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A university professor was arrested by federal agents in Tampa early this morning and charged, along with seven others, with operating a criminal racketeering enterprise that provides material support to terrorists.
Sami Al-Arian, a tenured computer engineering professor at the University of South Florida, and two other current and former instructors at the college are accused of setting up a terror cell at USF in a 50-count indictment handed down by a Florida grand jury.
USF Professor Sami Al-Arian arrested for supporting terrorists
Al-Arian founded a religious charity, the Islamic Concern Project, that federal authorities now say has been funneling money and providing organizational support to the international terrorist organization Palestinian Islamic Jihad since 1984.
At a press conference announcing the indictment, Attorney General John Ashcroft said Al-Arian served as the North American point man for the terror group, directing the audit of all of the group’s monies and property throughout the world.
“We make no distinction between those who carry out terrorist attacks and those who knowingly finance, manage or supervise terrorist organizations. We will bring justice to the full network of terror,” said Ashcroft.
Before dawn this morning, Federal Bureau of Investigation agents raided Al-Arian’s home and took him into custody. Three other alleged members of the Islamic Jihad were arrested in Florida and Chicago:
- Sameeh Hammoudeh, 42, born in the West Bank, now a resident of Temple Terrace, Fla. He is also an instructor at USF and an administrator at the Islamic Academy of Florida.
- Hatim Naji Fariz, 30, born in Puerto Rico and now living in Spring Hill, Fla. He is a manager at a medical clinic.
- Ghassan Zayed Ballut, 41, a West Bank native now living in Tinley Park, Ill., and owner of a small business.
Ashcroft said searches were under way at six sites in Tampa and one in the Chicago area.
The four other men named in the indictment who remain at large live abroad – in Britain, Syria, Lebanon and the Gaza Strip.
Among those four is Ramadan Abdullah Shallah, the former executive director of Al-Arian’s charity who is also a former instructor at USF. Shallah recently became the head of the worldwide Islamic Jihad. Shallah lives in Damascus, Syria.
Also named is Abd Al Aziz Awda, the terror group’s founder and former spiritual leader. Awda was born in Israel and is now the leader of the Al-Kassam Mosque in the Gaza Strip.
The State Department has designated the Palestinian Islamic Jihad as an international terrorist organization and named Shallah and Awda as designated terrorists.
Bashir Musa Mohammed Nafi, 50, is described in the indictment as the United Kingdom leader of the group. Nafi, who is originally from Egypt, now lives in Oxfordshire, England.
The indictment describes Mohammed Tasir Hassan al-Khatib, 46, as the treasurer of the group. Al-Khatib is originally from the Gaza Strip and now lives in Beirut.
In addition to criminal racketeering, the eight are charged with conspiracy to kill and maim people abroad; conspiracy to provide material support to the terrorist group; extortion; perjury; mail and wire fraud; obstruction of justice; and attempting to procure citizenship or naturalization unlawfully to help terrorists.
If convicted, the men could face life in prison.
Palestinian Islamic Jihad
“Palestinian Islamic Jihad is one of the most violent terrorist organizations in the world,” Ashcroft said.
The indictment describes a document discovered in the course of the investigation, in which the group declares it “rejects any peaceful solution to the Palestinian cause” and affirms the “jihad solution” and the “martyrdom style” as the only choice for liberation. “Martyrdom” is code for suicide bombings.
This manifesto also refers to the United States as the “Great Satan America” and indicates that the only purpose for the Islamic Jihad is to destroy Israel and end all Western influence in the region.
The indictment sites specific car bombings, suicide bombings and drive-by shootings carried out by the Islamic Jihad dating back to 1994, in which more than 100 people were killed.
The most recent attack was a Jun. 5, 2002, suicide bombing in Haifa, Israel, that killed 20 and injured 50.
The indictment also describes other Islamic Jihad-assisted terrorist attacks and outlines what the eight named did in the U.S. to both organize and fund Islamic Jihad.
Ashcroft said the terrorist activities of these men were detailed in part in now-declassified national security wiretaps.
‘It’s all politics’
Long under suspicion, Al-Arian has consistently denied supporting terrorist groups and blames the media for fueling post-Sept. 11 anti-Muslim rhetoric. He maintains he was unaware of Shallah’s connection to terrorists.
“It’s all about politics,” he told reporters camped outside FBI headquarters in Tampa where he was led in handcuffs.
Al-Arian’s criminal attorney, Nicholas Matassini, had no comment on the arrest.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR, issued a statement expressing “deep concern” over Al-Arian’s arrest.
“We are very concerned that the government would bring charges after investigating an individual for many years without offering any evidence of criminal activity,” stated CAIR Board Chairman Omar Ahmad.
“This action could leave the impression that Al-Arian’s arrest is based on political considerations, not legitimate national security concerns,” he said
The Muslim American Society, or MAS, also questioned the timing of Al-Arian’s arrest and the Justice Department’s motives.
“The arrest of Prof. Sami Al-Arian today conforms to a pattern of political intimidation by an attorney general who
seems to be targeting the American Muslim community’s leaders and institutions in a drive to erode Americans’
civil liberties,” a MAS statement reads.
