June 6 marked the beginning of the trial of former University of South Florida (USF) professor Sami Al-Arian on charges of supporting terrorism. He is innocent until proven guilty. But his involvement in controversial radical Islamic organizations is a matter of public record. Those who led the way in exposing his record were Steven Emerson, author of American Jihad, and Bill O’Reilly of Fox News. O’Reilly had hammered Al-Arian relentlessly, questioning his alleged involvement with terrorist groups.
But can the case be proved in court? Outside the courtroom increased security was visible: barricades and heavily armed U.S. Marshals. Inside the courtroom, prosecutors continue their work of presenting their evidence casting the professor and other defendants as Tampa-based conspirators operating front groups supporting the Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine (IJMP), a group labeled terrorist by the U.S. State Department. Those alleged front groups include the Islamic Concern Project a.k.a Islamic Committee for Palestine and the World Islamic Studies Enterprise (WISE).
Prosecutors argued that Al-Arian was involved in money laundering through the groups, and was closely linked with IJMP leaders. Much of the prosecutors’ work will consist of presenting alleged ties between Al-Arian and leaders of Islamic Jihad.
Prosecutors say that the 1994 public television documentary “Jihad in America” by Steve Emerson was the “triggering event” that launched an intensive probe of al-Arian’s activities.
Another landmark in legal and media queries happened in 1995, when the director of Sami al-Arian’s think tank emerged as the new leader of the terrorist group. While a professor at USF al-Arian had founded the think tank called the World and Islam Studies Enterprise (WISE). Ramadan Shallah served as director.
Media covering the current trial report that in October 23, 1995 a letter on WISE stationery was sent to the British consulate in Atlanta stating “Ramadan Abdullah Shallah has been working for WISE since 1993?and will continue through 1996.” On October 26, 1995 the leader of Islamic Jihad, Fat’hi Al-Shiqaqi was shot to death while traveling on the island of Malta. Three days later Shallah was named the new secretary-general of Islamic Jihad. Hatina reported that according to Arab press, Shallah stood at Shiqaqi’s grave and said “The armed struggle will remain the only path of the Islamic Jihad.”
WISE put out a disclaimer on October 31 saying “WISE denies any knowledge of Dr. Abdullah’s association or affiliation with any political group or agency in the Middle East.” According to Dr. Hatina however, Sami Al-Arian and Ramadan Shallah were both founders of Islamic Jihad and closely connected from their student days in the 1970’s.
Emerson commented, “When Al-Arian said, ‘How could I know this person [Shallah] was connected to the Jihad?’ he knew exactly what was going on.” Hatina’s meticulously footnoted monograph, which references numerous Arab-language interviews with Islamic Jihad leaders, may provide a piece to the puzzle.
The Investigative Project (IP) and other sources report the following from the trial:
Prosecutor Walter “Terry” Furr said investigators found “trophy shots”?photos of dead Jews?and martyr lists on a defendant’s computer.
Three wills of Islamic Jihad members were found on al-Arian’s computer.
Investigators found lists of dates of the deaths of Islamic Jihad suicide bombers for sending money to their families.
Al-Arian transferred money to the families of Islamic Jihad martyrs.
In opening statements, the prosecution revealed a letter written by al-Arian to a Kuwaiti financier praising an Islamic Jihad bombing as a sign of what the group could accomplish and soliciting funds for further attacks. Al-Arian says he never mailed the letter, but according to the prosecution they will present proof that it was hand-couriered out of the US.
Witness Muneer Arafat alleged al-Arian tried to recruit him to serve in IJMP. Arafat said of Islamic Jihad leaders in the 1990’s: “They are sending their kids to Duke University and Yale University?while they are sending someone else’s kid to do a suicide bombing.”
The Investigative Project noted that defense attorney William Moffitt “seemed to concede” that Al-Arian was in fact a member of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, citing various wiretap conversations which allegedly discuss “wanting out” of the group if they would not create a non-violent branch. The statement seems curious, since Islamic Jihad was distinguished from its very beginning as a violent enterprise. Armed jihad was to be the highest priority, even as military and civic aspects of the group were conjoined.
Al-Arian and the other defendants deny all charges against him, and his defense attorneys portray the case as persecution of the professor for his pro-Palestinian and religious beliefs. After arguing that a statute referenced by the prosecution did not prohibit one from being a member of an illegal group, and that people are free to praise terrorist groups and their goals, attorney Moffitt stated that the “outstanding feature of this case is Freedom of Speech.” He contends that Al-Arian was helping to “educate” Americans on the Palestinian view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.