Al-Arian raised money for terrorists, feds say
By GRAHAM BRINK and MARY JACOBY
A 121-page federal indictment paints the controversial University of South Florida professor as the financial brain behind Palestinian Islamic Jihad, an organization responsible for numerous bombings and other terrorist attacks in the Middle East.
"We make no distinction between those who carry out terrorist attacks and those who knowingly finance, manage or supervise terrorist organizations," U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft said at a news conference in Washington on Thursday. "We will bring justice to the full network of terror."
"It's all about politics," Al-Arian, 45, said to reporters on his way in. "It's all about politics."
The indictment names seven other defendants, including a USF graduate student and an office manager from Spring Hill. Collectively, they face 50 criminal counts that include conspiracy to commit racketeering and conspiracy to murder, maim or injure people on foreign soil, including U.S. citizens.
The investigation heated up last year when an appeals court ruled that intelligence officials could share information with criminal investigators. Intelligence agents secretly intercepted dozens of the defendants' telephone conversations and faxes between 1994 and 2002.
The indictment does not accuse Al-Arian of planning or carrying out any attacks by the PIJ. Instead, the allegations focus on his role as PIJ's alleged financial planner and a chief U.S. fundraiser, who at one point wrote the organization's financial reform package.
Much of the indictment deals with the financial workings of the PIJ in the mid 1990s. It depicts an organization struggling with day-to-day issues: power struggles, a dwindling bottom line, bickering over funds and infighting among the leaders.
In February 1994, the PIJ was in severe financial difficulty, according to the indictment. Al-Arian and co-defendant Bashir Musa Mohammed Nafi talked about the PIJ members in England possibly severing ties and instead dealing with Hamas. In an attempt to raise money, Al-Arian said he would issue a memo ordering all PIJ members to surrender all organization assets, according to the indictment.
Al-Arian, who often signed his faxes "The Secretary," said in one conversation that he could arrange for the distribution of money in the occupied territories of Israel, the indictment states. He also discussed the whereabouts of $2-million in missing money, the indictment states.
During one conversation about finances, according to the indictment, Al-Arian became upset and said not to use names and numbers. Another time, co-defendant Ramadan Abdulah Shallah said he was concerned that someone had wiretapped his fax machine.
Al-Arian wired money from U.S. accounts that eventually ended up in the hands of the families of "martyrs" who had carried out terrorist attacks, the indictment alleges.
PIJ members contacted him after attacks and discussed how to raise funds, the indictment says. In one such conversation, according to the government, Al-Arian discussed with another defendant how a "boy" from the PIJ had carried out a bus attack while Hamas, another terrorist organization, provided the car and the bomb.
Al-Arian and the others "did secretly establish cells or sections of the PIJ in different countries, and in the United States utilized the structure, facilities and academic environment of USF to conceal the activities," according to the indictment.
At his news conference at the Department of Justice, Ashcroft called Palestinian Islamic Jihad "one of the most violent terrorist organizations in the world."
He quoted from an Islamic Jihad manifesto seized during the investigation that said the group rejects "any peaceful solution to the Palestinian cause" and calls jihad and martyrdom "the only choice for liberation."
Ashcroft said that PIJ had killed more than 100 people, including two Americans, Shoshana Ben-Ishai and Alisa Flatow.
Flatow was killed April 9, 1995, when a suicide bomber associated with PIJ detonated a bomb beside a bus in the Gaza Strip. The bomb killed eight others.
Shoshana Ben-Ishai, 16, was killed in 2001 when a bus was attacked by a young Palestinian man named Khatem Al-Shewiki.
Al-Arian and the two other local defendants, Sameeh Hammoudeh of Tampa and Hatem Naji Fariz of Spring Hill, made their first appearance in court Thursday afternoon in front of U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark Pizzo.
Hammoudeh, 42, a part-time Arabic instructor and doctoral student at USF, is described in court papers as taking on secret fundraising activities for the PIJ on behalf of Al-Arian, his mentor.
Fariz, 30, a Spring Hill resident with a wife and two children, moved to the area in January 2002 to work in a doctor's office. According to the indictment, Fariz worked as a go-between on the phone with Al-Arian and other members of the organization and helped with fundraising efforts for the PIJ.
In a crowded federal courtroom in downtown Tampa, Al-Arian's wife, Nahla Al-Arian, and their daughter, Leena, squeezed into the front row.
