It seems like an eternity since Maryland father Michael Shannon (search) has seen his two young sons, now 7 and 3, or gotten any word of how they're doing.
But it was only last month when Shannon finally learned for sure that Adam and Jason, kidnapped by their mother and Egyptian grandmother more than three years ago, are alive and living under tight security in Cairo.
A Texas-based parental kidnapping advocacy group called Team Amber Alert (search) has gotten involved in the highly-publicized international parental abduction case involving Shannon’s sons, who were just 4 and 8 months when their mother and grandmother snatched them in August 2001.
“They’re very much alive,” said James Beistle, executive director and vice chair on the board of Team Amber Alert. The group provides counseling and casework for the left-behind mother or father in parental child abductions and has a network of sources around the world helping with cases.
Through its network of contacts, the organization has been able to confirm what the U.S. State Department (search) refuses to: that the boys are doing fine — physically, at least — in their new home inside their grandparents' heavily armored compound.
“We have someone who lives just down the road. … We’ve advised that person not to get involved or take pictures, or they’ll be food for the crocodiles,” Beistle said. "There are two people protecting these boys ... and it's clear from a distance that they have automatic weapons. That's why the (American) consulate doesn't drive by there and look."
Though the State Department is required to check on the children because they are American citizens and international kidnapping victims, the visits stopped long ago when their aunt refused to allow them.
“It’s not clear that the children are free to do as they please,” Beistle said. "We have a real serious problem overseas with custody issues. ... When a U.S. citizen goes to one of our embassies, they're not getting protection. There's no place for this kind of nonsense."
Meanwhile, though Shannon has hired a prominent Egyptian attorney to pursue the custody portion of the case in Cairo, the hearings continue to be postponed — 11 times in the past year and two months — with the excuse that the American court documents need to be translated.
“I don’t think they’re ever going to translate those papers,” Shannon, 43, said in a recent phone interview. “It’s been 14 months.”
Shannon now has full legal custody of both Adam and Jason. At the time of their abduction by their mother and grandmother, he had custody of Adam but the battle over Jason was still ongoing. Shannon has since been granted that custody, which was taken away from their mother because of child abuse charges and alcohol addiction, according to court documents.
Shannon’s ex-wife Nermeen Shannon and her mother Afaf Khalifa (search) took the boys during an unsupervised, court-approved visit. Instead of going to see relatives, as they told Mr. Shannon they were doing, they moved Nermeen out of her Maryland apartment and flew with Adam and Jason from New York to Cairo.
Shannon hasn’t seen his children since, and he is frustrated by the roadblocks he encounters at every turn. But he hasn’t given up.
“As long as they’re still alive, there’s still hope that they can come back home,” he said.
In January 2003, an Annapolis court found now 62-year-old Khalifa guilty of kidnapping and related charges and sentenced her to 10 years behind bars.
The sentence was later reduced to three years but Khalifa only served 18 months before she was released and deported back to Egypt in May — with the condition that she was never to return to the United States again.
The courts found the motive of the kidnapping to be the desire of Mrs. Khalifa’s wealthy, influential husband Osama Khalifa (search) for male heirs to his empire. The Khalifas have four daughters (including 35-year-old Nermeen), and their culture dictates that their estate and family business be turned over to a male descendant.
The case has been so tricky for Shannon in part because of the tremendous political and financial power Mr. Khalifa, 66, wields and the respect he commands, both in his own country — he is, according to Beistle, “the financial arm of the Egyptian government” — and around the world.
Not only is he a friend and associate of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak (search), but he has ties to both the Republican and Democratic parties in the U.S. Many world leaders – including those in America — have sought his expertise as a financial consultant, since he runs one of the most successful import/export, shipping operations in the Middle East.
“His businesses are very instrumental,” said Beistle. “There’s no evidence that the grandfather is a bad man. There’s every indication that he’s helped U.S. intelligence and is well-respected.”
Beistle, whose organization has done extensive research on this and other parental kidnapping cases and has set up a Web site for Shannon, painted the situation as a culture clash of sorts: a power struggle between an American father and an Egyptian grandfather.
“This is all about power and influence between Michael and the grandfather,” Beistle said. “That’s a difficult situation because the grandfather has these strong ties internationally.”
Shannon echoes those sentiments and said he doesn’t hate the Khalifas — he just hates what has happened and misses his sons.
“I don’t think they’re bad people,” he said. “In an Arab society, they would lose face (if they gave the boys back). It’s a cultural war.”
But the problem, Beistle said, is that the children are American citizens who were taken from the legal guardian the courts deemed best fit to raise them — and they had no say in the matter.
“We have to encourage people to stop breaking up families,” he said. “If (the grandfather) robs those children of their father then he’s a thief, and all the money in the world can’t hide that.”
Team Amber Alert doesn’t recommend “overt recoveries” — when the children are suddenly and often forcibly seized and taken back to the rightful parent in one fell swoop — as a good solution to a situation like this because it's traumatic for kids and puts lives at serious risk.
Shannon’s only recourse, Beistle explained, is to continue to pursue the legal case, since international parental kidnapping is a federal felony, and to keep adding to the public record of what has happened. Inevitably, the boys will become curious about their dad when they grow up and potentially want to find him, or at least want to know what happened.
“We have to find these children, make sure they’re safe and provide the parents a mechanism to normalize custody so they have both parents,” Beistle said. “He needs to leave the record clear that he is here for his two sons and he is the legally assigned custodial parent. He’s the one everyone determined was the best for those two boys.”
But he’s pessimistic about the chance of a reunion with Shannon and his sons in the near future.
“Aside from miracles — and there’s nothing wrong with miracles — he’s got a long fight,” he said. “These are not sprints. They’re marathons.”
For now, the situation is at a standstill, and no one is completely happy. The Khalifas and their daughters have warrants out for their arrest if they try to re-enter this country — where they once lived part of the year on their property in California — the State Department continues to distance itself from the case publicly and Shannon is pursuing the criminal case and a civil one but doesn't have his sons back.
In the meantime, he's left wondering what his boys look like now, whether Adam still loves him or even remembers him and whether he will ever see his young children again.
But the grieving father refuses to wallow in self-pity, choosing instead to doggedly pursue his cause — even now that days of not having his sons with him have turned into years, and there’s no glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.
“I’m not the victim — too many parents out there think they’re the victims," Shannon said. "Adam and Jason are the victims. They can’t speak for themselves.”