** Updated December 18: U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday sentenced Ahmed Mohamed to the maximum 15 year prison sentence Thursday for providing material support to terrorists. Prosecutors showed Mohamed's YouTube video in court, in which Mohamed demonstrates how to use remote-controlled toys to detonate explosives.
Defense attorneys had asked that Mohamed be sentenced to eight years, arguing no one was hurt by his actions. Merryday, however, said he heard no contrition from Mohamed. The Tampa Tribune has details here. The St. Petersburg Times story is here.
When someone admits to committing a crime, the emotional angst is shared by loved ones of the victim and accused alike. Drunk drivers have families, too, after all. So do bank robbers. But you won't see many newspaper stories devoted to their torment.
It is entirely different when it comes to those accused of terror-related crimes.
Take Ahmed Mohamed, a University of South Florida graduate student from Egypt who faces sentencing in a Tampa federal court Thursday. In June, Mohamed pleaded guilty to providing material support to terrorists.
In his plea agreement, Mohamed admits producing a video demonstrating how a remote controlled toy can be converted into a detonator for explosives. He did this to help those trying to kill American troops in Iraq, saying this technique was better than a suicide bombing because it allowed the attacker to save himself for "the real battles" to come.
Turns out Mohamed was a fun-loving fan of America – with a Christian girlfriend even - when he came to Florida at the start of 2007. That is what we learn from a St. Petersburg Times story Monday datelined Cairo. It is the second feature to focus on Mohamed's parents and their struggle to understand what happened to their son. "How," the most recent story asks, "had he gone from being a moderate, fun-loving young man to someone who pleaded guilty to making a training video for terrorists?" It offers this as a possible answer:
"For 11 months, Ahmed Mohamed was held in a small, windowless isolation cell in the Hillsborough County Jail on Falkenburg Road, allowed out in shackles for an hour a day. He lost 40 pounds and became severely depressed.
'Forget about me. Solitary confinement has made me dead,' he wrote his parents in December 2007.
'We fear the isolation and harsh treatment drove him crazy,' said his father.
When the fatality count of U.S. soldiers in Iraq passed 4,000 people last spring, Mohamed sent a guard a note "congratulating him," and drew a smiley face on it. Defense attorney Lyann Goudie dismisses it as 'a desperate, sophomoric act,' but in a memo urging the judge to give Mohamed the maximum 15 year prison sentence, prosecutors say it is "the most telling as to his hatred and disdain for the United States."
Reporter Meg Laughlin cites this, so we know she read at least part of the prosecution sentencing memo. Had she told her readers what else it said, her narrative would be blown. So she didn't.
The memo makes clear that Mohamed exhibited the same anti-American hatred before he was arrested, before he was placed in solitary confinement.
At Thursday's sentencing, we may hear from Mohamed's former landlord. According to the sentencing memo, she often heard Mohamed make virulently anti-American statements. "She has reported that he repeatedly condemned 'stupid Americans' and expressed his dislike of the United States and American law. She characterized him as being an opportunist and as being an individual who always felt that he was intellectually superior to most persons and thus able to deceive them consistently."
Mohamed and a friend had a brief interaction with Tampa police officers days before his arrest. The officers cited the pair for shooting pellet guns in a local park. In a videotape made later that day, Mohamed referred to the police as "dogs," "Christians," "Infidels," "racists," and "enemies of God."
His laptop, which he lost custody of at the moment of his August 2007 arrest, contained files showing his interest in jihadist ideology. The computer contained images of Osama bin Laden and videos "which extolled and endorsed that violent ideology."
That fits with a poem also found on the laptop that investigators say Mohamed authored. It lauds the "exalted Ossama (sic) Bin Laden" and other Al Qaeda members and contains his pledge of his own "blood" and "soul" to God and his dream that Egypt, his homeland, would lead the world "by G-D's canonical law, and by jihad in the cause of G-D."
Laughlin does describe the video Mohamed made and posted on Youtube in the summer of 2007. On it, he demonstrated how to make a remote-controlled bomb and described its benefits:
"..we can make an explosion from a distance. Instead of the brethren going to, to carry out martyrdom operations, no, may God bless him, he can use the explosion tools from distance and preserve his life, God willing, the blessed and exalted, for the real battles, unless he is forced to do so."
After his arrest, and before his months in solitary confinement, Mohamed told investigators "his intention in producing and distributing the recording was to support attempts by terrorists to murder employees of the United States, including members of the uniformed services, while such persons were engaged in or on account of the performance of their official duties," the government sentencing memo said.
It made clear that Mohamed is "no mere neophyte or 'arm-chair' supporter of violent jihad." He took the time to research the explosives, to hunt for supplies and to make the video. Low grade explosives were in his car when he was arrested after a routine traffic stop in South Carolina.
None of that is mentioned in the Times story. The newspaper did a straight news report on the memo after it was submitted to the court last month. It was given about a third the space as this week's story. Those who saw the most recent offering, and that alone, could have the impression that a young man made a rash decision in an otherwise mainstream life. His attorney complains it was "the harsh conditions of solitary" and taunting by jail guards that set Mohamed off.
Anything he said or did after that, argues Lyann Goudie, shouldn't be held against him at sentencing. Fair enough. Take the taunting note to the guard about America's dead in Iraq off the table. Mohamed still has made it abundantly clear that the death of American soldiers in Iraq is not only something he desires, but something he tried to help come true all while a guest in the United States on a student visa.
This is not meant to mock the emotional pain his parents surely feel at the prospect that their 27-year-old son may be imprisoned into his 40s. It is a question, though, of what insights we gained from this story and why the focus is placed sympathetically on someone who does not wish us well. At least balance the record by providing a more detailed account of the facts in the case – facts Mohamed is not disputing.
As the memo concludes:
"The total picture which emerges from a review of Mohamed's entire persona and actions is one of a person devoted to armed struggle and the use of dangerous weapons against those he opposed. He had the knowledge, the ability, and the skill to research and carry out his plans and schemes. The fortuitous interference of local South Carolina law enforcement on the afternoon of August 4, 2007 no doubt prevented future events that could have been catastrophic to the safety and security of the public."