Two of the 11 Egyptian students whose disappearance last week triggered a nationwide hunt by FBI and immigration officials were arrested yesterday morning in an apartment in a Dundalk rowhouse.
Federal agents arrested El Sayed Ahmed Elsayed Ibrahim, 20, and Alaa Abd El Fattah Ali El Bahnasawi, 20, in the Holabird Avenue apartment of a pizza shop owner from Egypt, Attia Gouda. Ibrahim and El Bahnasawi were being held in an undisclosed location, pending possible deportation proceedings, authorities said.
The search for the two and nine others began when they all failed to report July 31 to a one-month academic exchange program at Montana State University. As of yesterday, all but five of the 11 had been found - in Minnesota, New Jersey, Illinois and Maryland - and taken into detention.
According to Gouda's wife, Jennifer Evans, Ibrahim and El Bahnasawi apparently stayed with her husband for several days while she was on vacation this week. When she returned Wednesday, she said, her husband introduced them to her as friends from his native village of Mansoura, Egypt, where the students are undergraduates at the local university.
"These guys would not hurt a fly," said Evans. "They're very shy. They respected me very much in the house."
Federal authorities said yesterday that they believe the Egyptians came to the United States not to study, but to look for work. But they stressed that they do not believe any of the group is dangerous.
"We have run these individuals through databases and checked with people around the country, and at this point we have no indication they pose any threat," said Dean Boyd, a spokesman for the Immigration and Custom Enforcement agency.
At his pizza shop in Glen Burnie last evening, a visibly agitated Gouda expressed dismay at the attention that the Egyptians' failure to appear in Montana was stirring up. He worried that Americans jump to conclusions "too quickly."
Gouda described Ibrahim and El Bahnasawi as farmers who had gotten "lost" and overwhelmed in a foreign land. But it was their dream to come to America, he said. "They're good people."
The Dundalk arrest took place at the second floor apartment on the 7200 block of Holabird Ave., a brick rowhouse on a busy thoroughfare. A window on the first floor is smashed, but neighbors said the first-floor apartment is vacant and that the window had been broken for a while.
Before rushing out of the apartment yesterday afternoon on her way to work, Evans said the two students had been helping out at her husband's pizza shop but that she believed they had come to the country with the intention to study. When she asked one of the men why he had come to the United States, he replied in halting English, "I want to better my future," she said.
She said Ibrahim and El Bahnasawi were terrified yesterday when two men and a woman in plainclothes knocked on the door about 9:30 a.m. and said they were federal agents come for the two.
"They were so scared ... one guy was getting ready to pass out," Evans said. "They had never been touched by police before."
Evans said she and her husband were not knowingly helping the students violate the terms of their visas. "We had no idea about any of this," she said. "They said they came here to go to school. I didn't know anything about Montana until this morning."
Authorities declined to explain how they discovered the Dundalk address, but Evans believes they were led there by another Mansoura native living in Reisterstown, with whom the students had also stayed while in the Baltimore area.
A spokeswoman for the Baltimore field office of the FBI said Baltimore agents had assisted in the investigation.
But Baltimore County police said federal authorities did not ask for their help. "Although the Baltimore County Police Department participates in a number of joint, anti-terrorism activities with the federal authorities, we were completely unaware this operation was being carried out," said spokesman Bill Touhey.
Immigration officials said the arrests were the results of "some very good investigative work" and not a tip, though they declined to elaborate, citing a continuing investigation.
"That's something we're not going to go into under any circumstance," said Boyd, the immigration department spokesman. "We have some investigative techniques I'd rather not disclose."
Another of the missing Egyptians was detained yesterday morning at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago while he was attempting to book a flight to Montana, according to immigration authorities.
Three other Egyptian students were arrested Wednesday, one in Minneapolis and two in New Jersey, bringing the tally of missing students down to five.
But not all of the exchange students from Mansoura University in northern Egypt violated their student visas.