© St. Petersburg Times, published August 20, 2002
TAMPA -- A former senior CIA counterterrorism official who has spoken in support of Sami Al-Arian said in a recent court deposition that the controversial University of South Florida professor helped create the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
Vincent Cannistraro, former chief of operations and analysis for the CIA's counterterrorism unit, said Al-Arian was part of a "small group of Islamic intellectuals who created the group."
In an interview with the St. Petersburg Times, Cannistraro also stuck to his previous analysis that Al-Arian no longer has links to the group and did not join in any terrorist activities. Al-Arian played no role in the Sept. 11 attacks and has no ties to al-Qaida, as has been alleged, he said.
The deposition is part of a lawsuit filed by journalist Steve Emerson in 2000 against Tampa Bay's alternative newspaper the Weekly Planet, one of the paper's editors and an Associated Press reporter.
Emerson, the author of the book American Jihad, alleged in the suit that the defendants published false stories that damaged his reputation.
Al-Arian denied he was a founder or member of the Islamic Jihad. He called the allegations "ridiculous" and "factually flawed." In the past, Al-Arian referred reporters researching the allegations against him to Cannistraro as an expert who would back his claims.
"If Vince thinks I founded the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, he is sadly mistaken," Al-Arian said.
The Kuwaiti-born Al-Arian was the focus of a federal investigation in the mid 1990s, when agents suspected an Islamic think tank he operated at USF was a front for terrorists.
In February, federal authorities said Al-Arian remained under investigation but would not elaborate. Al-Arian has never been charged with a crime.
A recent suit against Al-Arian alleges that he raised funds for the Islamic Jihad, was a secret member of al-Qaida's advisory board and his activities contributed to the Sept. 11 attacks.
Cannistraro has said repeatedly that no such connection exists. He has said federal authorities haven't indicted Al-Arian because they lack evidence.
Cannistraro has also spoken out against USF president Judy Genshaft's decision to suspend and possibly fire Al-Arian. A tenured computer science professor, Al-Arian became the focus of death threats after his alleged ties to terrorists were repeated on national television after the Sept. 11 attacks. Genshaft has indicated she will fire Al-Arian possibly as early as this week.
In a letter to Genshaft, Cannistraro called her actions both "a blow to academic freedom and, dare I say it, a cowardly act."
Has Cannistraro had a change of heart on Al-Arian? No, he said.
Cannistraro said he has never told anyone Al-Arian lacked ties to the Islamic Jihad. Cannistraro said that based on his sources he believes Al-Arian was part of that movement in Egypt in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
"He participated in the creation, I think, of an organization that later carried out terrorist activities," he said.
Why not arrest Al-Arian?
For one thing, Cannistraro said he has seen no evidence Al-Arian carried out any terrorist activities. Also, the group wasn't officially listed as a terrorist organization until the mid 1990s, after Al-Arian had moved on.
Cannistraro warned that the debate over Al-Arian has become so "heated and polemic" that the truth is getting lost.
"There are subtleties in the role he played that are getting lost in all the rhetoric from both sides," he said.
Al-Arian said experts know the members of the Muslim Brotherhood who started the Islamic Jihad were in Egypt in the late 1970s and early '80s. He said that he has lived in the United States since 1975. He said he has traveled back to Egypt a few times, but only to see family. Al-Arian said Cannistraro may have read some inaccurate government reports and was "simply repeating what he saw."