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Militant Islam Monitor > Articles > USF After Al Arian - How a Middle East Studies Committee morphed into a terrorist entity

USF After Al Arian - How a Middle East Studies Committee morphed into a terrorist entity

USF prof Arthur Lowrie brought Ramadan Shallah - leader of Syrian Islamic Jihad -to lecture Centcom at McDill Airforce base
May 5, 2005

USF after Al-Arian

Many would like to forget him, but the professor's arrest has stilled some dissent.

By DAVID BALLINGRUD, Times Staff Writer
Published April 17, 2005


TAMPA - Sami Al-Arian is the University of South Florida's own private ghost. You can't see him on campus anymore, but he's still there.

It has been two years since Al-Arian was put in prison to await trial on terrorism-related charges, and in most visible ways USF has returned to normal.

The gathering spots in the center of the campus, where speeches, protests and rallies were almost daily occurrences, are quiet again.

Faculty-administration relations, bruised by the dismissal of Al-Arian, who was a tenured engineering professor at the university, are more cordial if not entirely warm.

Fundraising is no longer threatened by angry alums. The administration, the board of trustees and faculty have reached new understandings. "Two years have passed . . . things are better than they were," said Roy Weatherford, president of the faculty union.

But Muslim students and even some faculty members say the political climate on campus has become chilly. "People are afraid to speak out today," said Sarah Mitwalli, a 19-year-old senior with U.S. and Egyptian citizenship.

The Al-Arian trial is scheduled to begin May 16, but the first gavel may not fall for some time after that. Linda Moreno, one of Al-Arian's attorneys, said last week her client may seek a change of venue, which would push back the start date for months. Any of Al-Arian's three co-defendants may make the request, she said, which could result in the defendants' being tried separately or being moved to another trial location together. Or the request could be denied. "There are a number of possibilities," she said.

Al-Arian and the three other men are accused of supporting, promoting and raising money for Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which the U.S. government has classified as a terrorist organization.

The other defendants are Sameeh Hammoudeh, Ghassan Ballut and Hatem Naji Fariz. The indictment says they used USF as a cover, a place they could bring other members of the organization under the guise of academic conferences and meetings.

Parents advise a low profile

"We knew (the arrest of Al-Arian) would affect us for years," said Sarah Mitwalli.

The Muslim Student Association was once politically active on a number of issues, she says, but since the arrest it has adopted a less confrontational, more educational role. Disappointed, Mitwalli and a few other students formed a new group called OASIS - the Organization of Arab Students in Solidarity.

Thus far, though, the student response to OASIS has been underwhelming.

Naveed Kamal, 21, a U.S. citizen born to Pakistani parents, is a spokesman for the Muslim Student Association. He agrees the association has taken a step back from politics. "When I was a freshman, the association was very active - we were having a rally (in support of Al-Arian and other Palestinian causes) at least every month," he said. "Now, not that many students want to be in the spotlight.

"And I don't mean just the media spotlight. I mean . . . the FBI spotlight, too. Many students here have been questioned."

Students' parents have urged their kids to quiet down. "My parents were seeing me in the media a lot," Kamal said. "They finally told me to lower my profile."

"I'm about to apply to law school," said a female student who asked not to be named. "I just can't afford any kind of trouble now."

"We don't talk about it (Al-Arian's indictment) much," said Kamal. "It's sad that so few people are sticking up for a guy who is innocent until proven guilty."

With a student enrollment just under 43,000, USF is the second largest university in the Southeast and one of the 20 largest in the nation. But it has always been third chair to two higher profile Florida schools: Florida State University and the University of Florida. Long considered a commuter school, USF was not known for student activism.

"We've never been a hotbed of anything," said faculty union president Weatherford.

But throughout the 1990s, USF somehow became a place of bare-knuckled Middle East politics, with allegations of terrorist connections and stifled free speech.

It began with good intentions on the university's part.

