The real Al-Arian

In the plea deal signed by Sami Al-Arian, the former USF professor is revealed as a moral and academic fraud who helped jihadists and then lied about it.

A Times Editorial
Published April 19, 2006

The plea agreement that will banish Sami Al-Arian from American soil bears little resemblance to the 51-count indictment the U.S. government originally brought against four accused terrorists. But whether or not Al-Arian was "the most powerful man in the world" of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, as federal prosecutor Walter Furr once thundered, he was at the least an academic and moral fraud.

Al-Arian, a former computer science professor at the University of South Florida, took refuge in a world of academic freedom and umbrage at those who questioned his victimhood. "Recent charges by USF," he wrote in 2002, "are clearly politically motivated attacks on freedom of speech. . . . This fight for academic freedom, free speech and preservation of tenure is indeed a worthy struggle."

Al-Arian now has signed his name to a plea document that renders his high-minded arguments as self-serving drivel.

He admits to secretly helping jihadists and lying about it. He admits his "think tank," at USF, called World and Islamic Studies Enterprise, received and sent money to known terrorists. He admits feigning shock when a reporter asked him how WISE's chief administrator, Ramadan Shallah, could end up as leader of PIJ. He admits he was lying when he said Shallah "had been engaged in only scholarly work." He admits to cryptic phone calls, wary of wiretapping, in which he referred to bank deposits as "shirts" or "magazines."

In his years on and off the USF campus, Al-Arian left a trail of wreckage. Former university president Betty Castor had to answer in a failed U.S. Senate campaign for his misdeeds. Current president Judy Genshaft was twisted into a pretzel, at one point asking a federal judge for guidance on whether to fire him. The faculty, and the American Association of University Professors, got pulled into a fight unworthy of their honorable objectives.

As he played the role of martyred professor, Al-Arian also cued the violins. "Our history tells us that all colossal changes in our society," he wrote in 2003, "started with people who espoused opposing views in such issues as slavery, women's rights, and Vietnam. Indeed, Susan B. Anthony, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Muhammad Ali were considered "radicals' and "dissenters' during their struggles."

None of those noble Americans, of course, was ever shown on video celebrating suicide bombing and glorifying the death of a 5-year-old Palestinian boy who had thrown stones at Israeli guards. None was shown shouting: "Thus is the way of jihad. Thus is the way of martyrdom. Thus is the way of blood, because this is the path to heaven."

Most of the people touched by this case, including federal prosecutors, were scarred by it. But at least we now know one truth about Al-Arian. He lived a vulgar lie.