Brash Behavior or Terrorism? 

Egyptian "pilot747" is the second Memphis Muslim held without bond because of suspected terrorist connections.

> Exhibit A: Mahmoud Maawad, an Egyptian student at the University of Memphis living illegally in the United States for six years with a bogus Social Security number, got an apartment near campus -- and a few miles from Memphis International Airport. He furnished it with nothing more than a bedroll and a computer, which he used to order $3,300 worth of pilot gear over the Internet, including a DVD titled How an Airline Captain Should Look and Act and a map of the airport terminal even though he is not a pilot. He gave the vendor, Sporty's Pilot Shop, an overdrawn debit card and used the e-mail address "pilot747."

Exhibit B: Rafat Mawlawi, a U.S. citizen with dual citizenship in Syria, lived in a quiet neighborhood near Craigmont High School. Because he has a felony conviction, he is not supposed to own firearms, but he kept a shotgun and three loaded handguns in a safe in his home. He also kept a 1997 photograph of himself shouldering a rocket-powered grenade launcher in Bosnia while standing next to an associate of Osama bin Laden, $34,000 in cash, and al Mujahadeen videotapes in Arabic. When federal agents arrested him at his home in April, he lied to them before admitting he was moving to Syria.

So what do we have here? Two cases of post-9/11 criminal stupidity? Two cases of an overzealous Terrorism Task Force trying to justify all the money spent on counter-terrorism by locking up a couple of Muslims? Or two terrorism suspects?

The FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force and the United States Attorney's Office in Memphis are not taking any chances. Maawad was jailed without bond last week. Mawlawi has been in the federal correctional institution in Mason, Tennessee, without bond since April. Neither defendant is charged with terrorism. Maawad, 29, was charged with wire fraud and fraudulent use of a Social Security number. He has pleaded not guilty and is not likely to go to trial for several weeks. Mawlawi, 55, was charged with illegal possession of firearms, immigration violations, and conspiracy to organize a sham-marriage scam involving Memphis women and Middle Eastern men. His trial is set for October 3rd.

Federal prosecutors and FBI agents won't comment outside of the courtroom. Attempts by the Flyer to interview Mawlawi in prison have been discouraged by prison officials and his attorneys, Lorna McClusky and Bill Massey. Mawlawi said in a letter to the Flyer that he would like to talk. His brother Nabil, who owns a sandwich shop in Bartlett, has been trying to arrange an interview but without success.

Nabil Mawlawi, an American citizen, said his brother is not a terrorist sympathizer. Rafat Mawlawi served 12 years in the U.S. Navy and was honorably discharged. His 1993 arrest record stemmed from a divorce and some missed court appearances. He got five months probation on a fraud conviction. His brother explained the photograph with the rocket launcher as the sort of macho souvenir picture that an American hunter, gangster-wannabe, or paramilitary freak might have. Rafat Mawlawi was teaching school in Bosnia after the war, when weapons were plentiful. As for the videos, Nabil Mawlawi does not condone them but says that such material is readily available on the Internet and that his brother was probably motivated by simple curiosity.

Mahmoud Maawad spoke on his own behalf at his hearing last week. He said he is a full-time student at the University of Memphis and worked for cash at a convenience store on Chelsea in North Memphis. He admitted he is in the United States illegally and was busted in March for selling liquor to a minor. He said his bogus Social Security number was issued to him as a student ID number in 1998 when he was in New Jersey. Somehow he used it to get utilities and a debit card and enroll in school. He entered the United States at New York City from Egypt in 1998, and his visitor's visa expired in 1999.

Assistant U.S. attorney Steve Parker said Maawad failed to register at the U of M as an international student as required and was working illegally. He has no family in Memphis. "His entire presence in this country has been one unlawful thing after another," he said.

Maawad lived in Olive Branch, Mississippi, for an unknown length of time before moving in June to an apartment at 3557 Mynders. An FBI agent testified that the apartment did not have furniture, a television, a bed, or a clock. Agents who searched it found a bedroll on the floor, a few clothes, a desk and chair, and shelves containing DVDs and books that Maawad bought over the Internet between June 25th and August 6th of 2005.

Sporty's Pilot Shop in Batavia, Ohio, sells educational materials and equipment to private pilots, according to spokesman Bill Anderson. Maawad ran up $2,500 worth of purchases on his debit card and tried to buy another $800 worth of items before Sporty's Pilot Shop rejected his card and notified the FBI. The purchases included a private-pilot course, flight-simulator software, a flight gear bag, radio communications handbook, maps of the Memphis airport, a Navy flight jacket, the DVD How an Airline Captain Should Look and Act, and instructional programs on "airplane talk."

Memphis is the number-one cargo airport in the world. Hundreds of jets from FedEx, UPS, and passenger airlines take off and land every day. Earlier this summer, a front-page story in The Wall Street Journal outlined how FedEx is one of the federal government's key partners in the war against terrorism and how they share information about possible terrorism activities.

It's no wonder that Parker described this case as "scary."

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