"I was proud of what we were doing'

In 1991, then-provost Gerhard Meisels created the Committee on Middle Eastern Studies. Most of its members came from the department of government and international affairs, but other departments were also represented. The committee brought in speakers and conducted seminars and roundtables with the idea of broadening understanding of the Middle East. Among them were Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, William Quandt of the Brookings Institution, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Michael Sterner, former Jerusalem Post editor Irwin Frenkel and Richard Murphy of the Council on Foreign Relations.

But others attracted criticism, especially from the local Jewish community. One such speaker was Hassan Turabi, a radical Sudanese Islamist and intellectual.

"He was invited in May of 1992 to testify before Congress," said committee member Arthur Lowrie, a former Foreign Service officer and USF adjunct instructor, "and afterward he met the editorial board of the Washington Post. Then we were attacked for bringing him down here.

"It was an active committee, and we were doing great work," said Lowrie, who once served as Mideast adviser to the commander at U.S. Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base. "It was the work that people are still trying to do now - having dialogue, trying to understand what these Islamic movements are all about. We brought interesting people here. . . . I was proud of what we were doing."

Had the committee just sponsored a few controversial speakers, it might still be doing its work. But it forged a connection to Sami Al-Arian, and to an organization called WISE, and that proved its undoing.

The World and Islam Studies Enterprise was an off-campus think tank founded by Al-Arian and others. The first director was Khalil Ibrahim Shikaki, a scholar whose brother, Fathi Shikaki, was a founder of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Another member was a then-little-known USF professor, Ramadan Abdullah Shallah.

"The committee only did a few things in joint sessions with WISE," Lowrie said in a recent interview. "We were under attack by Jewish groups, Zionist groups, for giving Islamic scholars a platform. They felt by giving them a platform, we were being supportive. But aren't academics supposed to delve into the issues?"

In 1994 and 1995, however, two developments made that discussion seem beside the point, and sent the university reeling.

"He ended up hurting his own cause'

In November 1994, PBS aired a documentary called Jihad in America, a report by investigative journalist Steven Emerson on militant Islamic support networks operating in the United States. Emerson infiltrated conferences and rallies with hidden cameras to identify people and organizations he said were responsible for supporting terrorist activities. Among his targets were Al-Arian, WISE and, by extension, USF.

Emerson charged that Al-Arian raised money for Palestinian Islamic Jihad and other terrorist groups and, with his brother-in-law, former USF instructor Mazen Al-Najjar, sponsored conferences that "celebrated abhorrent violence against the United States and Jews."

The university was embarrassed further the following year when Shallah surfaced in Damascus as the new head of Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

The revelation stunned some supporters, and WISE was quickly shut down.

Lowrie, who had called Shallah a friend, said he knew Shallah was in the Middle East but thought he had gone to tend to his ill father. "I've known him for over four years, and I know nothing that he has done or said that would associate him with Islamic Jihad or terrorists," Lowrie said at the time. "If this were to turn out to be true . . . it would be devastating to all who were connected with him."

It did, and it was.

"That was the thing that killed us, of course," said Lowrie. "He ended up hurting his own cause and that of Palestinians."

"The committee (on Middle Eastern Studies) didn't do much after that," he said. "It's now defunct."

Lowrie remained a strong supporter of Al-Arian - until he read the 2003 indictment.

"Sami's lies damaged the university and destroyed the good work being done by the committee," he said in a recent interview.

USF paid dearly. It was mocked nationally as "Jihad U." Its reputation was damaged, and faculty morale suffered.

"Relations between the board of trustees, the faculty and the administration hit bottom with the Star Chamber trial in which they fired Al-Arian without even hearing from him," said Weatherford. But, Weatherford acknowledged some things have improved in the last two years, especially in the last few months following the ratification of a collective bargaining agreement.

"We have a stronger faculty union and a better set of rules on academic freedom," he said. "Things are somewhat better."

Administrators agree. "We have moved past learning to work with each other and moved toward working on improving conditions for faculty," said a spokeswoman.

Nevertheless, it's not hard to understand why many at the school can't wait for the day when Al-Arian's face is finally in the rear-view mirror to stay.

"He's out of our life, and I hope he stays out," said Dick Beard, chairman of the USF board of trustees.

