USA Today, Feb. 21, 2003
WASHINGTON — Throughout the 1990s, Sami Al-Arian, an outspoken critic of Israel, was secretly watched by two sets of U.S. investigators: FBI agents looking for evidence of crimes and intelligence officials examining Middle East terrorism.
Neither group knew the extent of the other’s investigation of the University of South Florida engineering professor’s suspected role as leader of North American operations for a terrorist group, Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ).
At the time, U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agents weren’t allowed to compare notes because of laws designed to prevent domestic spying by the FBI, particularly on political and religious groups. But all that changed after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when Congress tore down the legal wall that separated the agents by passing the USA Patriot Act.
Prosecutors in Tampa and Washington didn’t see the combined evidence against Al-Arian from secret phone and facsimile wiretaps until last November. That’s when a special appeals court gave the Justice Department approval to use the Patriot Act to its fullest extent.
A U.S. official said Thursday that evidence gathered by intelligence and law enforcement agents was shared in ”dribs and drabs” after Congress passed the law in the fall of 2001. ”But the spigot opened after the appeals court ruling,” he said.
The result is the most richly detailed indictment yet in the domestic war on terrorism, a possible harbinger of future cases against terrorists and their bankrollers.
A federal grand jury charged Al-Arian and seven others with operating a racketeering organization, conspiring to murder people abroad and providing material support to terrorists. Four defendants, including Al-Arian, are in custody in the USA. The rest are being sought overseas.
The indictment says the criminal probe of Al-Arian dates to 1995. But intelligence agents began eavesdropping on the professor as early as the late 1980s. As part of the conspiracy, the indictment alleges, Al-Arian set up three Islamic groups to direct money to PIJ operatives in the Middle East and families of suicide bombers.
Al-Arian, 45, a Palestinian born in Kuwait, used his university job as cover to raise money for PIJ in St. Louis, Chicago, Cleveland and other cities by soliciting ”influential individuals in the United States,” the indictment says.
A permanent resident of the United States, Al-Arian allegedly hid his true goals by casting himself as an Arab activist who championed the cause of his brother-in-law, Mazen Al-Najjar, a former USF computer science professor who was jailed for 3 years because of secret evidence that allegedly linked him to terrorists.
In doing so, Al-Arian established political connections in Florida and Washington. He backed President Bush’s campaign and has been photographed with him.
The grand jury said Al-Arian and PIJ were committed to using suicide bombings to destroy Israel and rid the Middle East of the ”Great Satan — America.” In Cleveland in 1991, he allegedly called on donors to ”continue to damn America, continue to damn Israel . . . until death.”
Al-Arian has denied calling for violence and has said he was advocating an end to oppression of Palestinians.
In 1995, the indictment says, government agents searched the office of one of Al-Arian’s Islamic organizations in Tampa and found ”the manifesto of PIJ,” which outlined the group’s violent goals. Agents reportedly also found the wills of three suicide bombers on a computer.
The indictment says Al-Arian also had connections to prominent terrorists, including Omar Abdel-Rahman, ”the Blind Sheik,” who is serving a life sentence for conspiring to blow up New York landmarks. In the mid-1990s, the indictment says, Al-Arian was involved in PIJ’s discussions with Iran about a financial bailout, the indictment says. Also, Al-Arian allegedly was key in discussions to establish relations between PIJ and Hamas, another Palestinian terrorist group.
Al-Arian allegedly kept tabs on U.S. government anti-terrorism legislation and discussed President Clinton’s 1995 executive order designating PIJ, Hamas and other groups as threats to the Mideast peace process. The indictment says he told a co-conspirator that the order prohibited financial dealings between those groups and people ”outside the United States,” not inside. The indictment says he was wrong.