Youssef Megahed and Ahmed Mohamed
TAMPA, Fla. – The Council on American-Islamic Relations has backed off on its defense of two Muslim college students caught driving near a sensitive U.S. Navy base with explosives and a how-to video on bomb making.
Last August, when police in South Carolina arrested University of South Florida students Ahmed Mohamed and Youssef Megahed for possession of four pipe bombs and a homemade video on how to make detonators for improvised explosive devices, CAIR sprang to the students’ defense.
Now, the Washington, D.C.-based Muslim civil rights group is not so sure the boys are innocent.
Ahmed Bedier, executive director of CAIR’s Tampa, Fla., office, told WND it’s possible the two Egyptian engineering students were up to no good and they possibly were not just carrying fireworks to the beach, as they claimed.
“I’ve never said that these people were innocent, or that we were providing any kind of support for them,” Bedier told WND. “If they did anything wrong they should be punished.”
But when FBI agents searched Megahed’s home in August, Bedier claimed the case was nothing more than an example of racial profiling.
“Definitely, this is not related to terrorism,” Bedier told the Associated Press. “Had these been two good ol’ boys from South Carolina driving through and speeding – and even if they did have some fireworks – nobody would have been arrested.”
On Aug. 4, two Berkeley County, South Carolina, sheriff’s deputies stopped the two men for speeding. Mohamed, a 26-year-old graduate student, was driving a Toyota Camry owned by Megahed’s brother and allegedly going 60 mph in a 45 mph zone. The deputies stopped the Camry near the town of Goose Creek, just a few miles from the Charleston Naval Weapons Station.
During the traffic stop, the students aroused the deputies’ suspicions by making inconsistent statements about where they were going and what they were doing. After obtaining consent, the deputies searched the car. Inside the trunk they found four pieces of PVC pipe packed with what appeared to be explosives. They also found 20 feet of safety fuse, a nearly full five-gallon can of gasoline, a drill and a box of .22-caliber bullets.
Mohamed and Megahed said they were looking for cheap gas while on their way to a beach just across the state line in North Carolina. They claimed the PVC pipes were fireworks of a type they called “sugar rockets.”
The deputies placed the two men under arrest.
Inside the passenger compartment of the Toyota was a laptop computer with a file on its hard drive called “Bomb Shock.” The file contained information about homemade explosives. Recent Internet searches on the computer had included the words “martyrdom,” “Hamas,” and “Qassam rockets.”
But in addition, authorities found a 12-minute video on the computer that featured Mohamed. (Although his face could not be seen, Mohamed later admitted it was him.) In the video, he explains and demonstrates how to use components taken from a remote-controlled toy car to make a detonator for improvised explosive devices.
During the demonstration, Mohamed specifically mentions that the same components can also be found in a remote-controlled toy boat.
On the video, Mohamed says in Arabic, “Instead of the brethren going to carry out martyrdom operations … he can use the explosion tools from distance and preserve his life, God willing, … for the real battles.”
Mohamed later admitted to the FBI that he made the video at his Tampa residence and intended it for Muslims overseas who are defending their lands against infidel invaders, a description, he said, that included U.S. troops.
Two days after Mohamed and Megahed’s arrests, FBI agents searched Megahed’s home in Tampa. Inside the home they found a remote-controlled toy boat still in its box and a partially dismantled digital watch. According to an FBI affidavit, “Digital watches have often been used in the past as timing devices for homemade bombs.”
An FBI test of the material found inside the PVC pipe revealed it was an explosive mixture of potassium nitrate, cat litter and corn syrup.
A federal grand jury handed down a two-count indictment Aug. 31 that charged both men with illegally transporting explosives across state lines. The grand jury also hit Mohamed with the terrorism-related charge of distributing information about building and using an explosive device.
Megahed, a 21-year-old undergraduate, faces a maximum prison sentence of 20 years, while Mohamed, because of the additional terrorism charge, faces a possible 30-year sentence. Both are being held without bond.
Megahed has since repeatedly tried to get his case separated from Mohamed’s.
The case received scant media coverage, but interest in it was temporarily revived in early October when Megahed’s brother, Yahia Megahed, was caught on a jailhouse surveillance camera surreptitiously making strange faces and using what appeared to be sign language to try to communicate with Megahed. When the news was made public, several media outlets lambasted the government for trying to assert that the attempted communication was part of a conspiracy.
What most of the media reports failed to mention was that the car – the 2000 Toyota Camry in which the explosives and terrorist training video were found – was registered to Yahia Megahed.
Later, the case made the news again when a tape recording made by a dashboard-mounted camera inside the arresting deputies’ patrol car revealed what some said were racist comments by one of the deputies.
On the tape, Deputy Lamar Blakely can be heard telling his partner that Mohamed and Megahed were members of the “Taliban” and “graduates of suicide bomber school.”
Critics pounced on the news.
“Clearly this is a racial or ethnic profiling case,” Andy Savage, a South Carolina attorney who initially represented Megahed, told the St. Petersburg Times. “If this had been my son, if it was an Irish-American kid who had been stopped in Berkeley County going 60 mph, he might have been ticketed. More likely they would say, ‘Slow down son. Keep on going.’ But they would never have had their car torn apart. They would never have been viewed as suspicious individuals.”
CAIR’s Bedier was also quick to assert that it was the Berkeley County sheriff’s deputies who were the guilty party.
“Law enforcement should follow the rules,” Bedier told the St. Petersburg paper. “When they don’t do their job the right way, they jeopardize their own investigation. Somebody screwed up here, and it may be costly. It will raise doubt about how this investigation was triggered.”
The federal public defender in Tampa, who now represents Megahed, filed papers with the court last month in which he asserted the South Carolina deputies had been on a “fishing expedition” when they searched Megahed’s brother’s car. The defender contended the investigation was based on a “hunch” fueled by “inappropriate stereotypes.”
In the case of Mohamed, who was in the U.S. on a student visa, the Egyptian government provided $750,000 for his legal defense.
“We are responsible for the sons of Egypt abroad with no exception,” Ahmed el-Qawassni, a spokesman for the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, told the AP.
In another twist in the case, earlier this month Mohamed demanded that the court allow him to fire his attorney, veteran Tampa litigator John Fitzgibbons, to whom the Egyptian government has already paid a $500,000 non-refundable retainer.
Mohamed accused Fitzgibbons of shoddy representation and expressed an interest in hiring attorney Linda Moreno to represent him. Moreno was the attorney for convicted Tampa-area terror supporter Sami Al-Arian.
In a courtroom tirade Monday, Mohamed also accused an Egyptian embassy official of stealing $250,000 from his defense fund.
At the end of Monday’s hearing, U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark Pizzo excused an exuberant Fitzgibbons from the case. Fitzgibbons told the judge that Mohamed was the most difficult client he has represented in 20 years as a lawyer. Fitzgibbons said he visited Mohamed in jail at least 20 times in the three months since he was hired as his attorney, and each time Mohamed refused to cooperate with him. All Mohamed did during the visits, Fitzgibbons said, was lay his head on a table and mutter prayers in Arabic.
After announcing his decision, Judge Pizzo issued a warning to Mohamed.
“You had excellent counsel who was representing you,” the judge said. “You chose not to get along with him. The consequences are yours.”
Outside the courthouse, following the judge’s ruling, Fitzgibbons told reporters: “It’s going from the weird to the bizarre. Now, he’s accusing Egyptian government officials of stealing money. You can see what I’ve been dealing with.”