The prosecutors told the judge that a trial in the case could last six months to a year. The defense lawyers requested that their clients be provided with a copy of the Koran and a prayer book. Pizzo set a bail hearing for Tuesday at 9 a.m.
After the hearing, Al-Arian, wearing a wrinkled cotton cardigan, a blue shirt and blue pants, turned to his wife and daughter and gave them the thumbs up sign.
Al-Arian's criminal attorney Nick Matassini called the indictment a "work of fiction."
"We will vigorously fight the charges," Matassini said.
Matassini said Al-Arian has begun a hunger strike -- abstaining from food, water and medication -- to protest his inability to pursue the Palestinian cause "without persecution."
Al-Arian, a Kuwaiti-born computer engineering professor, has been under federal scrutiny since the mid 1990s. At the time, federal agents suspected that the World and Islam Studies Enterprise (WISE), an Islamic think tank he operated at USF, was a front for Middle Eastern terrorists.
Shallah, a former head of the think tank, left Tampa in 1995 and soon resurfaced as the head of the PIJ. Shallah, who does not live in the United States, is also accused in the indictment. He has not been arrested.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Al-Arian made fiery speeches that denounced Israel, including one in which he said: "Victory to Islam. Death to Israel."
Al-Arian repeatedly has said those statements were not a call for anyone to be killed, but to end the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory.
Al-Arian, who applied for U.S. citizenship several years ago, was never charged with a crime.
The controversy heated up again shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, after Al-Arian's alleged ties to terrorists were aired again on the Fox News show The O'Reilly Factor. That created a firestorm for USF, which said it received hate mail and several death threats.
Al-Arian was immediately suspended with pay and banned from campus. In December 2001, after a 12-1 vote for dismissal by USF's board of trustees, Genshaft notified Al-Arian that she intended to fire him. But she has not yet taken that step. Genshaft said Thursday that she would consider the latest developments and make a decision soon.
Al-Arian has always denied any involvement with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. He has called the allegations "ridiculous" and "factually flawed."
Also named as defendants in the indictment were Muhammed Tasir Hassan Al-Khatib and Abd Al Aziz Awda, who is also known as "Sheik Odeh." They live overseas and have not been arrested. Ghassan Zayed Ballut was arrested by FBI agents in a Chicago suburb shortly before 6 a.m. Thursday.
According to the indictment, various defendants talked about their ability to obtain urea, a bomb making ingredient, outside the United States and have it shipped "to a particular destination."
According to the indictment, the defendants often talked in a code, substituting "the family" for PIJ, "the youth" and "the brothers" for operatives and "the club" for Hamas. When referring to exchanges of money, the defendants would talk about "shirts," each shirt being $1,000.
Other times, the indictment states, the defendants helped compensate families of "martyrs" and also kept a copy of their wills.
The indictment included references to Al-Arian's brother-in-law, Mazen Al-Najjar, although he is not mentioned by name. Al-Najjar spent about five years in prison on classified evidence that authorities said linked him to terrorism. He was deported in August and was reunited with his family in an undisclosed Arab country this month.
Al-Najjar is referred to in the indictment as "Unindicted Co-Conspirator Twelve." Al-Najjar was an active member of the PIJ, the indictment states, and in April 1994 he spoke with Al-Arian about altering his Egyptian passport.
"This indictment is the most recent of the department's efforts to choke off terrorist resources and financing," Ashcroft said.
That Ashcroft announced Thursday's indictment in Washington with a full contingent of aides at his side -- including U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Florida Paul Perez -- was a signal of how important the department believes the Al-Arian case to be, an Ashcroft spokesman said.
John Ovink, the lawyer who represented Hammoudeh during the hearing, said he heard Ashcroft's Washington press conference on the radio before the court proceedings.
"It sounded an awful lot like (the three defendants) have already been tried in public," Ovink said. "These gentlemen have been accused. They haven't yet been found guilty."
John Fitzgibbons, a former federal prosecutor, said the operation appeared to involve "a small army of federal agents."
He said the government might have been reluctant to reveal its findings earlier for fear of jeopardizing surveillance techniques and intelligence sources. "I have a feeling there's a little more involved than just bugging a phone call."
"The indictment reads like a Tom Clancy novel," Fitzgibbons said, and added: "It's a new era. Ten years ago, nobody would have even thought of an indictment like this."
-- Times staffers Mary Jacoby, Christopher Goffard, Jeff Testerman, Tamara Lush and John Martin contributed to this report. Graham Brink can be reached at (813) 226-3365 or firstname.lastname@example.org .
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