FBI also tests liquid found in car's trunk

MONCKS CORNER — The FBI tested liquids Tuesday that were found inside a car trunk where authorities say they also discovered multiple pipe bombs.

Agents on Monday also searched the Tampa family home of one of the two University of South Florida students who were arrested Saturday in Goose Creek and later charged with carrying explosive devices.

Authorities say they don't suspect terrorism was a motive in the case, but they remain tight-lipped about the contents of the trunk and what they could have been used for.

Yousef Megahed, 21, and Ahmed Mohamed, either 24 or 26 according to arrest records, were charged Monday with possession of an explosive device. They were still in custody Tuesday after a judge set bond at $300,000 for Megahed and $500,000 for Mohamed.

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency has put a detainer on the men, which allows federal agents to have the final say on whether the men can be released, even if they post bond. Officials said detainers are routine in cases of foreign nationals charged with a felony.

"Essentially, it's what we use so we can determine their immigration status," said Richard Rocha, immigration department spokesman.

The men, who are in the country legally, also are prohibited from leaving the state until their October court date.

The leader of a Muslim advocacy group who has been talking with Megahed's family said they are still trying to find out what evidence the government has. The family has not yet been able to contact Megahed. "The family is anxious to find out what is going on," said Ahmed Bedier, executive director of the Tampa chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Bedier said Megahed's family allowed the FBI to search their home without a warrant Monday.

The 2000 Toyota Camry the men were in was stopped Saturday on U.S. 176 in Goose Creek for reportedly going more than 60 mph in a 45 mph zone. A Berkeley County sheriff's deputy became suspicious when Mohamed closed a laptop computer as the deputy approached the car.

After the men gave permission to search the car, deputies found what they say are pipe bombs and the unidentified liquid inside the trunk.

Mohamed said during a Monday bond hearing that the contents in the trunk were fireworks he made from materials he bought at Wal-Mart.

It would be difficult to confuse pipe bombs with fireworks, said Craig Gundry, vice president of operations for Critical Intervention Services, a security consulting firm in Clearwater, Fla.

"Fireworks look like fireworks and a pipe bomb looks like a pipe bomb," Gundry said. "I don't see how one could mistake one for the other."

Pipe bombs are the most common type of bomb recovered by authorities, officials said, and Gundry said they're relatively easy to make. A large, sophisticated pipe bomb was used in the Centennial Olympic Park bombing during the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.

"A strong pipe bomb can be pretty darn explosive," he said.

He said someone could conceivably make a small pipe bomb equivalent to an M80 firecracker, but didn't consider it likely because those can be bought legally in stores. "Is it possible? Yes," he said. "Is it practical? No."

While agents continued their investigation, U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff praised local authorities Tuesday for their diligence in the case.

"Whatever turns out to be the case with these two individuals, it underscores the importance of people being alert," Chertoff said. "Even if this turns out to be benign, if it turns out not to be a big deal, this is the kind of alertness and response that creates real homeland security for the people of this state as well as the country as a whole."

Chertoff joined U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., at the University of South Carolina to discuss national security issues stemming from inadequate identification systems.

Chertoff said he would not speculate as to whether the incident is related to an act of terrorism.

"It is up to the court system now to resolve it," he said.

Graham said he also wanted to compliment the law enforcements officers who made the stop in Goose Creek.

"We wouldn't have done that before 9/11" Graham said.

Similar charges have been filed in at least one other local case that did not garner nearly as much attention.

In January, Charleston County Sheriff's deputies arrested a 21-year-old man in connection with placing three bombs, each a plastic bottle containing hydrochloric acid and foil, near a home on Marshfield Road. The potential penalty for the unsophisticated chemical bomb was the same two-to-15 years in prison that Megahed and Mohamed face if convicted.

Reach Andy Paras at 745-5891 or aparas@postandcourier.com. Reach Noah Haglund at nhaglund@postandcourier.com or 937-5550.