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FBI charges Florida professor with terrorist activities

Seven others named in 50-count indictment

University of South Florida professor Sami Al-Arian, right, was arrested Thursday in an early morning raid by the FBI and Joint Terrorism Task Force.
University of South Florida professor Sami Al-Arian, right, was arrested Thursday in an early morning raid by the FBI and Joint Terrorism Task Force.

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TAMPA, Florida (CNN) -- A Florida college professor identified as a fund raiser and organizer for a Palestinian terrorist group blamed for killing two Americans -- and many others -- was arrested Thursday and charged along with seven other people with racketeering and conspiracy to commit murder.

Federal authorities arrested Kuwaiti-born University of South Florida professor Sami Al-Arian, 45, described as the North American leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), and three others.

Four others -- allegedly the top leaders of the PIJ -- were named as co-conspirators in the 50-count indictment but had not been arrested.

Al-Arian's lawyer, Nicolas Matassini, called the indictment "a work of fiction" and said his client -- who has long acknowledged his fund-raising activities for humanitarian Palestinian causes -- planned to go on a hunger strike to protest the charges.

The four now in custody made their first court appearances Thursday and were being held without bond pending a detention hearing Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Tampa.

Al-Arian was arrested at his home in a 5:30 a.m. raid by officials of the FBI and Joint Terrorism Task Force while his wife and three of his children watched in shock. After the afternoon court appearance, Al-Arian smiled at his wife Nahla and 17-year-old daughter Lena.

"My father's an optimist. He's a good man," Lena Al-Arian said.

Ashcroft announces the indictments at a news conference in Washington on Thursday.
Ashcroft announces the indictments at a news conference in Washington on Thursday.

Federal authorities have been investigating Al-Arian, a tenured computer engineering professor, for his fund-raising activities since 1995. He went on a paid leave from the university the following year and was banned from the campus following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks against the United States. (Full story)

In a press conference, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft highlighted the violence of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad he says Al-Arian helped fund.

"The Palestinian Islamic Jihad is one of the most violent terrorist organizations in the world," the attorney general said. "The Palestinian Islamic Jihad is responsible for the murder of over 100 people in Israel and the occupied territories, including at least two Americans: Alisa Flatow, age 20, and Shoshana Ben-Yishai, age 16."

Palestinian Islamic Jihad is a militant group dedicated to the creation of an Islamic Palestinian state and the destruction of Israel. There are different groups called Islamic Jihad in different Arab countries. They have no connection with each other and there is no coordination or planning among them.

Reading from a "manifesto" Ashcroft said was discovered during the investigation into the activities of Al-Arian and the others, Ashcroft said the organization rejects "any peaceful solution to the Palestinian cause" and affirms "jihad and the martyrdom style as the only choice for liberation."

"The indictment explains that the manifesto refers to the United States as 'The Great Satan America' and indicates that the only purpose of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad is to destroy Israel and to end all Western influence in the region," he said.

Also arrested Thursday were:

• Sameeh Hamoudeh, 42, born in the West Bank, student and instructor at the University of South Florida whose application for permanent U.S. residency had just been approved, according to his lawyer.

• Hatim Naji Fariz, 30, born in Puerto Rico, manager of a Tampa medical clinic.

• Ghassan Zeyed Ballut, 41, born in the West Bank, small business owner. He was arrested in Chicago.

Al-Arian, Hamoudeh and Fariz made their first court appearance before federal magistrate Mark Pizzo in Tampa. Earlier in Chicago, Ballut appeared before a federal judge who ordered his transfer to Florida for prosecution.

Also named in the indictment but still at large are Ramadan Abdullah Shallah, 45, secretary-general of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a Gaza native and former instructor at the University of South Florida and close associate of Al-Arian. Shallah is now living in Damascus, Syria.

In addition to Shallah, named a "designated terrorist" by the United States in 1995, the others named in the indictment who remain at large are:

• Bashir Musa Mohammed Nafi, 50; a PIJ founder and leader of the group in Great Britain; born in Egypt; now living in Oxfordshire, England.

• Muhammed Tasir Hassan Al-Khatib, 46; PIJ treasurer; born in Gaza now living near Beirut, Lebanon.

• Abd al Aziz Awda, 52; a founder and spiritual leader of the PIJ; born in Gabaly, Israel; now living in Gaza; Imam of the Al Qassam Mosque in Gaza; named by the United States as a designated terrorist in 1995.

Ashcroft said Al-Arian was also the secretary of Palestinian Islamic Jihad's worldwide governing body. The organization is on the U.S. list of designated foreign terrorist organizations.

Ashcroft said all the defendants face the possibility of life sentences should they be convicted of the charges against them.

Al-Arian co-founder of Islamic think tank

Al-Arian's lawyer, Nicolas Matassini, speaks to reporters after Thursday's court hearing. Al-Arian's wife Nahla looks on.
Al-Arian's lawyer, Nicolas Matassini, speaks to reporters after Thursday's court hearing. Al-Arian's wife Nahla looks on.

At a news conference in Washington, a group of supporters claimed Al-Arian was being singled out because he is Arabic.

"Our concern is more personal, more human, springing from the seemingly continuous bombardment of the Arab-American and American Muslim communities with multiple government initiatives that feed the general public's negative impression that we are not to be trusted as full Americans," said Helen Samhan, the executive director of the Arab-American Institute Foundation.

Al-Arian fell under the scrutiny of federal authorities in 1995 when he and Shallah founded the Islamic think tank World and Islam Studies Enterprise (WISE) at the University of South Florida. About a year later, Shallah returned to the Middle East as the new head of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

Ashcroft said the 121-page indictment describes wiretaps used to collect information against the defendants, and "describes other attacks and outlines what these defendants did here in the United States to both organize and fund the Palestinian Islamic Jihad."

"Our message to them and others like them is clear," Ashcroft said. "We make no distinction between those who carry out terrorist attacks and those who knowingly finance, manage and supervise terrorist organizations."

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