Monday, February 17, 2003

Professor Indicted as Terrorist Leader

By John Mintz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 21, 2003; Page A01

The Justice Department yesterday accused a former Florida university professor of conspiracy to commit murder via suicide attacks in Israel and the Palestinian territories, saying he has secretly been a top leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorist organization for years.

In a 50-count indictment unsealed yesterday in Tampa, Sami Al-Arian and seven other people, including three Muslim activists arrested yesterday in this country and several top officials of Islamic Jihad still at large abroad, also were charged with crimes ranging from racketeering to money laundering. Al-Arian was arrested at his suburban Tampa home yesterday.

Among those charged were Ramadan Abdullah Shallah, a close associate of Al-Arian's in Tampa during the 1990s who now heads Palestinian Islamic Jihad from Syria; and Abd Al Aziz Awda, a founder and spiritual leader of Islamic Jihad.

Federal agents have spent a decade developing a case against Al-Arian, who was relieved of his duties as a computer engineering professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa in 2001. His case is one of the longest-running probes into alleged terrorist activities in U.S. history.

Attorney General John D. Ashcroft said at a news conference yesterday that changes in U.S. law under the USA Patriot Act -- anti-terrorism legislation enacted after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks -- allowed authorities to make the criminal case against Al-Arian. That law removed longstanding legal barriers to bringing information gathered in classified national security investigations into criminal courts.

The 120-page indictment relies heavily on dozens of telephone calls and faxes between Al-Arian and other alleged Islamic Jihad officials that were intercepted in investigations secretly approved by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court, officials said.

"The new provisions in the USA Patriot Act proved to be the critical factor in putting together this case," said Matthew Levitt, a former FBI counterterrorism analyst and now a researcher with the private Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "The quality and quantity of the government's evidence shows that Al-Arian was deeply involved in terrorist activity, and that this is not a case of the government silencing an academic it disagrees with, as he has claimed."

Emerging from a preliminary court hearing in federal court in Tampa yesterday, Al-Arian's lawyer, Nicholas Matassini, said, "He's a political prisoner right now as we speak." Matassini added that the indictment is "a work of fiction."

Al-Arian and his many supporters in the Muslim and civil liberties communities have strenuously asserted his innocence for years, saying investigators were carrying out an anti-Islamic agenda that targeted a critic of U.S. policy in Israel.

Al-Arian has consistently denied any substantive tie to Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which was designated a terrorist group by the U.S. government in 1995. Some supporters say his ouster from the University of South Florida violated academic freedoms.

Shallah, interviewed in Damascus yesterday by the Qatar-based satellite television station al-Jazeera, contended that Al-Arian "is not a member of the Islamic Jihad . . . and there is no relation between him and us."

David Cole, a Georgetown University law professor who for years represented Al-Arian's brother-in-law in a case closely related to Al-Arian's, said that while the indictment "contains a tremendous amount of information showing Al-Arian" was involved in Islamic Jihad finances, "he was doing so at a time when it was perfectly legal'' -- before 1995. That was when Congress passed a law prohibiting Americans from fundraising for designated terrorist groups.

"After 1995, the evidence looks rather sparse," Cole said. "It doesn't say Sami Al-Arian directed specific terrorist activities."

Legal experts said the prosecutors' use of the racketeering law allowed them to cite actions Al-Arian and his co-defendants allegedly engaged in well before 1995 -- in this case back to 1984 -- because racketeering cases allow authorities to sweep in any activities related to a core criminal undertaking.

The indictment contends that al-Arian has been one of the leading officials of Islamic Jihad since the 1980s, and has served as secretary of its "Shura Council," or top governing body.

Citing the intercepted phone calls and faxes, as well as documents seized from offices of Al-Arian and his associates in Tampa in a court-authorized search eight years ago, the indictment outlines alleged activities over many years. These include managing Islamic Jihad's worldwide finances, dispatching funds to the terrorist group and relaying messages among its top leaders, according to the indictment.

In some of the conversations and faxes, Al-Arian also allegedly praised a number of Islamic Jihad's suicide bombings, kidnappings, drive-by shootings and other operations.

In November 1994, the same day an explosives-carrying Palestinian youth blew himself up in Gaza -- killing three Israeli soldiers and wounding six members of a Palestinian family -- Al-Arian "asked that God bless the efforts of the PIJ and accept their 'martyrs,' and urged PIJ members to be cautious and alert," the indictment said.

Most of the victims were Israelis. But two U.S. citizens were killed in the Islamic Jihad suicide bombings: Alisa Flatow, 20, and Shoshana Ben-Yishai, 16.

Flatow, then a junior at Brandeis University, died in a 1995 bus bombing in the Gaza Strip. Her father, Stephen Flatow of West Orange, N.J., told the Associated Press yesterday that "this demonstrates the old saw about the wheels of justice -- they grind slow, but they grind exceedingly fine."

Al-Arian and the other defendants also raised and sent money to support the families of Islamic Jihad "martyrs" who committed suicide bombings, the indictment said. Federal officials also charge that the defendants disseminated a number of Islamic Jihad's claims of responsibility for terrorist attacks on Israelis, and raised funds in the United States for "violent jihad."

The indictment also quotes from conversations and faxes during the mid-1990s in which al-Arian tries to settle squabbles among top Islamic Jihad officials over who controlled the group's finances. U.S. officials have said for years that Iran is Islamic Jihad's main financier, and the indictment describes how Iranian officials were upset by Islamic Jihad operatives' apparent failure to account for much of the money.

"The government basically makes the case that Al-Arian was the chief financial officer of PIJ worldwide," said researcher Steven Emerson, who has tracked Al-Arian for a decade.

A written Islamic Jihad "manifesto" seized by federal agents in 1995 from the campus offices of an anti-Israel activist group run by Al-Arian said the group's bedrock principles included "the rejection of any peaceful solution for the Palestinian cause, and the affirmation of the Jihad solution and the martyrdom style as the only choice for liberation," the indictment said.

"The Manifesto further stated that one of the PIJ's specific goals was to create a situation of terror, instability and panic," the indictment continued.

Other documents removed from the offices of two groups run by Al-Arian -- the World and Islam Studies Enterprise, and the Islamic Committee for Palestine -- included the wills of three Islamic Jihad members who died committing a terrorist act, the indictment said. The wills indicated that the men intended to commit a violent suicide act for the Islamic Jihad, it added.

Al-Arian's case has been linked for years with the government's long-running investigation of his brother-in-law, Mazen Al-Najjar, who was jailed for three years on evidence not made available to him or his attorney. Al-Najjar was deported to Lebanon last year.