USF "has moved on," said president Judy Genshaft in a written statement. "We are focusing our efforts on positioning the university to be among the top 50 of public research universities."

A subdued political climate

Enrollment of international students at USF has been decreasing since 9/11, but the trend is nationwide. There has been a decline in the numbers of Arab men coming to the United States for any purpose, said university spokeswoman Michelle Carlyon, "but this is primarily related to the very strict U.S. government regulations regarding this demographic group." Middle Eastern course offerings at USF have always been limited, she said, and their number has not changed.

The more subdued political climate on campus also reflects a national trend, said Michael Gibbons, a professor in government and international affairs. "It's getting harder to get a serious debate going on the Iraq war, or Iran, or any Middle East topic," he said.

"Instructors feel it, too. If you say something about the (Bush) administration's failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, you worry you might be seen as soft on terrorism. Or you might be portrayed as another Ward Churchill."

(Churchill, chairman of the University of Colorado's ethnic studies department, caused a stir recently by writing that the people who died in the 9/11 World Trade Center attack were "little Eichmanns." He argued that the attack was carried out in retaliation for the Iraqi children who were killed in a 1991 bombing raid and for economic sanctions imposed on Iraq by the United Nations after the Persian Gulf War.)

"Freedom of speech means you can say dumb things, or be wrong, too," said Gibbons.

"There is a national environment of apprehension" among Muslims, "and it is present on campus here, too," said Jamil Jreisat, who teaches public administration in the department of government and international affairs. "People are more reserved expressing their views, especially if it is an Islamic point of view.

"I am not a Muslim, but if you were a Muslim and you had good sense, you would want to be careful of being misinterpreted. And that does mean there is a loss in the quality of discussion on the campus.

"As I was leaving the campus the other day, I saw a pickup truck with a bumper sticker saying, "Kill them all and let Allah sort it out'; that is hate mail of the worst kind. What is the message there?

"If I am a Muslim, do I feel welcome to express my views?"

David Ballingrud can be reached at 727-893-8245, or by e-mail at [email protected]


Terrorism In Tampa Tampa Tribune Special Report


Sami Al-Arian is taken into custody by the FBI.

Sami Al-Arian is taken into custody by the FBI.

USF Condemns, Fires Al-Arian
TAMPA - The University of South Florida fired Sami Al-Arian with a flurry of denunciations Wednesday, saying his federal indictment "confirmed" beliefs that he broke school policy and abused his role as a tenured professor.

Full story
Read the termination letter
Watch the press conference

Those Named In The Case

Name: Sami Al-Arian
Background: Born in Kuwait, a resident of Temple Terrace and a former tenured University of South Florida computer science professor. President of the Islamic Committee for Palestine, which an Al-Arian associate publicly described in 1991 as "the active arm of the Islamic Jihad movement in Palestine." Incorporated the World and Islam Studies Enterprise (WISE), an Islamic think tank that worked with a USF faculty group to organize seminars and share libraries. Israeli officials say Al-Arian helped create and then served on a governing board for the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ); Al-Arian denies it.

Name: Sameeh Hammoudeh
Background: Born in the West Bank, a resident of Temple Terrace and an instructor at USF. He was a former graduate student at USF who was sponsored by WISE. While a student he conducted research with the political science faculty. Hammoudeh was also an administrator at the Islamic Academy of Florida. He was an alleged member of the PIJ in the Tampa area.

Name: Hatim Naji Fariz
Background: Born in Puerto Rico, a resident of Spring Hill and a manager for a medical clinic. Fariz was an alleged PIJ member and he allegedly ran an Illinois-based charity called the American Muslim Care Network.

Name: Ghassan Zayed Ballut
Background: Born in the West Bank, a resident of Tinley Park, Ill. and a small business owner. Ballut was an alleged member of a PIJ cell in Chicago. Ballut reserved an auditorium for a 1991 rally to memorialize a gunfight four years earlier between Islamic Jihad fighters and Israelis that ignited the Palestinian intifada against Israel. The Islamic Jihad's spiritual leader, Abdel Aziz Odeh, appeared at the rally where Ballut said, "May our guns be pointed one way to the chest of the enemy." During a 1998 grand jury appearance in Tampa, he refused to answer questions, his attorney said.

