What a difference a few months can make. That’s all it took for the federal government to go full-circle, from prosecuting an alleged terrorist to headlining an event co-sponsored by one of his biggest supporters — a group that also happens to be still under investigation itself.
Through December of last year, the U.S. government was using its full force to convict the alleged North American leader of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Sami al-Arian, of terrorism charges. By this March, the State Department dispatched its head of counterterrorism, Ambassador Hank Crumpton, to be the keynote speaker at a conference co-sponsored by one of Mr. al-Arian’s former principal funder, the International Institute for Islamic Thought (IIIT). And for good measure, the Defense Department largely paid for the event.
Aside from the group’s history with Mr. al-Arian, IIIT’s co-founder and former longtime president — and an unindicted co-conspirator in the al-Arian trial — allegedly wrote a fatwa, or religious edict, years ago endorsing jihad against Israelis. Though he wasn’t at the conference, Taha Jaber al-Alwani still sits on IIIT’s board.
Though the former University of South Florida professor was acquitted of eight of 17 counts against him — the jury hung on the other nine — he is by no means innocent. And whatever can be said about the alleged terrorist can also be said about IIIT — and that’s in the words of the group’s co-founder, Mr. al-Alwani, who once wrote that Mr. al-Arian was “a part of us and an extension of us.” Not in question because of wiretaps and phone and fax intercepts is that Mr. al-Arian had an intimate relationship with Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ). Also not in dispute is that Mr. al-Arian mocked an executive order designating PIJ a terrorist entity just weeks after it was signed by President Clinton, calling it the result of “a war staged by Zionists.” The setting was an intercepted phone conversation with Lou’ay Safi, then the research director IIIT.
Also uncontested is that Mr. al-Arian played host to some of the world’s most notorious Islamic terrorists. The Islamic Conference of Palestine (ICP), founded by the former USF professor, held annual conferences that played host to what the Tampa Tribune dubbed a “militant all-star team”: PIJ founder and spiritual leader Abdel Aziz-Odeh, Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman (spiritual leader of the 1993 World Trade Center bombers), leading Hamas official Mohammed Sakr and high-ranking Sudanese terrorist Hassan Turabi.
It was during this time that IIIT reportedly provided the lion’s share of funding for ICP and its sister organization, World and Islam Enterprise (WISE). According to an FBI affidavit, Mr. al-Alwani admitted to attending and speaking at various ICP conferences.
Not only did none of the Islamic terrorists in his presence apparently shock him, but Mr. al-Alwani probably felt quite at home. In that same affidavit, the FBI reveals that Mr. al-Alwani wrote a fatwa “at some point between December 1988 and November 1989” that said, “Jihad is the only way to liberate Palestine … [N]o person or authority may settle the Jews on the land of Palestine or cede to them any part thereof.” (Mr. al-Alwani could not be reached for comment.) Striking a similar theme, Mr. al-Arian called for “true armed jihad against the enemy in Israel” during his speech at a 1990 ICP conference. At an ICP conference in Cleveland the following year, he set his violent sites on the United States: “Let us damn America. Let us damn Israel. Let us damn their allies until death.” Even though most of Mr. al-Arian’s fiery speeches were caught on camera, many groups and prominent individuals lined up to support him. One such defender was John Esposito, the other keynote speaker at last month’s IIIT conference. When USF moved to fire Mr. al-Arian in 2002, Mr. Esposito wrote a letter to the university’s president stating that he was he was “stunned, astonished, and saddened” because the man who — without a doubt — gave many jihadist speeches was a “consummate professional.” This was not the first unambiguous jihadist to be defended by Mr. Esposito, who has a long history of apologism for Islamic terror. He co-edited a book in 2000 with Azzam Tamimi, who stated unequivocally in an interview with a Spanish newspaper in November 2001, “I support Hamas.” In the same interview, he also said, “I admire the Taliban; they are courageous.” But Mr. Tamimi doesn’t just “support” and “admire” terrorists; he also yearns to be one. In a television interview with the BBC in November 2004, he said, “If I can go to Palestine and sacrifice myself I would do it.” Mr. Esposito cannot claim ignorance. Scholar Martin Kramer exposed Mr. Tamimi several years ago. Yet Mr. Esposito remains on the board of an organization run by Mr. Tamimi, the Institute of Islamic Political Thought.
Nor can State and Defense claim ignorance about IIIT. According to the Caroline Ziemke of Institute for Defense Analyses, who sent Amb. Crumpton the invite, he knew about IIIT’s co-sponsorship. Ms. Ziemke further stated that the Department of Defense, which provided most of the funding for the event, was also fully aware — and approved.
IIIT is very lucky. On the heels of a terror trial of a man it bankrolled, the two biggest power centers in government are working to rebuild IIIT’s reputation.
What a difference a few months can make.
Joel Mowbray occasionally writes for The Washington Times.