Nearly 12 years ago, Michael Shannon sent his two young sons to New York for what he thought would be a weekend visit with their mother.
It would be the last time he saw either one of them.
Nermeen Khalifa, the boys' mother and Shannon's ex-wife, took the children to her home country of Egypt, where U.S. citizens have almost no rights in custody battles.
"They were out of the country before we even knew they were gone," Shannon said. "I went to the apartment to pick them up. It was like it was ransacked."
Shannon said he knew at that time what had probably happened, but confirmation came a couple weeks later when he got a call from his eldest son.
"I received a call from Adam right after 9/11 and he said: 'I'm not in America anymore. I'm not even in New York,' " Shannon recalled. "He thought New York was a separate country. He was only 4 years old at the time.
"He says, 'When are you and Pop-Pop coming to get me?' And I said, 'As soon as we can.' "
Fast-forward to 2013, and Shannon had still not seen Adam or younger son Jason, who was 10 months old when his mother took him away. Not even in a photograph.
This long separation has lasted despite court rulings that the sons must be returned to their father. Almost immediately after the boys were taken, Shannon learned how powerless his U.S. court orders and his own country would be in Egypt.
"The bottom line is when we took the American orders to Egypt and asked for them to be -- in the lingo of this specialty -- domesticated, we are just laughed at," said Shannon's attorney, Stephen Cullen.
Shannon turned to the U.S. government for help and found that there was little the State Department could do. Egypt, like many Arab and Muslim countries, is difficult to deal with because it hasn't signed on to the Hague Convention regarding international child abduction.
Shannon also discovered that his situation was not unique. According to U.S. Ambassador Susan Jacobs, the State Department's special adviser for children's issues, there are at least 22 American custody disputes in Egypt.
"I'm not going to speak about a specific case, but all of these cases are sad, bad, horrible cases where one of the parents has been deprived of their children for long periods of time," Jacobs said. "Half of the cases are over 12 years old, and the others date from 2012. And those are only the cases we know about."
Exploiting a loophole
Michael Shannon was hesitant to let his children go to New York in 2001.
He had sole custody of Adam after the couple's separation, and Shannon insisted that Khalifa only visit Adam with a third party present -- usually Shannon's father. And while Khalifa had custody of Jason, she could not take him outside the state of Maryland without Shannon's consent.
But Shannon reluctantly agreed to the trip when Khalifa's mother, Asaf, flew in from Cairo and gave Shannon her word that she would watch the boys and return them in four days.
"I said to my father, 'Well, there is no way she can take him to Egypt,' " he recalled. "I have full custody. I have full rights. I have their passports locked in a safe. How could she possibly get them out of the country?"
But there was a loophole. Back then, just one parent could simply call the State Department and report that a child's passport had been lost to get a new one.
That's what Nermeen Khalifa did, and the children had their Egypt Air tickets purchased in New York by a relative.
Thomas Fleckenstein, the state's attorney in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, said the facts show that the boys' grandmother was co-conspirator of an international kidnapping weeks in the making.
"She participated in the planning of the removal of the children from Maryland," Fleckenstein said. "She participated in the story that was told to the father as to where the children would be in New York, when they would be back. The fact that she was visiting was part of the impetus for the father allowing the children to visit and spend time with the grandmother. And she was actively involved in the helping the children travel to Egypt."
Shannon turned to an Egyptian court for help, hiring an Egyptian attorney to help him enforce his U.S. custody rights. The case was filed in 2002 but postponed until 2004. It was then postponed another two years, and nothing has happened since.
Officials from the U.S. State Department told him there was nothing they could do.
"The State Department won't get (photos) because they said the family won't allow it, it's intrusive," Shannon said. "I've asked for welfare-wellness (visits), and the embassy writes letters to the family and the family simply refuses them."