3 Visiting Egyptian Students Held; 8 Missing

By Dan Eggen and Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, August 10, 2006

Three Egyptian college students were arrested in Minnesota and New Jersey yesterday after a nationwide alert by the FBI, which said the men were among a group of 11 students who had disappeared after failing to show up for an exchange program at Montana State University.

Authorities said yesterday that preliminary questioning of the three men, along with interviews with friends and relatives overseas, had revealed no apparent ties to terrorist or criminal groups.

The episode is the latest in a series of cases since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in which the FBI and other law enforcement agencies have gone to great lengths to locate individuals even when there is no clear evidence of a threat.

"In the post-9/11 world, the rules have changed," Special Agent Richard Kolko, an FBI spokesman, said in a statement about the case earlier this week. "The U.S. wants to assure that foreign students that register to come to the U.S. attend the schools for which they were granted a visa. This is simply out of an abundance of caution."

One of the students, Eslam Ibrahim Mohamed El-Dessouki, 21, was arrested in Minneapolis. Two others, Mohamed Ragab Mohamed Abd Alla and Ebrahim Mabrouk Moustafa Abdocame, both 22, turned themselves in to police in Manville, N.J., who then turned them over to federal immigration agents, officials said. The student visas of the three arrested and the eight who are missing have been revoked, and the men will be deported, authorities said.

They offered no further explanation late yesterday for why the students had disappeared.

It is common for foreigners to overstay or violate student visas. In 2005, the United States reviewed 85,000 potential violations, referred 2,333 for investigation and made 592 arrests. More than 766,000 visitors and 115,000 dependents held U.S. student and exchange visas as of the end of last year, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement reported.

The missing Egyptians were among 17 students from Mansoura University, located north of Cairo, who arrived at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York on July 29 on their way to a month-long exchange program at Montana State in Bozeman, according to officials from the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and the college.

But by July 31, only six had arrived on campus, school and government officials said.

News of the disappearances emerged Monday after media reports about the FBI alert. Federal officials said they never sought to make the search public, and stressed that there was no evidence linking the group to terrorism or any other threatening behavior.

"Obviously, for days we've had all their names and dates of birth," said Dean Boyd, spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. "We've been talking to people around the globe, and at this point we have not turned up any evidence of ties with any known terrorist or criminal organizations."

Kolko said that preliminary investigations have not revealed any "credible or imminent threat" from the students. "The FBI and ICE investigation is ongoing," he said.

The government was notified about the missing students by the university under new rules implemented after the Sept. 11 attacks. Three of the hijackers had student visas.

The students were part of a new English-language training and cultural exchange program initiated by Mansoura, said David Engberg, director of training and special programs at Montana State. Mansoura picked 20 students for the program, but three were denied visas or did not receive them in time from the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, Engberg said.

The remaining 17 arrived together at Kennedy airport but said they were separated during interviews by customs officers, he said.

"The challenge is a lot of these guys have low English skills," Engberg said. "The process of going through customs and immigration is a lengthy one. . . . if you're an Egyptian male, it can take longer. The group got separated."

Researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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