Eight suspected members of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, including four U.S. residents, were accused yesterday of conspiring to finance international terrorist operations that killed more than 100 people in Israel and the occupied territories, including two Americans.
Federal agents arrested the four U.S. residents during pre-dawn raids in Florida and Illinois, including Sami Al-Arian, a professor at South Florida University, who was identified as the North American leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a State Department-designated terrorist organization.
Mr. Al-Arian, under investigation by federal authorities since February 2002, first surfaced as a key focus of the government’s counterterrorism efforts during raids last year by a Treasury Department task force on several Islamic businesses in Virginia.
A 50-count indictment handed up by a federal grand jury in Tampa, Fla., said Mr. Al-Arian, 45, “directed the audit of all monies and property of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad throughout the world” and served as the secretary of the Shura Council, the worldwide governing group of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
“We make no distinction between those who carry out terrorist attacks and those who knowingly finance, manage or supervise terrorist organizations,” Attorney General John Ashcroft said in announcing the indictment. “We will bring justice to the full network of terror.”
The indictment said among those killed in terrorist attacks by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad were Americans Alisa Flatow, a 20-year-old Brandeis University student studying religion in Israel when she died in April 1995 in an attack near the settlement of Kfar Darom, and Shoshana Ben-Ishai, 16, killed in November 2001 when a Palestinian terrorist opened fire with a submachine gun at a bus in Jerusalem.
In addition to Mr. Al-Arian, others arrested in this country were Sameeh Hammoudeh, 42, an instructor and student at South Florida University, taken into custody in Temple Hills, Fla.; Hatim Naji Fariz, 30, manager of a medical clinic, arrested in Spring Hill, Fla.; and Ghassan Zayed Ballut, 41, a small-business owner, arrested in Tinley Park, Ill.
The other defendants charged in the indictment remain overseas. They are Ramadan Shallah, 45, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad’s secretary-general now in Damascus, Syria; Mohammed Tasir Hassan Al-Khatib, 46, Palestinian Islamic Jihad treasurer; Abd Al Aziz Awda, 52, a Palestinian Islamic Jihad founder and spiritual leader; and Bashir Nafi, 50, another Palestinian Islamic Jihad founder and leader of the organization in Britain.
Mr. Ashcroft said Shallah formerly lived in Florida, where he was executive director of the World Islam and Studies Enterprise, a think tank founded by Mr. Al-Arian. The United States has designated Shallah as a terrorist.
The eight men were named on charges of operating a racketeering enterprise that engaged in murder, extortion, money laundering and providing support to terrorism; and conspiring in the United States to kill people abroad.
They also were accused of conspiring to provide material support to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad; conspiring to violate emergency economic sanctions; and engaging in acts of interstate extortion, perjury, obstruction and immigration fraud. If convicted, all eight face life sentences.
“The Department of Justice has pledged to use all of its means within the law to identify, disrupt and dismantle terrorist networks,” Mr. Ashcroft said.
Yesterday, the Council on American-Islamic Relations expressed “deep concern” over Mr. Al-Arian’s arrest, saying the government had no evidence of criminal activity despite a long investigation.
“This action could leave the impression that Al-Arian’s arrest is based on political considerations, not legitimate national-security concerns,” said Omar Ahmad, CAIR board chairman.
Mr. Al-Arian’s attorney, Robert McKee, told reporters his client also believed the arrest was politically motivated.
Since the September 11 attacks, Mr. Al-Arian has been banned from teaching his computer-engineering courses after the school accused him of raising money for Palestinian Islamic Jihad. He also was accused of improper conduct after being taped at a conference saying “Death to Israel” in Arabic.
Mr. Al-Arian who was born in Kuwait, but has been a U.S. resident since 1975 has been tied to several questionable charities, including the International Committee for Palestine, Islamic Concern Project and the World and Islam Studies Enterprise.
Larry Witham contributed to this report.