TAMPA — Former University of South Florida engineering student Ahmed Mohamed agreed Friday to plead guilty to a federal charge of providing material support to terrorists.
For their part, prosecutors plan to drop six other charges against Mohamed, 26, when he is sentenced. Among the counts to be dropped are charges of illegally transporting explosive material, possessing an unregistered destructive device, and a student visa violation for possessing a firearm.
"This plea agreement was at the request of our client after a very long and agonizing decision by both him and his family, and it was his decision to resolve this matter though this plea. We have to respect that," said attorney Linda Moreno, who along with Lyann Goudie, was preparing to defend Mohamed against the charges at a trial starting July 7.
Mohamed, an Egyptian national, faces a maximum of 15 years in prison. His signed plea agreement spares him from a potential life sentence, the maximum had he been convicted on the charge of carrying a destructive device.
This agreement is the second time a highly publicized case has confirmed links to terrorists for someone associated with USF.
In 2006, former USF professor Sami Al-Arian pleaded guilty to one count of helping associates of a terrorist group with nonviolent activities.
Mohamed's sentencing date before U.S. District Judge Steven D. Merryday has not been set.
"The government, I'm sure, is going to ask for the maximum, and the defense would persuade the court not to give Mr. Mohamed the maximum," Moreno said.
A spokesman for federal prosecutors declined to comment.
Mohamed has been in jail since his Aug. 4 arrest with Youssef Megahed, 22, a fellow USF student, as they traveled through Goose Creek., S.C. A Berkeley County deputy stopped them for speeding, searched their car when he became suspicious, and found what prosecutors said was low-grade explosives in the trunk. The men said they were homemade fireworks.
The Berkeley County Sheriff's Office was accused of bias after a camera mounted in Cpl. James Lamar Blakely's cruiser captured him referring to Megahed and Mohamed as members of the Taliban and "graduates of suicide bomber school."
"We feel vindicated from the allegations that were made against our deputies," said Berkeley County sheriff's Maj. Ricky Driggers. "The deputies did their job, and they did it well."
As Mohamed's case approaches resolution, Megahed remains in limbo, confined to his home, his trial postponed while prosecutors appeal a judge's decision to bar certain evidence. His attorney could not be reached, and his family declined to comment.
He faces only two charges: illegally transporting explosive material and possessing an unregistered destructive device.
Michael Hoad, a USF spokesman, said that despite criticisms of the university, administrators have been responsive when issues like these surface. And the university maintains close contact with law enforcement whenever questions of potential terrorist ties arise.
The challenge is to focus on "real issues,'' not just the perception that USF has a problem with terrorism, he said.
"The question is how do we — how does the country as a whole — prevent people from coming here and doing something we don't want them to do?" he said. "I don't think this is a debate that's going away either for the University of South Florida or the country."
In Mohamed's case, prosecutors based the charge of providing material support to terrorists on a YouTube video that Mohamed admitted creating and posting to the Internet.
Mohamed used the video to demonstrate how to turn a child's remote control toy car into a detonator. He doesn't show his face but speaks in Arabic as he explains the process.
"His statements constitute admissions that his intention in producing and distributing the recording was to support attempts by terrorists to murder employees of the United States, including members of the uniformed services," prosecutors said in court documents.
Mohamed produced the video to "teach 'martyrdoms' and 'suiciders' how to save themselves so they could continue to fight the invaders," according to the plea agreement. "He said that he considered the United States military, and those fighting with the United States military in Arab countries, to be invaders."
Prosecutors said Mohamed intended the YouTube video to be used against anyone who fought on the side of the United States.
"We're relieved that the issue is being resolved and people are moving on, and we're also relieved that no one was hurt," said Ahmed Bedier, a local Muslim rights activist.
Bedier, who has never met Mohamed, said he counsels young Muslim men to be cautious in a climate that has zero tolerance for the appearance of anything terroristic.
Charles Rose, a Stetson University College of Law professor, said Mohamed's plea could affect Megahed. Prosecutors may not have made a deal unless Mohamed agreed to testify against Megahed.
"If he's agreed to testify, Mr. Megahed's case just got a lot worse," Rose said.
Kevin Graham can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3433.