Sunday, May 22, 2005

A jury has been seated in Tampa, Fla., for the trial in U.S. District Court of Sami al-Arian, a former college professor accused of coordinating the terrorist activities of Palestinian Islamic Jihad. The trial of Mr. al-Arian and three codefendants is scheduled to begin in two weeks, and is likely to last several months.

Mr. al-Arian, who served as a professor of computer science at the University of South Florida, says he is being persecuted for his political beliefs. But federal prosecutors say Mr. al-Arian’s academic position was a front for his real work: coordinating the terrorist operations of the PIJ, raising money for the organization and disseminating its propaganda. Over the years, PIJ has claimed credit for attacks which killed more than 100 people in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. Members of a dozen Israeli families — including survivors of PIJ attacks and relatives of people who died in them — are expected to testify against Mr. al-Arian and his co-defendants, who are on trial for conspiracy to commit murder and providing material support to terrorists.

A 50-count indictment delivered by a federal grand jury against Mr. al-Arian and his associates in February 2003 charges that the professor “directed the audit of all monies and property of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad throughout the world.” It describes faxes and telephone calls involving Mr. al-Arian and his colleagues discussing and praising PIJ bombings and other terrorist attacks, debating whether to align the group more closely with with Hamas and Hezbollah and resolving a financial crisis which threatened to split the PIJ apart. The PIJ’s main source of money is the government of Iran, but it supplements this help with its own fund-raising activities.

The indictment depicts Mr. al-Arian and his associates as virulent anti-Semites and supporters of terror. In a September 29, 1991 speech in Chicago, it says, he declared that Jews “were d—-d; that Allah had made them monkeys and swine and d—-them in this world and in the afterworld.” At a 1992 conference, Ramadan Abdullah Shallah, who worked for a Tampa think tank headed by Mr. al-Arian and tought with him at USF, declared that Muslims should not be defensive over accusations of terrorism, because “jihad required them to terrorize, devastate, humiliate and degrade their enemies.” In 1995, Shallah (recruited by Mr. al-Arian to come to Tampa) disappeared, only to turn up a few months later in Damascus as the new head of PIJ.

The government plans to call to the stand a relative of one American killed in a PIJ attack: Stephen Flatow of West Orange, N.J., whose daughter Alisa, a 20-year-old Brandeis University student, was one of eight people killed in an April 9, 1995 suicide bombing of an Israeli bus at Kfar Darom in the Gaza Strip. Federal prosecutors will try to show that Mr. al-Arian, by raising funds for the terrorist group, was responsible for Miss Flatow’s murder. Other attacks carried out by the PIJ that could come up at the al-Arian trial include: a July 1989 attack in which a terrorist attacked a bus driver and forced the vehicle off a cliff along the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway, killing 16 people; a January 1995 double suicide bombing at a rest area at Beit Lid Junction, near Tel Aviv, which killed at least 19 civilians and soldiers; a March 1996 bombing of a shopping mall in downtown Tel Aviv, which killed 13 people, and a November 2, 2000 bombing at a Jerusalem marketplace which killed two people.

Particularly chilling are the intercepts of telephone calls — many of them included in the indictment of Mr. al-Arian and his codefendants — that were apparently picked up by American and Israeli intelligence. In these, Mr. al-Arian, usually in Tampa, is heard brooding over Iran’s insufficient generosity in financing the PIJ and asking for money to help the families of the Beit Lid suicide bombers. All the while, the indictment says, Mr. al-Arian was falsely asserting in interviews with Florida newspapers that he and Shallah (the PIJ’s current boss) were engaged in purely peaceful activities.

The indictment suggests that intelligence agents were monitoring Mr. al-Arian’s telephone conversations and faxes at least as far back as January 1994.But it was not until passage of the Patriot Act in 2001 (which included provisions tearing down the wall which effectively barred law-enforcement and intelligence agencies from talking to one another) that prosecutors investigating Mr. al-Arian gained access to some of the most powerful evidence linking him to the PIJ.

Sometime this summer, we will learn whether Sami al-Arian is an innocent professor he claims to be or an accomplice to mass murder.

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