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A controversial professor who was arrested by federal agents in Tampa, Fla., yesterday had sufficient political connections to be invited to the White House in late May or early June 2001, three months before the al-Qaida attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and to have a photograph taken with President George W. Bush, Insight has learned.
USF Professor Sami Al-Arian
The professor, Sami Amin Al-Arian, was suspended from the University of South Florida, or USF, following the Sept. 11 carnage because of alleged ties to Palestinian terrorists. He reportedly had been under investigation by federal agents in the summer of 2001 when he was cleared by White House staff and the Secret Service to enter the presidential complex.
Just weeks later, Al-Arian’s son, who then worked for former Rep. David Bonier, D-Mich., was dragged by Secret Service agents from a White House meeting on June 28 because of security concerns. The incident caused a flap for Bush, and his aides later apologized to appease Muslim critics.
A Palestinian born in Kuwait, the USF professor arrested in Tampa was taken into custody by the FBI along with three others following their indictment by a federal grand jury on 50 counts of terrorist-related charges involving 14 years of alleged activities on behalf of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, or PIJ, an officially cited terrorist organization. The PIJ has claimed responsibility for numerous suicide murders in Israel, including killings of American citizens.
The “meet and greet” session at the White House with Bush in late May or early June 2001 was not the first time Al-Arian had managed to get close to the president. During the 2000 election campaign, the USF professor and alleged U.S. money man for terrorists attended a Bush fund-raiser in Florida where he was photographed with the presidential candidate despite Secret Service protection for the GOP contender.
“Look, Sami Al-Arian was based in Tampa and probably paid money, like anybody else, to attend a fund-raiser,” Khaled Saffuri of the Islamic Institute in Washington tells Insight. “If he did something wrong, he’ll get his punishment.”
The Justice Department alleges that the elder Al-Arian has been the chief fund-raiser and organizer for the PIJ in the United States since 1988, and used his position at the University of South Florida to gain visas to enter the United States for members of the terrorist organization. James Jarboe, FBI special agent in charge of the Tampa field office, told reporters yesterday that the “arrests underscore the vigilance of the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force [JTTF] to dismantle and disrupt those who support terrorism.” The arrests “also reflect the continued cooperation among the FBI and other federal, state and local law-enforcement agencies as they work together in the JTTF,” he added.
One of Al-Arian’s colleagues at the University of South Florida, Ramadan Abdullah Shallah, left the U.S. precipitously, according to the indictment, after the head of the PIJ was assassinated by an alleged Israeli hit squad in 1996. Shallah surfaced several days later in Damascus, Syria, to become the new secretary general of the terror group. Shallah was among those indicted along with Al-Arian.
The indictment, unsealed at a news conference by Attorney General John Ashcroft, alleges that Al-Arian and his co-conspirators continued to raise funds and organize support networks for the terrorist attacks of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad even after Sept. 11.
The PIJ killings continued. On Nov. 4, 2001, two American citizens, Shoshana Ben-Yishai,16, and Shlomo Kaye, 15, were among the victims of a PIJ shooting attack on a bus in the French Hill area of Jerusalem, say the indictment documents. Again on June 5, 2002, the indictment documents allege, Al-Arian’s co-conspirators “murdered 17 people and wounded approximately 45 in a suicide car bombing of a bus in the vicinity of Megiddo Junction near Afula, Israel.”
Al-Arian worked closely with the American Muslim Council, the Council on American-Islamic Relations and other groups with close ties to the government of Saudi Arabia, home to a majority of the suicide murderers alleged to be responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, skyjackings that killed thousands in New York City, at the Pentagon and in a field in Pennsylvania.
Al-Arian also worked closely, according to Insight sources, with top Republican lobbyist Grover Norquist, the founding chairman of the Washington-based Islamic Institute.
