Is Sami Al-Arian guilty of terrorist plots?

Based on years of wiretaps, John Ashcroft says the embattled South Florida professor was a terror-cell mastermind. Al-Arian calls it "politics."

Published February 21, 2003 8:12PM (EST)

Professor Sami Al-Arian, the Florida academic whose alleged involvement with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad thrust him into the center of a raging controversy, was arrested Thursday, charged with financing and supporting that terrorist group. Attorney General John Ashcroft's Justice Department handed down a sweeping 50-count indictment against Al-Arian and seven other men, charging them with conspiracy to commit murder, giving material support to an outlawed group, extortion, perjury, and other offenses.

An indictment against Al-Arian had been rumored for months, but the one returned this week by a federal grand jury in Tampa was more expansive than most observers had expected. It accuses Al-Arian of masterminding a terrorist support group that thrived in south Florida for nearly 20 years.

Four men were arrested in America yesterday; four more remain at large overseas.

"The individuals named in this indictment play a central role in global terrorism," Ashcroft announced at a noon press conference. "They finance, extol and assist acts of terror."

Al-Arian, a popular pro-Palestinian speaker on the college lecture circuit in recent years, has long denied having any terrorist links. After his arrest, he told reporters, "It's all about politics." Critics question why the indictments come now, when the information they're based on has apparently been in government possession for years.

According to the highly detailed 121-page indictment, mostly based on intercepted phone messages, mail and faxes, the accused figures engaged in such activities as raising money and distributing it to various PIJ operatives, helping Islamic Jihad resolve internal conflicts, communicating claims of responsibility for terrorist actions, sending money to the families of suicide bombers, and making false statements to immigration officials. The government charges that the men were in effect running a terrorist support cell at the University of South Florida, where Al-Arian, a Kuwaiti-born Palestinian who is an American citizen, has taught as a tenured computer science professor for 17 years.

Al-Arian has acknowledged his leadership of and involvement in pro-Palestinian organizations, but denies they were fronts for terrorist groups or activities. The indictment is largely based on declassified security wiretaps spanning more than a decade, including phone calls Al-Arian had with journalists.

On April 13, 1994, for example, Al-Arian allegedly had a telephone conversation with another accused conspirator, Bashir Musa Mohammed Nafi, which covered a wide range of PIJ activities. The two men discussed money that Al-Arian had received, the difficulties in getting PIJ members abroad to meet, and the case of someone who was caught at the border with $30,000. They also discussed a bus bombing in Israel that had occurred the previous week, and how "the boy" who did the bombing was from the PIJ, while the car and bomb were from the terrorist group Hamas. "Sami Al-Arian said he was aware and concerned about the boy's whereabouts and activities the night before the bombing," the indictment says.

On Nov. 11, 1994, according to the indictment, Al-Arian wrote a note to be faxed in which he "announced his pride in the recent attack by the PIJ. He asked that God bless the efforts of the PIJ and urged PIJ members to be cautious and alert."

In recent months, Al-Arian had been engaged in a prolonged battle with the University of South Florida over its attempts to fire him. Following a heated appearance on Fox News just days after 9/11, USF suspended Al-Arian, saying he was a security risk to the campus, and then announced it would try to fire him. Civil libertarians as well as USF's faculty came to Al-Arian's aid in his battle with the administration.

The government's accusations are similar to ones raised almost a decade ago, when Al-Arian ran two Middle Eastern, USF-related think tanks that critics charged he used as fronts for terrorist operations. Eight years ago the FBI raided Al-Arian's office and home, seizing documents, but no charges were ever brought against him. In 1996 the university itself investigated the charges and found no evidence to support the allegation that Al-Arian was involved in, or supported, terrorist activities. And in 2000, a judge addressed the charges and found there was "no evidence" that either of Al-Arian's groups were fronts for militant Palestinian terrorist groups.

Last summer, however, the FBI took the unusual step of publicly confirming the existence of an ongoing inquiry into Al-Arian. Last year a delegation of FBI agents also traveled to Israel to obtain additional intelligence on Al-Arian.

"There was a real debate inside the Department of Justice about his case," says Vince Cannistraro, the CIA's former anti-terrorism chief. "There's been an incredible amount of pressure from Israel to move on it. They've been asking for a long time that we move against Islamic Jihad in the U.S., and that's what pushed Ashcroft to move."

Israel intelligence played a key role in the case against Al-Arian, according to the Israeli daily Haaretz, which reported that "Al-Arian's ties to the militant group had been known to Israel's intelligence services for a number of years and the data was passed on to U.S. authorities in the context of the American investigation." Haaretz also reported that Israel was involved in obtaining Al-Arian's suspension from USF last year.

A complicating factor in the case against Al-Arian is that until 1995, it was not illegal for Americans to raise money for, support, or even be an active member of PIJ. Only after President Clinton signed an executive order in 1995 designating PIJ a terrorist organization did that become a crime. That was codified in the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996. Those convicted of providing "material support or resources" to entities designated "foreign terrorist organizations" faced 10 years in prison. That sentence was recently increased to 15 years under the USA PATRIOT Act, passed in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.

However, if the government can show that Al-Arian was engaged in criminal racketeering and conspiracy to commit murder, the legal status of the PIJ at the time may be irrelevant.

If prosecutors have to prove Al-Arian continued to support PIJ after it became illegal, they will have a more difficult task. "The evidence in the indictment becomes much more sparse after 1995," notes David Cole, a professor of constitutional law at the Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, who defended Al-Arian's brother-in-law, Mazen Al-Najjar, in a recent high-profile case involving terrorist allegations. Al-Najjar was recently deported on immigration charges.

Some of Al-Arian's USF colleagues say they believe there's a political motivation behind the indictment. According to them, the arrest of a "terrorist," in a supercharged environment in which not all Americans can distinguish between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida, let alone Palestinian terrorist groups, serves the purposes of the administration.

"The political climate these days is very inflammatory," notes Mark Klisch, vice president of USF's faculty union. "I think people in the administration are making use of this issue to persuade the American people we are being extremely vigilant in rooting out terrorism and justifying international action with Iraq."

"Knowing Sami personally and knowing his family for quite some time, I'm inclined to think it's another political move," adds Nancy Jane Tyson, the former USF faculty senate president.

"We don't support his politics. Our position is to ensure he's entitled to due process," Klisch says. "We are committed to treating him like any other person who's innocent until proven guilty."

By Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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