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USF student faces sentencing on terror charges Thursday

Maha Sadik wipes tears while waiting for her husband, Abd el Latif Sherif, to check into the Holiday Inn Express in Brooksville last month after visiting their son, Ahmed Sherif Mohamed.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

Maha Sadik wipes tears while waiting for her husband, Abd el Latif Sherif, to check into the Holiday Inn Express in Brooksville last month after visiting their son, Ahmed Sherif Mohamed.

CAIRO — A week before Ahmed Sherif Mohamed and a friend left Tampa on a road trip for his 26th birthday in August 2007, his mother called from Egypt. Come home, she told him.

She'd bought him a plane ticket so their family of four could vacation together on the Mediterranean, as they had every year for his birthday. They'd swim and eat ripe mangoes, she said.

But Mohamed said no. He was having too much fun in America. His doctoral studies at USF in engineering were going well. He loved the parties and cookouts every weekend. For his birthday, he hoped to take a road trip up the East Coast with a friend.

"He was so full of himself and the freedom of life in America. Who knew where his bravado would take him?" said Maha Sadik, his mother.

As it turned out, it took him to Goose Creek, S.C.

There, on a Saturday afternoon in early August, Mohamed was pulled over for speeding down a back road 7 miles from a naval base. A search of the car revealed low-grade explosives and a video on his laptop that showed how to remotely detonate bombs.

From there, Mohamed went to jail, where he has been for 16 months, eventually pleading guilty to material support of terrorism. (An explosives charge was dropped.) On Thursday, he will be sentenced in federal court in Tampa and faces up to 15 years. Federal prosecutors have accused him of "a virulent anti-American attitude" in a memorandum and asked for the maximum sentence.

In late summer, Mohamed's parents met with a reporter in Cairo and struggled to make sense of what had happened to their son. How had he gone from being a moderate, fun-loving young man to someone who pleaded guilty to making a training video for terrorists?

• • •

Ahmed Mohamed grew up in a middle class home in Nasr City, a pleasant Cairo suburb. His dad is a high-ranking construction official for the Egyptian government, his mother a homemaker who has always doted on her two boys. To this day, she won't allow visitors to her table to sit in Mohamed's chair.

Growing up, Mohamed went to American schools in Cairo and was an excellent student. He dreamed of getting a doctorate in the United States and applied to the University of South Florida.

On his student visa application he included a seemingly ominous detail: He had been arrested and held for four months without charge.

"What he did was not criminal. He gave money to the well-known charity Red Crescent, and was picked up in a sweep like thousands of young men in Egypt," said his attorney, Lyann Goudie.

Apparently, the admission didn't bother U.S. immigration officials because he got the visa. His mother said when it arrived in late fall 2006, Mohamed kissed it and screamed, "Thank you, God!"

"He loved American universities and sports. He loved American films and music," said his brother Abdel Sherif, 25. "The only thing American he didn't like was the invasion of Iraq."

On Dec. 31, 2006, a clean-shaven Mohamed in a golf shirt and jeans said farewell to his Christian girlfriend and family and boarded a plane bound for Tampa to start what he gleefully called "a new life in the new year in the New World."

Seven months later, when Mohamed and friend Youssef Megahed were pulled over on a back road in South Carolina, Mohamed told deputies the explosives in the trunk were for making fireworks to celebrate his birthday.

"They were just like the fireworks everyone makes in Egypt to celebrate," said his father. But Mohamed had a harder time explaining the 10-minute YouTube video deputies found on his computer, showing how to convert the motion-control device on a remote-control toy car into a detonator. It was to be used against invaders of other countries, FBI agents said Mohamed told them.

On the tape, Mohamed said: "The brethren will use this to make explosions from a distance."

It was like dozens of other videos that preceded it, but in this instance, the government could identify the narrator.

Federal prosecutors charged Mohamed with training terrorists and traveling with destructive devices. If a jury found him guilty of both charges, he was looking at life in a maximum-security prison. Mohamed pleaded not guilty.

"We thought many of his friends in Tampa would speak in his defense," said his father. "But there was such fear because of other terrorism prosecutions, no one would."

Latif Sherif was referring to the prosecution of former USF professor Sami Al-Arian and three other defendants, who were arrested in 2003 on terrorism charges and faced life sentences, until their six-month trial ended in acquittals and a mistrial in December 2005.

For 11 months, Ahmed Mohamed was held in a small, windowless isolation cell in the Hillsborough County Jail on Falkenburg Road, allowed out in shackles for an hour a day. He lost 40 pounds and became severely depressed.

"Forget about me. Solitary confinement has made me dead," he wrote his parents in December 2007.

"We fear the isolation and harsh treatment drove him crazy," said his father.

Capt. Tom Bliss, the facilities commander at Falkenburg, said he remembers when Mohamed arrived at the jail: "He'd go from being very sad and withdrawn to being very obstinate and argumentative," said Bliss, who describes solitary at Falkenburg as "a very hard place."

Bliss said he thinks the staff could have been "much more sensitive" to Mohamed. "We did things to Mr. Mohamed that flew in the face of his dignity and he reacted," Bliss said.

In January came the first public sign that Mohamed might be suffering from some mental instability. At a hearing, he told the federal judge that attorney John Fitzgibbons had wasted money from the Egyptian Embassy and pushed him to take a plea deal he didn't want.

"It's not true. It's fantasy," Fitzgibbons told the judge before leaving the case.

Goudie, who along with Tampa attorney Linda Moreno replaced Fitzgibbons, said it was not only "the harsh conditions of solitary" that had Mohamed on an emotional roller coaster: "He was constantly taunted by some of the guards," she said.

In April, in what Goudie calls "a desperate, sophomoric act," Mohamed wrote a note to a guard congratulating him on more than 4,000 deaths of American soldiers in Iraq. He drew a happy face by the number.

In a sentencing memorandum filed recently prosecutors called the note "the most telling as to his hatred and disdain for the United States" and offered it as a reason to give Mohamed the maximum sentence.

"Look, I don't agree with Ahmed's foreign policy views, but in this country people have a right to opinions," said Goudie, whose son, her only child, served in Iraq with the 101st Airborne. "Any anti-American sentiments Ahmed had after eight months in solitary shouldn't be a part of his sentencing."

In late spring, Mohamed wrote his parents that he wanted to take a plea agreement. He couldn't live with the possibility that he might get a life sentence, he said.

"We supported his decision and prayed the judge would be merciful," said his mother this summer. "I want to hold my son again before I die."

In July, Moreno and Goudie requested Mohamed be moved because of "abusive and humiliating treatment." Federal prosecutors arranged for him to be moved to the Hernando County Jail, where he has a cell with a view and canteen privileges. Guards describe Mohamed as "well-behaved and well-liked."

"A few little things can make a world of difference," said Warden Russell Washburn.

Contact Meg Laughlin at mlaughlin@sptimes.com.

USF student faces sentencing on terror charges Thursday 12/15/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 16, 2008 4:58pm]
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