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Megahed deportation testimony centers around 'Usef' Internet searches

MIAMI — An immigration judge viewed nine video clips of combat rockets launching in the Middle East during a deportation hearing Wednesday for former University of South Florida student Youssef Megahed.

A federal judge refused to let a jury see the videos in Megahed's criminal trial.

The FBI recovered the clips, each less than a minute long, from the Megahed family computer. Arabic music and chants played loudly during each clip, which contained English subtitles.

The videos depicted the destruction of U.S. military vehicles and soldiers. After a rocket strikes a U.S. Hummer, the subtitle read, "Where did the tower go? Where did the soldier in it go?"

The government says the clips were downloaded and saved to a computer folder under user name "Usef" on the family's computer.

Defense attorney Charles Kuck has argued that the government has no proof Megahed downloaded or viewed the clips. He called them inflammatory and objected to their use.

Tampa FBI Special Agent Tim Pivnichny, a computer forensic analyst, said he believed Megahed downloaded the clips, based on his review of a two-year Internet history under the user named "Usef."

U.S. District Judge Steven D. Merryday tossed out the clips months before Megahed's Tampa criminal trial, in part because the U.S. Attorney's Office disclosed the evidence to the defense after a deadline. Federal prosecutors appealed Merryday's ruling, but a higher court upheld the decision.

Immigration Judge Kenneth S. Hurewitz agreed to let Homeland Security Department attorneys show the videos during the hearing in Miami-Dade County.

Megahed faces deportation to Egypt. Homeland Security attorneys have spent the week arguing that he has or is likely to engage in terrorist activity.

A federal jury in Tampa acquitted Megahed in April of illegal transportation of explosive materials and possession of a destructive device. An FBI agent and Joint Terrorism Task Force supervisor testified Tuesday that he believed that Megahed and several other Tampa men had been laying the groundwork for a terrorist cell.

Megahed and Ahmed Mohamed were arrested Aug. 4, 2007, after a traffic stop in Goose Creek, S.C. The then-USF students had PVC pipes filled with a potassium nitrate mixture in the trunk. Federal authorities described them as low-grade explosives that could be readily assembled into a destructive device with other materials in the trunk. Mohamed called them homemade fireworks.

An FBI agent said during the deportation hearing this week that he considered them "baby Qassam rockets" and was concerned that Mohamed would soon build bigger ones.

Mohamed pleaded guilty to providing material support to terrorists when the FBI investigation revealed he had posted a YouTube video showing how to turn a child's remote-controlled toy into a detonator. He's serving a 15-year prison sentence.

Pivnichny, the FBI computer analyst, spent Wednesday testifying about Megahed's Internet search history for 2006 and 2007. The government wants to show that Megahed had an interest in explosives, rockets and combat before he met Mohamed in 2007.

Some of the searches by the "Usef" computer user involved Sami Al-Arian, the former USF professor who admitted helping associates of a terrorist group in the Israeli-occupied territories with immigration matters. Other searches were for topics including the Islamic Jihad movement; how rocket-propelled grenades, dynamite and C-4 work; and nuclear weapons and U.S. weapons systems.

During cross examination of Pivnichny, Megahed's attorneys tried to explain his possible interest in the topics by citing he was a mechanical engineering student and his family had a long history of military service in Egypt.

Defense attorneys noted that while most of the searches lasted about a minute each, someone using the "Usef" login spent just as much or more time on Facebook, checking e-mail and playing online chess.

Kevin Graham can be reached at (813) 226-3433 or kgraham@sptimes.com.

Megahed deportation testimony centers around 'Usef' Internet searches 08/19/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 19, 2009 9:51pm]
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