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Terror Indictments
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    Terror Indictments

    After years of worry about her husband: 'They're here'

    [Times photo: Toni L. Sandys]
    Nahla Al-Arian walks to the courthouse with Sharon Streater of HOPE. Daughter Leena is in back.

    By ANITA KUMAR, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published February 21, 2003

    TAMPA -- The knock came at 5:15 a.m.

    "You need to move your car," a voice shouted through the front door.

    But when Nahla Al-Arian looked through the peephole Thursday, she saw four or five men, one in uniform.

    She returned to the bedroom where her husband, Sami Al-Arian, and their 9-year-old daughter were sleeping.

    "They're here," she said.

    After eight years of waiting and wondering, Mrs. Al-Arian knew: The police had come for her husband.

    Within five minutes, the 45-year-old University of South Florida professor was in the custody of the U.S. government, accused of being the leader of Palestinian Islamic Jihad in America.

    "The whole situation is unfair and unjust and I hope we will get our say in court," she said. "What's happening to my husband is unfair. Its destroying my family, affecting my kids."

    Mrs. Al-Arian said she had a feeling something bad was going to happen.

    The panic attacks began Tuesday.

    She kept hyperventilating. "I couldn't stop crying for a couple days. Something scared me."

    By Wednesday, she told her husband she wanted to go to the doctor. He told her to make an appointment the next day.

    But before she could call, the police were pounding on her door.

    "Let me get dressed," she asked.

    She returned to the bedroom to dress and tell her husband. Their three youngest children woke up and emerged from their rooms to see what was wrong.

    Al-Arian went to the bathroom, washed his face, brushed his teeth and changed into a blue shirt and pants.

    The pounding on the door continued. "If you don't open the door, we'll open the door for you," someone said.

    Finally, she opened the door and five law enforcement agents ran through the three-bedroom apartment in Temple Terrace, one brandishing a gun. They found Al-Arian in the hallway outside the bedroom, dressed and ready to go. They asked him to remove his belt.

    The two youngest children -- Ali, 12, and Lama, 9 -- clung to their mother, shaking and crying as they watched the agents take away their father. He wasn't handcuffed, though, until he left the building.

    Al-Arian didn't say a word to his family until he was about to leave. He asked them to cancel a speech on civil rights that night at the University of Florida.

    Leena, 17, said the agents were polite and respectful. One agent had tears in his eyes, she said. Another told the family: "There is a good justice system here. They'll get their day in court."

    The Al-Arians have been in the United States for more than two decades. Mrs. Al-Arian and her five children are U.S. citizens but he was unable to obtain citizenship.

    "Americans are wonderful," Mrs. Al-Arian said. "But there are some who have an agenda."

    After her husband left the apartment, she telephoned her parents in the United Arab Emirates and Al-Arian's brother in Eygpt to break the news.

    "What's wrong?" Al-Arian's brother said when he heard his sister-in-law's voice. "Why are you calling? Is Sami all right?"

    "Unfortunately, something happened," she said.

    At 8 a.m. their oldest daughter, Laila, 21, called from Washington, D.C., where she had heard the news at Georgetown University. Later, Abdullah, 22, the eldest child, called from London where he saw his father arrested on CNN.

    "I just can't believe it. It's a nightmare," Mrs. Al-Arian said repeatedly Thursday.

    Leena drove her younger brother and sister to school. She and her mother spent most of the morning in the apartment with the agents, but not talking to them. Leena brewed coffee and offered them a cup. They declined.

    Agents remained at the apartment the rest of the day, confiscating their cell phones, a computer that had Leena's college paper and boxes of Al-Arian's papers and Islamic writings. Agents told the family they needed to return with an interpreter.

    "Let them take it. Who cares?" Mrs. Al-Arian said. "We have nothing to hide."

    Mrs. Al-Arian, dressed in a blue and white suit, and Leena in a full-length dress, left midday in the family's Toyota Camry for the federal courthouse in downtown Tampa. They picked up a friend on the way.

    At the courthouse, they faced dozens of reporters, photographers pushing and shoving to catch a glimpse of the family. Mrs. Al-Arian stopped in the restroom to pray before heading into the courtroom.

    A prosecutor handed her an envelope with Al-Arian's wedding ring and driver's license. She clutched the envelope when she saw her husband across the room, sobbing and hiding her face.

    Mrs. Al-Arian held Leena's hand and alternated between staring at the judge and her husband. She closed her eyes when she heard that the trial might take up to a year, and began crying when she heard he could face life in prison.

    Before he left the courtroom, Al-Arian turned to look at his wife and daughter. He mouthed the words, "Don't worry," and gave them a thumbs-up.

    Mrs. Al-Arian doesn't know when she will see him again. "I want to tell him I love him," she said. "Sometimes you take your husband for granted. Thank God, he's still alive so I can tell him that."

    She hadn't eaten. She hadn't slept much. Back in the car, she looked in the rearview mirror at her smudged makeup and thought about her husband.

    "We were slaughtered today," she said.

    She headed home, where federal agents were still searching for evidence.

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