Name: Ramadan Abdullah Shallah
Background: Born in the Gaza Strip, a resident of Damascus, Syria, Shallah is the current worldwide leader of the PIJ and a member of the PIJ's Shura Council. Shallah, formerly of Tampa, worked with Al-Arian in the Islamic Committee for Palestine and was the former executive director of WISE. He taught Middle East studies as an adjunct professor at USF six months prior to his appointment as leader of the Islamic Jihad. Shallah was appointed secretary general of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad in October 1995. By November, he was designated by the United States as a Specially Designated Terrorist.

Name: Bashir Musa Mohammed Nafi
Background: Born in Egypt, a resident of Oxfordshire, England and a professor at Muslim College teaching history and Islamic studies. Nafi was a former WISE researcher. A 1995 U.S. search warrant described Nafi as a "significant leading member" of the Islamic Jihad. He wrote much of the group's early ideology. Israeli officials claim while Nafi lived in England in the late 1980s he was a communications link between terrorists in the field and the Islamic Jihad's headquarters in Syria. He adamantly denies ever being involved with the Islamic Jihad. In 1996 Nafi was deported from the United States back to England for visa violations.

Name: Mohammed Tasir Hassan Al-Khatib
Background: Born in the Gaza Strip, a resident in the Beirut, Lebanon, he is Al-Arian's brother-in-law. He was formerly associated with the ICP in Tampa. The government says he was treasurer of the Islamic Jihad and a member of the Shura Council, the terrorist group's central advisory committee.

Name: Abd Al Aziz Awda
Background: Born in Gabaly, Israel, a resident of the Gaza Strip and Imam of the Al Qassam Mosque in the Gaza Strip. Awda, also known as Abdel Aziz-Odeh, was a founder and spiritual leader of the PIJ and a member of the Shura Council. He helped the Islamic Jihad gain followers through his preaching at the Al-Qassam mosque in the Gaza Strip. In January 1995, Awda was designated by the United States as a specially designated terrorist. He is believed to have left the movement in the late 1990s in a disagreement with the group's leadership.

Name: Mazen Al-Najjar
Background: He was deported from the U.S. in August 2002. He spent 3 1/2 years in jail while appealing his deportation order. His case became a rallying point for civil libertarians after federal investigators used classified evidence to argue Al-Najjar's release posed a threat to national security. A federal judge ruled that the use of that evidence violated Al-Najjar's due process rights and an immigration judge later ordered his release, saying he saw no evidence connecting Al-Najjar to terrorism. He was not named in the original 2003 indictment, but referred to as "Unindicted Co-Conspirator Twelve." He is charged with racketeering, conspiracy to murder people outside the United States, conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists, obstruction of justice and perjury. His whereabouts are unknown. After being deported to Lebanon, he was forced out of that country. Relatives only say he is in an Arab state with friendly relations with the United States.

Source: The Tampa Tribune, U.S. Dept. of Justice

Al-Arian Wiretap Evidence Admitted Despite Criticism
TAMPA - A federal judge in the Sami Al-Arian case Tuesday criticized wiretap applications submitted to a secret court by counterintelligence agents but allowed prosecutors to use virtually all evidence gathered through the listening devices.

