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Another student at USF arrested in explosive case

The student posed with a firearm in a digital photo, violating his visa.

By KEVIN GRAHAM, ABBIE VANSICKLE and BILL DURYEA, Times Staff Writers
Published December 14, 2007


TAMPA - FBI agents snatched a graduating senior from his University of South Florida dorm room Thursday, linking him with two other students already accused of illegally transporting explosive materials.

The U.S. Attorney's Office said Karim Moussaoui, 28, violated the terms of his student visa by posing for a photograph in July at a gun range, firearm in hand. Federal law prohibits those with student visas from possessing firearms.

"He didn't have the intention to fire the weapon. He wanted a souvenir photo, no more," said his father, Hamou Moussaoui, 64, a civil engineer, speaking in French.

When he and his wife, Zekkari Anissa Moussaoui, a 54-year-old professor, boarded a plane in their native Morocco, they looked forward to the joyous celebration of seeing their son receive his bachelor's degree.

Instead, they sat in a federal courtroom Thursday morning as U.S. Magistrate Judge Mary Scriven released Moussaoui on a $50,000 signature bond.

A federal complaint dated Nov. 14 spelled out the basics of the government's case. FBI agents say they found the gun range photo on the computer of Youssef Megahed.

Megahed, 21, and Ahmed Mohamed, 26, both USF engineering students, are in jail awaiting trial on federal explosives charges after their car was pulled over in South Carolina on Aug. 4. Mohamed faces an additional charge of demonstrating how to make an explosive device.

FBI agents allege that Moussaoui (no relation to convicted Sept. 11 terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui) went to Shoot Straight Gun and Archery Range several times in July with Megahed and Mohamed. Moussaoui's attorney says his client never fired a weapon.

U.S. Attorney's Office spokesman Steve Cole declined to comment on any connection between Moussaoui's arrest and the case of Megahed and Mohamed.

Stephen Crawford, Moussaoui's attorney, downplayed the accusations against him, calling it a "relatively minor offense."

"The reason we are here in federal court is he was a friend of Mr. Mohamed and Mr. Megahed," Crawford said.

At 7 a.m., FBI agents awakened Moussaoui in his Magnolia dorm room.

The surprise visit by federal agents wasn't as bad as when agents stormed into the dorm in November, said Jan Somberg, 24, one of the dormmates.

This time, the students knew what to do when agents arrived.

FBI spokesman Dave Couvertier said Thursday's arrest went smoothly. "He was very cooperative," Couvertier said.

At Moussaoui's request, Couvertier said agents found his parents to tell them about the arrest.

The judge cleared the way for him to participate in his graduation Saturday. He had planned to move back to Morocco to take over his father's engineering company. But the judge ordered that Moussaoui surrender his passport, be placed on home detention and electronically monitored. He has two weeks to move into an apartment.

Moussaoui's attorney questioned why the FBI waited to arrest until two days before graduation. After all, prosecutors said they have known about the offense since at least August.

He also wondered why prosecutors arrested him on a visa charge if their intention was to keep him in the country to testify at the trial of Megahed and Mohamed. Prosecutors could have used a material witness warrant to keep Moussaoui from leaving, Crawford said.

Moussaoui's parents said their son has been under mounting pressure from the FBI in the past two months.

He was questioned in New York by the FBI while he was on vacation, they said. Then early one morning in November, FBI agents came to his dorm room and interrogated him and confiscated the computer that contained his final project, the parents said.

"They handcuffed him. They kept asking, 'Where is the gun?'" said Hamou Moussaoui.

The FBI offered money and a green card if he would give information about the two men, said Hamou Moussaoui.

The FBI disputed the claim. "That conversation would not have taken place," said Couvertier.

The Moussaouis say their son chose USF because it was an American university in a warm climate. He had no idea about any terrorism cases connected with the university and no desire to harm anyone, his parents said.

"He came here because he loved Americans - more even than his own country," his father said.

Times researcher John Martin and staff writer Amber Mobley contributed to this report.

FAST FACTS

Firearms ban

Federal authorities say Karim Moussaoui violated U.S. Code, Section 922(g)(5)(B), which bans the use or possession of a firearm by anyone on a student visa because holders are not permanent residents. The same code prohibits possession of firearms by felons and people visiting on tourist or business visas.