During the 30 years he lived in America, Professor Sami al-Arian, 47, carefully camouflaged his role as power-broker of the deadly, fanatical Palestinian Jihad Islami, which is still striking down victims today. He posed as a campaigner on behalf of “the Palestinian cause,” and built apparently innocent dual-use organizations that fitted neatly into the American pluralistic tradition.
He climbed up the academic ladder on the rungs of mainstream forums.
The 53-count indictment filed against al-Arian before a federal court in Tampa, Florida this week accuses him of raising funds for the terror-listed Palestinian Jihad Islami.
The group is held responsible for more than 100 deaths in Middle East, including three American citizens and wounding nearly 300, including at least five Americans.
The attacks between May 1989 and November 2002 included nine bombings, four shootings and two stabbings. One Jihad Islami attacker commandeered a packed Israeli bus and sent it tumbling into a 400-foot ravine.
His co-defendants Sameeh Hammoudeh, Hatim Naji Fariz and Ghassan Zayed Ballut, are charged with helping to organize and finance the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, one of the most violent terrorist organizations in the Middle East. Prosecutors say they served as communications for the group, spreading the word and raising money to fuel the cycle of suicide bombings.
Five of the accused are at large or missing. One, Dr. Basheer Musa Mohammed Nafi, 50, a British academic at Oxford, stands accused of being the British head of the terrorist organization.
Al-Arian and his co-defendants are not charged directly with committing violent acts, but there is evidence he planned them or knew about them in advance.
Data obtained from DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter terror sources indicate that professor al-Arian was much more than a fund-raiser for a deadly terrorist organization; he was in fact its kingmaker and American godfather.
Terrorists Hiding as Academics
In 1988, Islamic Jihad and similar organizations began moving some of their senior members abroad. It was then that Professor al-Arian, by then well established at Florida University, founded the Islamic Committee for Palestine, taking charge of the migrant terrorist leaders and shepherding them through the academic world.
Ramadan Abdullah Shalah was his star protege, selected by him as the next Jihad Islami leader. Although he sponsored his US visa application and hired him as administrator for WISE, al-Arian denied knowledge of his protege’s ties to Jihad Islami. One of the tapes used in evidence against the professor depicts him as telling a WISE conference four years later in 1992 that the Islamic Jihad founder Shikaki could not be present because he was denied a US visa.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s terrorism experts, the Islamic Jihad leadership (estimated at 600-700) is exemplified by its posture as an elite that rules the roughly 3-4,000 rank-and-file activists, some of whom are jihadists, from a lofty intellectual height.
It was the popular professor in Miami who selected Jihad Islami leaders and arranged for their high-class grooming under American academic auspices over periods of years.
To host them, he created a respectable school, the Islamic Academy of Florida in Tampa for students from kindergarten through 12th grade, and a think tank, the World and Islam Studies Enterprise – WISE.
The school was the cover for the employment of terrorists, including co-defendant Hamoudeh who was appointed teacher and assistant principal. The think tank invited terrorists to America for conferences, symposia and similar events and retained the future head of the group as its administrator.
Both institutions provided Jihad Islami leaders with a snug American niche in an academic environment before they were launched as master-killers.
The charges laid against professor al-Arian in the Tampa court this week contrast starkly with the computer professor’s carefully-tended public image as an advocate of civil liberties and champion of Palestinian causes, intent on promoting understanding between cultures. He was welcomed in the halls of Congress, briefed at the White House and took credit for swinging enough votes in Florida to tip the balance in Bush’s favor in the 2000 election.
In March 2000, Al Arian and his family were photographed with Texas Governor George W. Bush during a campaign stop at the Florida Strawberry Festival in Plant City. His supporters said he worked tirelessly to make Muslims count in the 2000 election.
In June 2001, he was part of a group of Muslim leaders invited to a briefing in a building adjacent to the White House by presidential adviser Karl Rove on the administration’s faith-based agenda.
The Kuwait-born Palestinian professor’s history in America is a classical tale of a double life contrived by a terror master, whose deep cover was built over decades as meticulously as any Cold War mole.
Jihad Islami’s longstanding ties with Tehran
In the 1970s, Dr. Fathi Shikaki, founded the Palestinian Jihad Islami after rejecting the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s basic precepts. What he found missing was the fundamentalist Islamic ingredient in Palestinian mainstream movements and the Palestinian ingredient in radical Islamist groups.
His new organization combined both plus a third element: jihad as method of operation.
From its earliest days, the Jihad Islami was sponsored by the Iranian department for the “export of revolution” (terrorist groups) with funding, training and arms.
Shikaki visited Tehran and met Khomeini six months before his death in June 1989. He later returned to Tehran four or five times, also attending a conference of Islamic terrorist leaders at which the hosts pledged millions of dollars for the Palestinian “resistance.” DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terror sources report that these ties have been sustained and expanded up until the present. Like most Palestinian terror groups, Jihad maintains operational ties with Hizballah. Our sources have traced the Palestinian jihadists contacts with Eritrea’s Islamic Jihad and with the military wing of Iraqi Shiite prime minister Ibrahim Jaafari’s Dawa party.
