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Terror Indictments

Which face of Al-Arian should be believed?

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By HOWARD TROXLER, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 21, 2003

I spent a long time Thursday with a yellow highlighter and Sami Al-Arian's federal indictment. Now it is getting late in the evening, but two feelings keep colliding in my brain, over and over.

The first is anger at Al-Arian, who has regularly labeled any questioning of his activities as anti-Arab bigotry. He made me feel guilty about it.

Unless there was a different guy also named Sami Al-Arian running around for the past 10 years, at the very least he was doing more than teaching computer science and running a few seminars on Islam over at the University of South Florida.

The indictment is detailed. It is precise. It is 121 pages long and lists 253 overt acts. Not all of them, not even very many of them, can be waved away by Al-Arian's claim of "politics," nor his lawyer's breezy assertion that it is all "a work of fiction."

The feds specifically have Al-Arian consulting regularly with Islamic Jihad leaders around the world, raising more than just humanitarian money, and getting reports on the results of the latest murderous deeds sometimes even as the ashes still smoldered.

From his academic post at USF, through faxes and phone calls and express mail (the Jihad preferred DHL), the indictment charges Al-Arian helped control the Islamic Jihad's budget and where it was banked. He helped determine the group's structure and joined in the internal struggles over who held power.

The wills of Mideast suicide bombers were stored on his university computer in Tampa, the feds say. He transferred money from his USF Credit Union account to the Mideast to pay off the families of Palestinian terrorists.

It reads like a classic Mafia indictment. That is not a coincidence. The feds used the racketeering and conspiracy laws that they have used against organized crime.

Sami Al-Arian is accused of being Al Capone's bookkeeper: not a trigger man, but a guy who helped make it all possible.

That's the first feeling.

The colliding feeling, which I cannot shake no matter how hard I try, is that we have only heard the feds talk so far. A criminal charge is never prettier than when it is freshly printed in an unrebutted indictment.

Maybe there was a time when it was enough for the feds to stand up and hold a big dog-and-pony press conference.

But nobody knows better than us in Tampa how little a federal indictment can resemble the actual facts. If I am not being clear enough: The Tampa feds relied on made up transcripts of the tapes in the famous Aisenberg baby-disappearance case. Stood right up there and used made up fiction and got us to publish it in the newspaper. (If the feds want to protest this characterization, I will be happy to republish large sections of Judge Steven Merryday's findings here, which I have been itching to do anyway.)

So just because an indictment says it does not make it true.

Al-Arian might never be convicted.

The lawyers surely will wrangle over how much of Al-Arian's involvement with the Islamic Jihad predates 1995. Only then did it become illegal to lend support to that group and certain individual terrorists.

Secondly, some of the overt acts listed in the indictment are trivial -- the receiving of faxed press releases, for example. It is natural that an Islamic studies institute might get on all kinds of fax lists. Other acts are jury questions. Is it really "support" of terrorism to provide a pension for widows and children?

Third, Thursday's indictment gives no clue about the source of the information. Attorney General John Ashcroft said it was made possible by the new sharing of intelligence information with the FBI. That raises the possibility of a precedent-setting fight over how much of the evidence is admissible.

So the prosecutors have a long road.

Al-Arian has an even longer road, however, in the court of public opinion. That's the big news in Thursday's indictment. For the first time, we have a hard claim that he was hardly the innocent, put-upon college professor that he has played these past few years.

Having been let down by the feds in the past, I am cynical about indictments. Having felt guilty about doubting Al-Arian in the past, now I feel let down.

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