On April 5, 2001, the national Coalition to Protect Political Freedom, a far-left group headed by Al-Arian, gave Norquist an award for his work in opposing the use of secret evidence. Norquist told Insight last year that he was “proud” of the award, even though the Coalition was affiliated with the National Lawyer’s Guild, a former Soviet-era front organization.
The Islamic Institute’s current president, Khaled Saffuri, tells Insight that he “never, ever, helped Sami Al-Arian get into the White House,” nor did his friend and business associate Norquist. “Grover didn’t know anything about [such] meetings. We learned about them like everyone else.”
An associate of Norquist who requested anonymity told Insight he was aware of Al-Arian’s problems with the FBI and had even warned the White House about inviting him. “When I saw his name on the invitation list, I told the White House it was going to cause a problem,” he told Insight. “The White House has to stand up for their decision. We [Norquist and his groups] had nothing to do with it.”
Al-Arian is notorious for his radical anti-American and anti-Semitic statements, leaving several high-level officials in the Bush administration wondering how he could have been cleared by federal law-enforcement officers to enter the White House. All such guests are screened by the Secret Service in conjunction with other federal agencies for any outstanding criminal warrants, investigations or illegal activities. They may, however, be cleared “on higher authority.”
His record, however, should have been a red light to anyone. In 1998, as a guest speaker before the convention of the American Muslim Council, Al-Arian spoke of Jews as “monkeys and pigs,” adding: “Muhammad is leader. The Quran is our constitution. Jihad is our path. Victory to Islam. Death to Israel. Revolution! Revolution! Until victory! Rolling, rolling to Jerusalem!” That speech, according to Insight sources, is part of a large dossier compiled on Al-Arian by federal agents who have had him under surveillance for many years because of suspected ties to terrorist organizations. In a videotape obtained by the FBI, Insight sources reveal, Al-Arian appeared at a fund-raising event for a “mainstream” U.S. Muslim organization where he “begged for $500 to kill a Jew.”
The 150-page indictment released by the Justice Department describes dozens of murders by PIJ terrorists. Al-Arian is alleged in the indictment to have raised money for many of these attacks, wiring money to terrorist cells using accounts in Israel and in the West Bank.
Al-Arian has repeatedly denied he is affiliated with any terrorist organizations, particularly after his suspension at the school following an appearance on the Bill O’Reilly show on Fox New Channel, “The O’Reilly Factor.” He also has denied knowing that Shallah and other alleged terrorists with whom he worked were connected to terrorist groups. He has said he only is interested in the free exchange of ideas among intellectuals. “It’s all about politics,” Al-Arian told reporters as he was led away by FBI agents in Tampa.
A number of American Muslim groups, including CAIR, issued statements following the arrests and news conferences, ignoring specifics of the alleged crimes but claiming Muslims were being singled out unfairly by federal law enforcement during heightened tensions involving the Middle East and a possible war with Iraq.
“We are very concerned that the government would bring charges after investigating an individual for many years without offering any evidence of criminal activity,” said Omar Ahmad, the chairman of CAIR, in a statement e-mailed to news organizations.
“This action could leave the impression that Al-Arian’s arrest is based on political considerations, not legitimate national-security concerns,” Ahmad said, echoing sentiments by other Muslim groups, including the Muslim American Society, which claimed in a statement that the arrest of Al-Arian “conforms to a pattern of political intimidation” by the federal government.
The University of South Florida filed a lawsuit late last summer seeking to terminate Al-Arian following his suspension the year before, based on the belief of the USF administration that the suspended professor had abused his position at the university to “cover improper activities.” The university accused Al-Arian of raising funds for terrorist groups and bringing terrorists into the United States under academic cover. USF also has accused Al-Arian of supporting groups that have terrorist ties.
Al-Arian is accused with fellow co-defendants of “concealing their association with the PIJ [while seeking] to obtain support from influential individuals in the United States and under the guise of protecting Arab rights.”
White House officials had no immediate comment concerning how Al-Arian gained access to Bush on at least two occasions despite known security concerns.
Kenneth R. Timmerman is a senior writer for Insight.