the investigation that ensnared him.

Denise explained that Ben was born and raised in Knoxville but provided no information about his father or other relatives. He attended West High School but dropped out and earned a GED rather than graduating with the rest of his class in 2008. His favorite hobbies include trout fishing and camping, and Denise forwarded photos of him showing off a fish near a mountain stream and standing in the woods. 

Ben Carpenter as a junior in this picture from West High School’s 2007 yearbook.

Despite his less-than-impressive academic performance, it seems clear that Ben was both highly intelligent and curious about the world. 

He taught himself how to read, write and speak Arabic so he could better understand the Koran. He learned enough about the history and current affairs of the Middle East to become, using the vocabulary of terrorism experts, at least somewhat “radicalized.” And he became adept enough at navigating the darker shoals of the internet to not only make contact with those deemed terrorists by the U.S. but to attract their attention and eventually build their trust. 

His mother disagrees with the government’s description of him as a dangerous man. More to the point, she doesn’t believe that talking to, associating with or making translations for people the U.S. government doesn’t like is illegal.

“I understand that the government’s agenda is to have him silenced,  and to some degree I would, too, actually…. or at least not be on the internet talking with people he does not know. But  if one is not breaking any laws, it’s still a free country to express how one feels no matter how objectionable or offensive it may be,” she said.

“Not a violent man”

Denise readily admitted that parts of the indictment against Ben were accurate. For instance, she said, it’s certainly true that Ben was deeply involved with translating and disseminating Islamic theology on the ATP website.

“He does have a website for Islamic discussion, translations, teachings,” she said. “(It’s) not secret, open for all and not illegal.  If it were, his arrest would have happened way before this.”

She continued: “His website was portrayed in the news, I think, as a worldwide violent organization and portrays him as a violent Islamic jihadist and a danger to the community. He’s so not a violent man. He has no firearms, has never owned one.”

Denise isn’t the only person to opine that some federal cases brought under laws passed in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks cross the line into violating the Constitution. Despite the impassioned arguments of civil libertarians, however, the Supreme Court hasn’t shown much interest in curtailing such prosecutions even if they are shown to have a chilling effect on free speech.

Ben Carpenter handles a trout near a mountain stream in this undated picture. Photo provided by Denise Carpenter.

It’s too early too tell if Ben’s court-appointed attorney, Benjamin G. Sharp of Federal Defender Services, will try to argue that his actions were protected by the First Amendment. On Sunday night, Sharp said that local court rules prohibited him from making any public comments on the case.

It’s also unclear if Ben may claim that he was entrapped by the FBI although his mother believes that’s exactly what happened to him. “They’ve had nothing to arrest him on, thus the undercover agent meant to get him to ‘cross a line,’” she said.

“The Issue of Beheading”

At Ben’s detention hearing on April 5, Denise sought to have him released under her supervision pending trial. She offered to do whatever it took to ensure that he abided by the terms of his release but also “testified at the hearing that she was aware that Defendant spent a significant amount of time on the internet, communicated with an Australian prisoner, and was referred to as Abu Hamza,” Judge Poplin wrote.

“Moreover, Defendant presents a grave danger to both the local and international communities due to his association and ability to communicate with pro-ISIS individuals throughout the world,” the judge continued. “The Government correctly states that Defendant presents the risk of continuing to promote pro-ISIS propaganda, but more significantly, alert other ATP members about the specific details of his arrest and law enforcement’s investigation.”

Judge Poplin went on to reject the Carpenters’ arguments and ordered Ben to remain behind bars until a jury decides his ultimate fate. 

That fate may be grim. 

Federal authorities have pointed out since his arrest that Ben could face up to two decades in prison if a jury finds him guilty. Unlike many first-time offenders caught up in the federal justice system, however, there’s a good chance he’ll actually have to serve most or all of those 20 years behind bars thanks to terrorism enhancements in federal law, according to court documents.

The full range of evidence that federal agents have compiled against him won’t be made public until he goes to trial, if then. Based strictly on what has emerged from his detention hearing and in court documents, however, the proof against him is compelling.  

For instance, it’s unlikely that East Tennessee jurors will be sympathetic to a man who was willing to publish articles on his Arabic-language website entitled “The Issue of Beheading,” “A Treatise on the Legal Status of Using Weapons of Mass Destruction Against Infidels” and “The Clarification Regarding Intentionally Targeting Women and Children.” 

Still, there are different sides to every story.

Denise was particularly incensed by how her son was portrayed by prosecutors during the recent detention hearing. According to Denise, they repeatedly distorted minor or irrelevant details about his life in an effort to make him look bad in front of Judge Poplin. 

List of exhibits from Ben Carpenter’s recent detention hearing. Source: U.S. District Court

“The life that he leads here can only be described as passive,” she wrote. 

“He’s a big help to me since I retired and those who are his dog/cat care clients, those folks for whom he does handiwork around their homes. He lives with me because I want him to. He’s had full time jobs in the past (which seems to be important to the prosecutor) before he came to live here and the current work/life situation works out very well for me,” she continued.

One question that remains unanswered is how Ben became interested in Islam to begin with. When asked that question directly, Denise indicated that her willingness to continue talking was exhausted. “He probably told me but I don’t recall,” she said. “This will conclude the ‘non-interview.’”

Ben is currently being held in the Laurel County, Ky., jail pending his June 1 trial date. 

“He is doing fine in his jail ‘pod’ …. (He) just worries about me,” Denise said. “But I’m pretty darn strong by now.”

J.J. Stambaugh can be reached at 

Published on April 12, 2021