TAMPA — Former University of South Florida student Ahmed Mohamed received a maximum 15-year federal prison sentence Thursday for providing material support to terrorists.
In court, U.S. District Judge Steven D. Merryday pondered the 27-year-old's potential aloud, gazing at the former engineering doctoral student and teaching assistant who had once managed a 4.0 GPA.
"I still wonder why this young man in front of me at his age, at his intelligence, how he has become committed to this path," Merryday said.
Mohamed admitted in a June plea agreement to creating a YouTube video showing how to turn a child's remote control toy into a detonator. He told authorities the video was to be used by martyrs fighting "invaders" of Arab countries, including the U.S. military.
For the first time on Thursday, prosecutors displayed the video in court.
"I admit that this video was something that wasn't a wise idea," Mohamed told the judge in a letter read by defense attorney Lyann Goudie. "I never intended to harm anyone in particular. I do apologize. … I am no more than a college guy."
Prosecutors also disclosed for the first time Thursday that Mohamed uploaded the video from an engineering computer at USF. Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Monk said the video was viewed 782 times before it was removed from the site. Prosecutors presented no evidence that anyone had followed Mohamed's instructions in the video and caused harm.
Federal agents superimposed English subtitles onto the video to translate Mohamed's words as he spoke in Arabic. He demonstrated how a blue, remotely controlled truck could be reassembled for use as a detonator. Mohamed's face isn't shown on the video, but he admitted to law enforcement that he produced, narrated and uploaded it to the Internet.
He and fellow student Youssef Megahed, 22, were arrested Aug. 4, 2007, and charged with illegally transporting explosive materials after a South Carolina deputy stopped them for speeding and found the materials in their trunk.
Prosecutors alluded to Megahed several times during the sentencing but never called him by name. Instead, they referred to him as Mohamed's "traveling companion." Megahed's trial has been postponed while the government appeals a judge's ruling to exclude certain evidence against him.
When federal marshals escorted Mohamed into the courtroom at the start of the day, the jovial smile that usually greeted his parents was replaced with a solemn grin. As he stood before the judge for sentencing, he hung his head low, often looking over his shoulder to glance at his parents.
Mohamed's father, Abdel Latif Sherif, declined to comment after the sentencing. He and Mohamed's mother knelt to pray in the courthouse hall after the hearing ended.
Defense attorney Linda Moreno had asked the judge not to focus on Mohamed's criminal action but to consider his entire history. Eight years in prison would have been enough to punish Mohamed, she told the judge in asking for a lesser sentence.
"There is no question that he made a very, very bad mistake when he made this video," Moreno said.
Monk, the prosecutor, attempted to portray a more sinister Mohamed.
"The government believes the defendant is an individual who is violent," Monk said, "(and) who embraces a violent, extreme ideology."
Monk read excerpts in English from a poem Mohamed wrote in Arabic about a month after he arrived to the United States from Egypt in early 2007.
"You destined my imprisonment before, so I seek refuge in You from repeating it," he wrote.
Monk interpreted the line to mean that Mohamed had some plan to eventually act in a way that could again lead to his incarceration. He had been held for four months in Egypt without charges after providing money to a controversial charity.
Goudie, his defense attorney, had a different interpretation of the poem. She read excerpts from the beginning of the poem where Mohamed condemned injustice, torture and favoritism.
"No to Egypt as long as it is just; and yes to Egypt as long as it is Islamic," Mohamed wrote.
In the same poem, Mohamed speaks of his "exalted companions," which included Osama bin Laden.
"The truth of the matter is, it's hard to know what to make of all this evidence," Merryday said.
Ultimately, the judge said he concluded that Mohamed had committed a serious offense that at the "very least" was done to cause panic toward the U.S. government.
Kevin Graham can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3433.