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Local ties to Islamic school are intricate

Four members of the board of the Islamic Academy of Florida are from Hernando County.

By ROBERT KING, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 16, 2003


The Islamic Academy of Florida, recently described in a federal indictment as a base of operations for a local terrorist cell, is in Hillsborough County. But its ties to Hernando County are strong -- stronger than geography alone would suggest.

Four of the 10 people who sit on the Islamic Academy's board of trustees are from Hernando.

The school is owned by the North American Islamic Trust, the same Saudi-backed organization that owns Hernando County's lone mosque.

And the trust's president, Dr. Bassam Osman, is the brother of Dr. Ayman Osman, a Hernando County physician and Islamic Academy board member.

Founded in 1992 by University of South Florida professor Sami Al-Arian, the Islamic Academy lists its mission as encouraging the religious, academic and social growth of its students.

Yet in the federal indictment unsealed last month, the Islamic Academy earned seven mentions in relation to Al-Arian and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, an organization the U.S. government says is committed to the use of violence to thwart the Middle East peace process.

Already, the terrorism indictments had hit close to home for Hernando County.

One of the eight men indicted was Hatem Fariz, who moved to Spring Hill from Chicago last year. Alleged to be one of Al-Arian's "co-conspirators," Fariz was the practice manager for Dr. Ayman Osman, whose two Hernando offices have been searched by the FBI.

The indictments also raise questions about the Islamic Academy, a school clearly with more than casual ties to Hernando County.

The people in a position to best answer those questions -- local parents and board members -- have adopted a code of silence.

What little has been said came two weeks ago when the Times had a brief interview with Dr. Samir Shakfeh and his wife, Samar, the Islamic Academy's Parent Teacher Association president. They described the academy as a drug-free, violence-free school with a strong academic mission.

Mrs. Shakfeh, who also is a member of Islamic Academy's board of trustees, said she had served on the budget committee and felt certain that money donated to the school had not been diverted. She also expressed certainty that the school's arrested officers would eventually be cleared.

Yet, Mrs. Shakfeh has declined to answer follow-up questions. Other academy board members from Hernando County -- Dr. Allam Reheem, Nuha Armashi and Osman -- have not responded to phone messages, faxes and hand-delivered letters from the Times. The same is true of the school's principal and board chairman.

The indictment alleges that the Islamic Academy was, effectively, a base of support for the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a group said to be responsible for the murders of more than 100 people in Israel and its occupied territories.

It says the academy's offices were used to communicate with Islamic Jihad operatives. And it says a woman seeking to support the Palestinian cause was told simply to write a check to the academy.

Along with Al-Arian, the indictment prompted the arrest of the Islamic Academy's treasurer, Sameeh Hammoudeh, and a raid of the school's offices by federal agents, who carted out more than a dozen boxes of materials.

Key questions remain.

Was the Islamic Academy a front for an operation to raise money for terrorism? Have donations that were intended for academic purposes been diverted to terrorists? And what kind of oversight did board members provide to safeguard their school from subterfuge?

Norman Gross thinks such questions deserve answers.

As chairman of the Anti-Hate Committee for the Greater Florida B'nai B'rith, an international Jewish organization, Gross has long been concerned about Al-Arian's association with groups involved in terrorism against Israel.

Now, Gross said, board members at the Islamic Academy should be talking about what has been going on within their school. "Where does the money go? There doesn't seem to be any real accountability," Gross said.

After numerous tries to gain comment from Islamic Academy representatives, the Times was contacted by a Tampa representative of the Council on American-Islamic Relations and asked to stop harassing people affiliated with the school.

Council spokesman Ahmed Bedier said the allegations in the indictment are levied against individuals, not the Islamic Academy itself. He notes that the University of South Florida received similar mentions.

"It's basically saying that -- wherever those people worked or lived -- those are places that might have been fronts to do those things," Bedier said. "It's not necessarily the type of organization it was -- an Islamic school. It could have happened everywhere else."

The school's Web site says there are 313 students enrolled at the Islamic Academy this year. Despite Hernando's substantial representation on the board, the Shakfehs said only six or seven children from Hernando County attend the academy.

The holders of the title to the school property, the North American Islamic Trust, also holds title to the mosque at 130th Ave. E in Temple Terrace and the Hernando mosque at 6307 Barclay Avenue in Spring Hill.

The trust owns about 27 percent of the 1,200 mosques in the United States. Its president, Dr. Bassam Osman, did not return calls. Nor did Dr. Husam Shuayb, whom local property records list as the local contact for the North American Islamic Trust.

Shuayb's son, local dentist Mohammad Shuayb, flatly rejected an e-mail request from the Times for an interview.

"There is nothing to talk about," he said. "The continuous assault on Islam by the media is unprecedented. We have no trust in the media. No news at this point is the best news. We have no 'need' to talk about anything."

-- Times researchers Cathy Wos and Caryn Baird contributed to this report, which includes information from Times files. Robert King covers Spring Hill and can be reached at 848-1432. Send e-mail to rking@sptimes.com .

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