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TV terrorist talk leads USF to address security

By TAMARA LUSH

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 28, 2001


TAMPA -- Allegations on a nationally televised talk show linking Muslim extremists to the University of South Florida were nothing new.

TAMPA -- Allegations on a nationally televised talk show linking Muslim extremists to the University of South Florida were nothing new.

But in the hands of vitriolic Fox News host Bill O'Reilly, and given the general level of anxiety since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the show Wednesday night convinced people across the country that USF, as O'Reilly asserted, "may be a hotbed of support for Arab militants."

The result: phone calls to the university from angry viewers and from parents of USF students wanting assurances their children were safe.

USF president Judy Genshaft plans to speak about the show this morning and about campus security at a hastily called meeting of the school's board of trustees.

USF spokesman Michael Reich didn't know how many calls the university had received, but he said that Genshaft's office, his office and other departments were the recipients.

He said O'Reilly's comments were nothing but speculation.

"What's going on at USF is research, teaching and service," Reich said. "That is its contribution to this community and country."

On his show, The O'Reilly Factor, the host grilled USF professor Sami Al-Arian about bringing a suspected terrorist leader to Tampa.

Al-Arian, a computer engineering professor and nationally known activist on Palestinian issues, has been accused by the U.S. government of supporting Middle Eastern terrorists. His brother-in-law, Mazen Al-Najjar of Tampa, was jailed for more than three years on secret evidence alleging membership in the Palestinian Islamic Jihad before his release in December.

Neither man has been charged with a crime.

O'Reilly pressed Al-Arian about his relationship with a former Tampa man who in 1998 helped ABC News gain an interview with Osama bin Laden, and about Ramadan Abdullah Shallah, whom Al-Arian helped obtain a visa in 1993 and hired to work for a private Islamic think tank he helped organize in Tampa.

After leaving USF, Shallah became leader of the militant Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

Al-Arian said O'Reilly had the "completely wrong impression" of his relationship with the two men.

"We have been involved in intellectual-type activity," Al-Arian told O'Reilly. "We brought dozens of people. All of them are intellectual type. You're going to get the apple -- a bad apple or two, but that -- if you focus on them, you get one conclusion."

Al-Arian told O'Reilly that " ... we were shocked like everyone else in the world (when Shallah) became the leader of the jihad movement. Everyone who knew him here at the University of South Florida, everyone who knew him personally, was extremely surprised."

O'Reilly asked Al-Arian about his ties to Tariq Hamdi, who lived in Tampa and worked as office manager from 1989 to 1992 for the Islamic Committee for Palestine, or ICP, a Palestinian advocacy group founded by Al-Arian. Hamdi left Tampa in 1992 and became a freelance journalist.

In 1998, Hamdi was paid by ABC News to help arrange an interview with Osama bin Laden.

"What is going on at the University of South Florida, a state-funded institution?" O'Reilly asked. Later in the show, O'Reilly said there was enough circumstantial evidence to link Al-Arian to suspected terrorists.

"If I was the CIA, I'd follow you wherever you went," O'Reilly said.

Al-Arian responded: "Well, you don't know me."

O'Reilly concluded the interview by saying, "I'd still shadow you. I'd go to Denny's with you, and I'd go everywhere you went. We appreciate you coming on (the show)."

Al-Arian could not be reached for comment Thursday night.

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