“Both the timing of the arrest and government officials’ statements at today’s press conference seem to indicate that today’s action was based not on legitimate law enforcement
considerations, but was rather an attempt to stimulate public fear of ‘terrorists among us’ and support for the Justice Department’s ominous proposed Domestic Security
Enhancement Act of 2003,” the statement concluded.
Al-Arian, a Kuwaiti-born Palestinian came to the United States as a college student in 1975.
In conjunction with his brother-in-law, Mazen al-Najjar, he founded the World and Islam Studies Enterprises, or WISE, a now-defunct Islamic think tank at USF.
Federal agents raided the think tank, the charity and Al-Arian’s home and office at USF in 1995. They seized tapes from the late 1980s and early 1990s in which Al-Arian proclaims “Death to Israel” and “Let us damn America,” in Arabic.
Al-Najjar was arrested in November 2001 on suspicion of ties to terrorists and was deported last August.
Amid the federal investigation into his suspected association with terrorist organizations, USF suspended Al-Arian with pay in December 2001 and banned him from the campus.
The university maintains the investigation and the publicity hurt the school’s fund-raising efforts and threats raised security concerns.
A call to USF for comment on today’s arrest was not immediately returned.
USF subsequently sued for the right to terminate Al-Arian, claiming it can prove that he has maintained ties to terrorists for 14 years that have seriously damaged USF.
“After all I have seen and heard, I believe that Dr. Al-Arian has abused his position at the university and is using academic freedom as a shield to cover improper activities,” USF President Judy Genshaft said in announcing the lawsuit last August.
In the lawsuit, USF accuses Al-Arian of raising money for terrorist groups, bringing terrorists into the United States and founding organizations that supported terrorism.
As WorldNetDaily reported,the allegations mirror those of former federal prosecutor John Loftus, who filed a lawsuit against Al-Arian under the Florida Consumer Protection Act, claiming Al-Arian used state-regulated charities to launder money from the Saudi government which he then funneled to al-Qaida, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
Loftus said the goal of the Saudi government was the destruction of the State of Israel and the prevention of the formation of an independent Palestinian State, which he said is feared to be a destabilizing example of freedom that would threaten Arab dictators everywhere.
Loftus said the purpose of the civil suit was to expose a “tax-deductible terrorism” cover-up.
His complaint cites specific testimony and highly classified documents and information from several confidential clients.
According to Loftus, federal agents in Tampa have known about the Saudi-Sami Al Arian connection since 1990, but were ordered by the State Department and
the White House to drop their investigation in 1995.
“The Saudi relationship is so sensitive that, for more than a decade, federal prosecutors and counter-terrorist agents have been ordered to shut down their investigations for foreign policy reasons … to avoid embarrassing the Saudis,” Loftus maintains.
“Only after Sept. 11, when the Treasury Department found the financial transactions linking the Saudi charities directly to Osama bin Laden, did American officials realize the extent of their betrayal,” Loftus asserts.
Still, former President George Herbert Walker Bush continued to defend Saudi Arabia last November, claiming it had become the target of a media campaign conducted by large U.S. newspapers, according to Independent Media Review and Analysis.
“Since Sept. 11, I have felt there is a concerted effort in at least one of our great newspapers and in some political quarters to make an enemy out of Saudi Arabia,” Bush said in a speech delivered at the Arab American Cultural and Community Center in Houston, Texas. “Saudi Arabia is not our enemy. They have been our friend for many years. And so have the other Gulf countries, and Egypt and Jordan, too,” he said.
WorldNetDaily has reported, the Saudis also feel “maligned” by the press and others since Sept. 11 and mounted a PR offensive to counter accusations it finances terrorists.
“Saudi Arabia and the United States have been the two countries that have worked the closest in the war on terrorism, with all due respect to naysayers,” Adel Al-Jubeir, foreign policy adviser to Crown Prince Abdullah said at a press conference in December.
“We have been vigilant in trying to choke off the financing for terrorists and those who engage in terrorism, because we believe that the most important part in the international effort against terrorism is to choke them of their financing and to handicap their abilities to do damage to innocent people,” said Al-Jubeir.
Loftus contends the cover-up continues despite the arrests and points out the indictment mentions funding from Iran but not from Saudi Arabia.
“Ashcroft conveniently omitted that fact, which proves my thesis,” Loftus told WorldNetDaily. “It’s clear from numerous sources that Al-Arian got the majority of his money from Saudi charities.”
Meanwhile, the criminal case is a big boon to Loftus’ civil suit.
“Al-Arian’s criminal attorney has said he would plead the Fifth. That works in the criminal case, but it won’t work in my civil case,” Loftus said, “I could win any time I want, but the smart thing to do is to sit back and see what the prosecutors have under the rules of discovery.”
“I feel vindicated,” he added. “When I filed my suit, everyone would say ‘How could this mild mannered man be linked to a murderous terrorist operation?’ And today federal authorities are saying he’s No. 2 in the world in Islamic Jihad. … And his co-professor Shallah is No. 1.”
When asked what took so long to arrest Al-Arian and the other suspected members of the Florida terror cell, Ashcroft responded that the USA PATRIOT Act, passed in October of 2001, enabled today’s arrest because it allows information to be shared between intelligence and law-enforcement officials.