In USF ex-student's explosives case, parents endure

BROOKSVILLE — On Wednesday afternoon, for about 10 minutes, Abdel Sherif looked happy. After leaving the Hernando County Jail where he and his wife visited their son, he came up with a brilliant idea.

Instead of returning to the Holiday Inn Express they would go to a cheaper motel in Brooksville and stay a few extra days with their son, Ahmed Mohamed, 27, the former University of South Florida student who pleaded guilty to making a video that showed how to remotely detonate bombs.

"We must make the most of this time," Sherif tells the driver, as he gives directions to what he calls "the cheapest motel in all of Brooksville."

When they drive up, Maha Sadik looks at her lap and won't meet her husband's eyes. But Sherif forges on, stepping over empty beer cans in the parking lot and walking past boarded-up windows to greet the shirtless manager who places his beer can and cigarette on a window sill to shake Sherif's hand.

"This might work for a fair price," says Sherif, who has carefully calculated how much money they have left and how far it will go.

This trip, their fourth from Cairo to see Mohamed, is not about luxury and enjoyment, the parents will tell you. It is about solidarity with their beleaguered son who has spent the past 15 months in solitary confinement. It is about a self-imposed austerity that mirrors his life in jail.

The motel manager shows Sherif a dark room with unmatched carpet squares over gray linoleum. Sherif yells over a rattling refrigerator in the corner, offering $40 a night, including tax. When the manager nods, Sherif flashes a wide grin and walks to the open door where he shouts to his wife who waits in the car: "We can see Ahmed for five more days!"

"Anything for my son," she whispers, getting out of the car.

Eyeing her head scarf, the manager asks, "Where are you from?"

"Egypt," she replies.

"Egypt what?" he asks.

"Egypt, Egypt," says Sherif.

• • •

Two days before, when they visited Mohamed at the Pinellas County Jail in Clearwater, he begged them to go to the beach "because the water is so clear." He talked about the lakes and rivers of Central Florida, the green expanse of countryside. He told them it would make him happy if they would see the places he loved. But they told him they were not here as tourists, but as his parents.

"When he's in there facing 15 years, how can we look at something beautiful?" asks his mother.

Earlier in the day, they checked out of the Super 8 in Clearwater because Mohamed was moved from the Pinellas County Jail to the Hernando County Jail in Brooksville. It was their fourth motel in two weeks. Before that they stayed at two La Quintas in Tampa where his sentencing was supposed to take place before it was postponed, again — this time until December.

"We are like Palestinians wandering from place to place," says Sadik.

At the Super 8, where they spent four days, they had free breakfasts of bananas, toaster waffles and apple juice each morning. This lasted them through their daily one-hour visit with their son and into the afternoon. Then, before sunset each day, they walked to a gas station to buy cheese and cracker packets for dinner.

"Like our son, we eat a lot of cheese and crackers," says Sadik.

"Every few days we get a can of tuna," Sherif says.

Sherif explains that they don't rent a car and drive because they might unwittingly do something wrong and get arrested. Mostly, they stay in their motel room and read and sleep.

"Things can go bad quickly here for foreigners," he says, referring to his son.

• • •

One August afternoon 15 months ago, Mohamed and a friend from USF were stopped for speeding in Goose Creek, S.C.

Police found low-grade explosives in the trunk, which Mohamed said were for making fireworks to celebrate his 26th birthday.

"We always make our own fireworks in Egypt," said his father.

But things went from bad to worse for Mohamed when police also found an incriminating video on his laptop, which he had posted on YouTube. In it, he demonstrated how to use a control box on a child's toy car to make a remote detonator for a bomb.

It was not the only video of its kind on YouTube and there was no evidence that anyone took his advice. But Mohamed confessed to making it and took a plea deal.

When Mohamed's parents arrived in Tampa for the sentencing hearing, jail officials gave them the swimsuit he was wearing when he was arrested.

"In one hour, he went from being a carefree young man, swimming in the surf, to being a terrorist in solitary confinement," says his father.

The swimsuit still smells of the sea and is full of salt. His mother keeps it in her suitcase and touches it to her cheek because it is the closest she can get to her son, who is not allowed contact visits.

"If only we could go back to that moment when he was swimming and change things" she says, tears streaming down her face.

"But we can't," says her husband.

At the cheap motel, Maha Sadik looks around the dark, grimy room and doesn't object.

Meg Laughlin can be reached at mlaughlin@sptimes.com.

In USF ex-student's explosives case, parents endure 11/15/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 18, 2008 7:33pm]

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