Threats at USF more ugly than deadly
By ANITA KUMAR, Times Staff Writer
TAMPA -- University of South Florida president Judy Genshaft said last fall that she put controversial professor Sami Al-Arian on paid leave to ensure the safety of a campus reeling from a dozen death threats.
Security was one of the major reasons Genshaft gave three months later for wanting to fire Al-Arian.
A review of the phone calls, letters and e-mails to USF that were investigated by university police after Sept. 11 shows most were not specific death threats. A handful did include threats of violence, but most were profanity-laced e-mails spewing anger at Al-Arian and the university for keeping him on its payroll and contained no direct threats of violence. Police classify them as "correspondence of concern."
"I thought I was going to hurl when I saw you on TV," an October letter said. "You are the perfect example of what is wrong with this country. Why don't you go back where you came from & live in a cave with your f-----' good friend Osama."
A St. Petersburg Times review of 454 pages of previously closed police files shows that USF opened 14 cases after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Ten of them have been closed. Three more are expected to be closed in the next few weeks.
Police have not made any arrests. Hillsborough County prosecutors reviewed some cases but determined the correspondence did not violate the law. A March 6 Al-Arian newspaper clipping with the words "This pig, he and his family will be killed if they stay in USA," written on it was turned over to the FBI.
USF maintains that even one threat of violence was enough to ban Al-Arian, a tenured professor who is being investigated for a possible link to terrorism, from the campus.
But the chairman of USF's board of trustees, which voted 12-1 to recommend firing Al-Arian, says that while security is one reason, there were other factors, too.
"The real reason is he's a terrorist," said Dick Beard, chairman of the USF board of trustees. Beard said he wasn't familiar with the details of the police investigations.
Al-Arian has been on paid leave since Sept. 27, the day after he appeared on Fox News Channel's The O'Reilly Factor. Genshaft expects to decide next month whether to fire him.
Al-Arian has denied having any ties to terrorists.
USF spokesman Michael Reich said Genshaft put Al-Arian on leave as a pre-emptive measure.
"For us, one death threat is too many," Reich said. "We're going to err on the side of safety every time and we won't apologize for that . . . Removing him from campus is best way to eliminate the issue."
The university received more than 1,000 letters and e-mails last fall both supporting and criticizing Genshaft's decision to put Al-Arian on leave and, later, her intent to fire him. USF police's three investigators examined hundreds of communications forwarded by concerned employees.
"Say goodbye a------! I am prejudiced against terrorists! Jihad your A--," one e-mail said. "This country has united in the face of this tragedy. I can only pray that steps have been taken to rid this planet, this country and especially, my community of those that support terrorist organizations. Your presence, even your existence is not welcome," another said.
"IT'S A JOKE YOUR'E A PROFESSOR, YOU RAGHEAD!...GO BACK TO STUPID IRAQ OR WHEREEVER THE HELL YOU'RE FROM. WE ALL KNOW YOUR INVOLVEMENT SO IT'S A MATTER OF TIME BEFORE WE WHACK YOU...." a third said.
Brian Jenkins, a terrorism expert at Rand, a think tank, said most of the correspondence shows the anger and outrage some Americans felt after Sept. 11 and was sent to alarm people but not necessarily to warn of violence. Most people who are serious about committing an act of violence won't announce it first, he said.
But Jenkins said an event that prompts so much response might cause other people who aren't writing e-mails to commit a violent act. "If there is an issue that provokes a large number of people to write letter, I worry about the non-letter writers," he said.
Four voice mail or e-mails contain vague threats. That includes a call to the engineering school the day after Al-Arian appeared on TV. Someone called back less than an hour later and apologized, but the school still shut down the building for the day.
Genshaft put Al-Arian on paid leave after that call. "I will maintain this university as a safe learning environment," Genshaft wrote to alumni Sept. 28. "This is why Al-Arian is being removed from our campus. He will be back only when it is determined that it is safe."
Many of the angry e-mails and calls were anonymous and difficult to track. But in two cases, police investigated extensively before deciding to close the case without an arrest.
Genshaft at one point said she would reconsider Al-Arian's ban from campus but then in December she announced her intention to fire Al-Arian after the USF Board of Trustees recommended she do so. But Genshaft delayed making her final decision and now expects to decide before classes begin next month.
Al-Arian, who has been paid about $50,000 from USF while on leave, and his supporters say the police reports show that USF overreacted and that security was just an issue Genshaft and others used to remove him from campus.
"Give me a break. Where are the threats?" said Al-Arian's attorney, Robert McKee. "If it ever existed at all, it's long since dissipated."
Gregory Paveza, president of the USF Faculty Senate, said Al-Arian should be allowed back on campus while the president makes a decision but that a small number of faculty members still think his political views make him a threat.
Genshaft is out of town on vacation and could not be reached for comment. Provost David Stamps, who is the acting president and has helped Genshaft make decisions about Al-Arian, didn't return repeated calls.
University police Sgt. Michael Klingbeil said removing Al-Arian from campus has removed the reason for the threats. But if he were allowed back, USF would have to spend money on new plans to ensure the safety of Al-Arian, employees and the school's 37,000 students. They could include measures such as providing Al-Arian an escort and placing metal detectors in classrooms.
"If the university starts firing professors because it's too expensive to protect them, then the right wing and left wing crazies can get rid of anyone they want to," said Roy Weatherford, president of USF's faculty union. "I don't know any university in the country that has done that, and there are a lot of controversial professors."
The New York Times reported last week that law enforcement officials who have investigated Al-Arian for years say he was a major fundraiser for a terrorist group that funneled money to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
According to previously undisclosed Justice Department documents, investigators have been trying since 1995 to trace at least $650,000 that Al-Arian and associates helped send overseas in the late 1980s and 1990s. They suspect, but have not been able to prove, that some of the money went to the Islamic Jihad, and they have asked Israel to help track the funds, according to the New York Times.
Israeli officials said in recent interviews that they now have evidence that some of the money was sent in 1993 to an account of another man at the Bank Leumi in Tel Aviv. The Israeli officials said the man later transferred $8,000 from that account to the families of four terrorists who were convicted by Israel for their roles in an attack by Islamic Jihad in 1992, the New York Times reported. They said it was not clear if Al-Arian knew how the money was used.
Al-Arian also appeared to have made a trip to Iran in August 1991, the New York Times reported. A copy of a check shows that a year later, his charity received a $4,000 contribution from the Iranian government.
Genshaft has not used the alleged ties to terrorism as a reason for terminating Al-Arian. Instead, she said that he violated his contract by, among other things, disrupting the school and causing various administrators to spend time on this issue, shutting down the engineering school and putting students and employees in jeopardy.
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