Student arrests don't faze USF

USF's president says the two were screened and allowed into the country.

Published September 5, 2007

TAMPA - University of South Florida president Judy Genshaft called the indictment of two students on federal explosives charges regrettable, but she absolved the school Tuesday of responsibility.

She said she wasn't worried about the safety of students on campus or whether her school will be criticized by the public, politicians or talk shows for once again being linked to terrorism.

"This is an issue we have been through before," Genshaft said, referring to the arrest and trial of former USF professor Sami Al-Arian on terrorism-related charges.

"Big universities have big challenges," she said. "But listen, the (students) were allowed in by Homeland Security. What are you going to do?"

The indictments of civil engineering graduate student Ahmed Mohamed and undergraduate engineering student Youssef Megahed come as USF officials unveil a five-year, multimillion-dollar plan aimed at boosting the university's national reputation.

Vice provost Ralph Wilcox said a USF robotics professor spent last week in Utah trying to help recover the remains of trapped miners, "but you didn't read much about that.

"Instead, it was headlines about two students getting arrested," he said. "Of course, we would much rather have positive recognition for our research and achievements."

USF trustee Lee Arnold said no parents have called or e-mailed him with concerns, and university spokesman Ken Gullette said he received just one such e-mail last week. It came from a parent whose child was considering USF until the arrests.

Mohamed, 24, and Megahed, 21, were arrested Aug. 4 at a traffic stop near a South Carolina naval base with what authorities said were pipe bombs. A grand jury indicted the pair, charging Mohamed, a teaching assistant born in Egypt, with demonstrating how to make explosives for use in violent crimes.

Both students face charges of transporting explosives in interstate commerce without permits, a crime that carries up to 10 years in prison. USF has suspended both.

State charges of possession of an explosive device will be dismissed in favor of federal prosecution, said Scarlett Wilson, a South Carolina prosecutor.

Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, said he will ask Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff about the case today. Chertoff is scheduled to testify before the House Committee on Homeland Security at a hearing called "holding the Department of Homeland Security accountable for security gaps."

Bilirakis, a committee member, plans to ask Chertoff about the criminal background check of one of the students before he entered the United States and the Homeland Security Department's ability to monitor foreign students, Bilirakis' spokesman John Tomaszewski said.

Mohamed and Megahed were indicted last week in the same federal courthouse where Al-Arian was tried in 2005 in a case that garnered unwanted attention for the school. After a jury acquitted him on eight charges and deadlocked on nine others, Al-Arian accepted a plea deal for aiding a terrorist group in nonviolent ways.

On the USF campus, such courthouse matters seemed a world away for students lost in the excitement of a new school year. Multicultural groups performed choreographed dances outside the Marshall Center to recruitmembers. Students talked to colleagues about new classes and new friends. Professors prepared new lectures.

Some students didn't even know about the explosives case.

"On campus there has been no discussion, and I have heard no reaction from faculty members," said Jamil Jreisat, a public administration and political science professor.

Students said they felt comfortable, safe and grateful to be on a diverse campus.

"I feel at home," said Fufu Rum, 19, a sophomore originally from Palestine. "I love this place."

Both Genshaft and Wilcox said they value the 1,434 international students on campus and strive to make all students feel welcome.

"I feel comfortable," said Huda Biuk, 16, a freshman communications major whose family is from Libya. "Everyone seems pretty normal."

Times staff writer Kevin Graham and the Associated Press contributed to this report. Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368.