In October, 1995 Shikaki, who had shaved off his beard and wore a wig, was nonetheless assassinated in Malta. Iranian intelligence sources accused Israel’s Mossad of the slaying.Two killers fired 5 shots and escaped on a motor bike. The terrorist leader, whose Damascus-based organization had by then been responsible for dozens of Israeli murders in terrorist attacks, had just come from a clandestine meeting in Libya with a senior Iranian official.
His successor was ready to step into his shoes; Ramadan Abdullah Shalah had moved to Syria, turning his back on America and the comfortable employment arranged for him by the superbly-connected Professor al-Arian.
Today, Shalah is one of the five defendants still at large and wanted for trial in Tampa.
The professor’s protege takes over
The New York Times disclosure of Shalah’s appointment stunned his former American university colleagues.
As a University of South Florida professor with a Ph.D in economics, Shalah had been invited by the University of Georgia earlier in 1995 to join a panel on Islamic Society at a conference on Islam and the West. They knew him only as Ramadan Abdullah, a Palestinian exile who had lived in the United States from 1990. Suddenly they learned that the professor in their midst headed an organization proscribed by the US government as a specially designated terrorist entity whose assets were frozen.
Professor Carrie Rosefsky Wickham, who recommended Shalah to the UGA organizers, said later: “I felt deceived at some level. He did not hide his very critical American policy perspectives in the region, or what he viewed as Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian land. I guess I had just failed to understand someone could be a serious intellectual counterpart and condone terrorist acts on civilians.”
He used the UGA conference platform not only to attack Western “secularism” but to defend another Palestinian extremist ally, Hamas.
Perhaps his erstwhile colleagues should not have been surprised. Three years earlier, in 1992, his employer, the Florida-based Palestinian think tank, the World and Islam Studies Enterprise, WISE, founded by al Arian, sponsored a conference whose invited guests included Omar Abdel-Rahman, the blind sheik affiliated with al Qaeda who was later sentenced to life prison in 1996 for conspiring in the 1993 World Trade center bombing attack.
At the time, WISE was tied contractually to Tampa’s University of South Florida. It enjoyed a good run until a St. Petersburg, Fla. paper raised allegations about its ties to terrorist groups.
Raided by the FBI in 1995, WISE has since been shut down. It was the subject of a long-running investigation centering on suspicions that this “on-campus think tank” served al-Arian to funnel money to the Islamic Jihad and Hamas.
The prosecution traces Samir al-Arian’s involvement in Islamic Jihad to the 1980s. In 1986 he moved to Tampa to teach computer science at University of South Florida.
In May 1993 he addressed a symposium on Challenges to Security in Southwest Asia hosted by the US Central Command on Davis Islands. He was on a panel with respected Islamic scholars, whose theme was Political Islam and its Impact on the Region.
Gulf War I commander Gen. Norman Schwartzkopf was in the audience.
Later in 1993, US intelligence began recording the Palestinian professor’s conversations and intercepting his faxes, collecting records for the court indictment.
The most recent tape is dated June 5, 2002, after Jihad Islami claimed responsibility for a bomb attack that killed 17 people, including 13 soldiers, and wounding 45. A 16-year old boy had driven a car packed with explosives into a commuter bus at Megiddo junction near Afula, Israel.
Al-Arian talked on the phone to co-defendant Fariz that day. Both laughed over the bombing.
A day later, President Clinton issued an executive order designating the Palestinian Islamic Jihad a terrorist organization and barring Americans from having financial transactions with it.
Al Arian was taped two weeks later on the phone calling the presidential decree propaganda and nonsense.
Declared “the highest-ranking terrorist leader within the United States of American not yet imprisoned,” the professor was finally exposed publicly on the Fox News program “The O’Reilly Factor in 2001. He was questioned about the WISE think tank and a 1991 speech in Chicago in which he said: “Jihad is our path. Victory to Islam. Death to Israel.”
He was asked about tapes from the late 1980s and early 1990s in which he said “Death to Israel” in Arabic.
Television reports also said that a charity set up by al-Arian and his brother-in-law Mazen al-Nijjar had sponsored Islamic conferences at which speakers shouted anti-Israeli slogans and paid tribute to Islamic suicide killers. The charity established in 1988 was believed by the FBI to have sent tens of thousands of dollars overseas.
Two days after the Fox broadcast, USF put him on paid leave for the second time, accusing him of raising money for terrorist groups, bringing terrorists into the US and founding organizations that supported terrorism.
At his trial this week, the FBI produced boxes of documents, tapes and other evidence found in the 1995 raids of his home, offices and the WISE premises to support their case.