Florida college students could face prison if convicted
A federal grand jury in Tampa indicted two University of South Florida students, arrested last month during a traffic stop in Goose Creek, on charges of transporting explosives without a permit, according to a copy of the indictment unsealed Friday.
One of the men also is charged with distributing information about building and using an explosive device, a terrorism-related charge, but authorities wouldn't say if the students planned to use the explosives in an attack.
Ahmed Mohamed and Youssef Megahed face a maximum of 10 years in prison if convicted of transporting explosives. Mohamed also faces a possible 20 years in prison if convicted of distributing information about explosives.
Berkeley County sheriff's investigators arrested the two Egyptian men after discovering what was described as a pipe bomb in the trunk of their car during a traffic stop Aug. 4 on U.S. Highway 176 near the Charleston Naval Weapons Station in Goose Creek. Authorities, who also seized a laptop computer, charged the men two days later in state court with possession of explosives.
Federal authorities shared little new information on the charges Friday, declining to comment beyond what was contained in the three-page indictment. When asked if the men were involved in planning a terrorism attack, U.S. Department of Justice Spokesman Bryan Sierra said only that "no plot was alleged in the indictment."
"Anytime you have an explosives charge like this there is a reason for concern," said Sierra, who declined to characterize or comment on the nature of the charges. "It merited further investigation."
Charleston attorney Lionel Lofton, who was retained Wednesday to represent Mohamed, said his client planned to plead not guilty. Lofton also said he has not yet had access to the evidence against his client, who remains in the
Berkeley County jail along with Megahed.
"They are very serious charges, and we take them very seriously," Lofton said. "I don't believe he has done anything wrong. Based on my review of everything to date, I don't think there is a criminal violation."
Attorney Andy Savage, who represents Megahed, also said that he was disappointed that authorities had not shared any of the evidence, which he requested immediately after the arrest. "They have been playing their cards close to the chest," said Savage, adding that he hoped people would reserve judgment. "We're in for a fight."
Mathieu Deflem, a sociology professor at the University of South Carolina specializing in counterterrorism, said the case is an example of the aggressive stance law enforcement has taken in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks and the failure of the intelligence community to prevent those attacks.
"Now we are witnessing law enforcement and intelligence that is so careful and overly greedy in pursuing all kinds of cases under the umbrella of terrorism," Deflem said. "We are all on guard and we are all alert and all out to get the bad guys before they can hurt us again."
Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson said she expected her office to dismiss state charges and turn over prosecution to federal attorneys. Like the others, she declined to comment on the specifics of the evidence, including the amount of explosives found in the car.
"There's no scientific definition of a pipe bomb," Wilson said. "The issue for us was whether or not they were designed to propel material in the air or to explode. That required a testing of the materials in the devices and also a replication of the devices."
Kevin McDonald, spokesman with the U.S. Attorney's Office in Columbia, said the case involved coordination between authorities in South Carolina, Florida and Washington. McDonald would not comment on the evidence or the charges, noting only that the charges are felonies.
After their arrest, the men told authorities they were on a weekend road trip to North Carolina. They said the devices in their trunk were made from fireworks purchased from a Wal-Mart, but Berkeley County Sheriff Wayne DeWitt has said the devices were not fireworks.
The indictments come after searches of a home in a Tampa suburb, where authorities carried away items belonging to Mohamed, as well as a storage facility and a park. This week, the grand jury, which has been hearing testimony in the case, sent a subpoena to Savage's office for DNA and hair samples from Megahed.
More information could come out during a court hearing for the men, possibly as early as next week.
Mohamed was described by federal authorities as a graduate student studying civil engineering at the University of South Florida. He also is described as being either 24 or 26 years old and a teaching assistant at the University of South Florida. Megahed, 21, was described as an engineering student.
Megahed is being held on $300,000 bail. Mohamed's bail is $500,000.
DeWitt said he expected the two to be moved eventually to the Navy brig in Hanahan, where federal enemy combatants have been held, but so far no federal authorities had been in touch with him about it.
DeWitt said the two men are in cells by themselves, separated from the general population, but have had some contact with each other at times, including during mandated yard exercise.
"They haven't had a lot to say," DeWitt said. "They haven't given us any problems."