Hammoudeh a bright scholar, USF peers sayBy JEFF TESTERMAN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
TAMPA -- Members of the campus community at the University of South Florida knew Sameeh Hammoudeh as a father, part-time Arabic instructor and dedicated doctoral student.
But in a 121-page indictment unsealed Thursday, the U.S. government portrayed Hammoudeh as a member of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, an international terror organization that prosecutors claim is dedicated to destroying Israel.
The Justice Department says Hammoudeh served as the fundraising proxy for Sami Al-Arian, a USF professor prosecutors say is the leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad in the United States.
The government alleges Hammoudeh helped funnel money to Middle East terrorist operatives and used the Islamic Academy of Florida in Tampa as a front for terrorist fundraising.
"I was shocked when I heard the news," said Mark Amen, director of USF's Globalization Research Center and a professor who has known Hammoudeh for years. "He is a scholar. He is someone who is wholly focused on his academics situation."
"He is extremely scholarly, very, very bright, very thorough," said Trevor Purcell, chairman of USF's Department of Africana Studies and a professor who sits on Hammoudeh's doctoral dissertation committee. "He is very gentlemanly and well-mannered."
Asked if Hammoudeh exhibited any of the zeal attributed to terrorist sympathizers, Purcell said, "I have never seen anything in his writings that would set him apart like that."
According to a special USF report on WISE -- the World and Islam Studies Enterprise think-tank founded by Al-Arian -- Hammoudeh, 42, was born and educated in Jordan, then worked at the Arab Studies Society in Jerusalem before coming to the United States in 1992.
He entered the country on a British passport, spoke at an Islamic Concern Project conference and was encouraged by Al-Arian to seek admission to USF. After his wife and family joined him in Tampa, Hammoudeh pursued a master's degree in political science, according to the USF report.
Hammoudeh earned a master's degree, then pursued another in religious studies. He became a teaching assistant in 1995.
Most recently, he was working on a Ph.D in applied anthropology.
Hammoudeh and his family live in a 2,300-square-foot brick home in the Raintree Terrace subdivision in Temple Terrace. The home is valued at $145,147, according to county property records.
At least a half-dozen federal agents were still at the home hours after Hammoudeh's arrest Thursday.
The federal indictments detail a series of phone calls, facsimile letters and cash transactions the government says tie Hammoudeh to international terrorist fundraising.
The court papers say the Palestinian Islamic Jihad was involved in paying compensation to martyrs who committed terrorist acts against Israel. Hammoudeh is described in 1992 as helping "modify a computer file" containing the wills of three "co-conspirators" who had carried out a suicide act on the Isreali border.
The indictments also detail irregularities at the 160-student Islamic Academy of Florida where Al-Arian and Hammoudeh served as directors, suggesting the school was a fundraising front.
Hammoudeh and Al-Arian instructed an academy staffer last year to tell a woman who wanted to donate money to the Palestinian cause to simply write a check to the academy, court papers say.
Sean Hopwood, a senior studying international business at USF, said Hammoudeh never brought up politics in Arabic classes and never expressed any hatred toward Jewish people.
During Ramadan, Hopwood said, Hammoudeh invited the entire class to his house for a traditional meal and a discussion of "peaceful concepts" -- cultures and their differences.
"What I'm hearing now makes me upset," Hopwood said.
-- Researcher John Martin and staff writers Tamara Lush and Babita Persaud contributed to this story.
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