Full story
USA Patriot Act

Terrorist Links:
Attorney General John Ashcroft announces that eight people were charged with supporting, financing and relaying messages for a violent Palestinian terrorist group.
Watch his statement

02/26/03 USF Fires Al-Arian

News Channel 8 Video:
02/20/03 Terrorism In Tampa?
02/20/03 Local Arrests
02/20/03 USF Reaction
02/20/03 Student Reaction
02/20/03 Community Reaction
02/20/03 Al-Arian's Past Statements
02/20/03 Exclusive Footage Of Al-Arian Arrest

Graphics and galleries:
Jihad locations map
The Wire: Edging Towards Conflict

Agent's Affidavit:
A government agent says Sami Al-Arian organized the Palestinian Islamic Jihad from his home in Tampa.
Full story
Read the affidavit

Court Documents:
The U.S. District Court, Middle District of Florida, has a new section on it's web site to track the Sami Al-Arian docket. Click on the "Notable Cases" link on the left side of the page.
Follow the case
Read the indictment

Trial information:

04/20/05 Al-Arian Wiretap Evidence Admitted Despite Criticism
03/03/05 Judge Cancels Al-Arian Jury Selection
03/03/05 Both Sides In Al-Arian Case Seek Delay
03/03/05 A Christian Perspective On Sami Al-Arian (Commentary)
03/01/05 Jury Pool For Al-Arian Prejudiced, Defense Says
01/29/05 Al-Arian Moves To Hillsborough County Jail
01/15/05 Al-Arian Attorney Seeks Partial Dismissal
12/04/04 Jihad Case Extortion Charges Challenged
12/03/04 Lawyer Involved In Al-Arian Case Asks Extortion Charge Be Dropped
10/05/04 New Indictment Could Delay Al-Arian's Trial
10/05/04 Al-Arian May Not Be Ready For January Trial
08/28/03 Al-Arian Gains Access To Evidence
  • More Stories

    Related information and documents:

    02/26/03 USF termination letter to Al-Arian
    02/26/03 USF President Genshaft statement
    02/25/03 Executive Order 13224
    02/25/03 Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons
    02/25/03 Read Sami Al-Arian's statement
    02/21/03 Q&A: Sami Al-Arian history
    02/21/03 Sami Al-Arian timeline
    02/20/03 Transcript of Ashcroft statement, Q & A
    02/20/03 Read the 121-page indictment
    02/20/03 Dept. of Justice press release
    02/23/03 USA Patriot Act
    02/23/03 Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons
    02/23/03 Executive Order 13224

    Related Stories:
    02/27/03 USF Condemns, Fires Al-Arian
    02/23/03 Fate Of Al-Arian Took Turn After 9-11
    02/23/03 Treasury Department Issues List Of Alleged Terror Ties
    02/22/03 Indictment Caps Years Of Clashes
    02/22/03 USF Professor's Case Evokes Alarm, Relief
    02/22/03 Experts: Jihad Cases Will Test At Least 2 Legal Areas
    02/22/03 Jihad Leader In Gaza Says U.S. Lying About Al-Arian
    02/22/03 British Resident Denies Funding Palestinian Terrorists
    02/22/03 Al-Arian Met With Bush Aide Rove In '01
    02/22/03 Neighbors, Co-Workers Left Reeling By Charges
    02/22/03 Terror Suspects Isolated, Closely Monitored
    02/22/03 Arrests Raise Academic Awareness
    02/21/03 Authorities: Al-Arian Leader of Palestinian Islamic Jihad
    02/21/03 Case Drives Fear Home For Muslims
    02/21/03 American's Death A Key To Case
    02/21/03 USF, Academics Remain At Impasse Over Job
    02/21/03 From Shrugs To Shock, Embroiled Campus Reacts
    02/21/03 Palestinian Islamic Jihad Uses Violence `To Liberate Palestine'
    02/21/03 O'Reilly-Come-Lately Takes Unwarranted Credit In Al-Arian Arrest
    12/12/02 Al-Arian History: A USF Connection Since 1986
    09/03/02 Al-Arian Story Drinking Series Draw Criticism

  • More Stories

    1995 Tampa Tribune Series:

    02/21/03 Editor's Note
    05/28/95 Ties To Terrorists
    05/28/95 Terror Law Cuts Rights, Arabs Say
    05/28/95 Extremist Groups Agree On Goals
    05/28/95 Terms Don't Separate Religion, Politics
    05/29/95 Academic Freedom Or Poor Security
    05/29/95 Mosque Bears Martyr's Name
    02/01/95 Al-Arian letter discussing Islamic Jihad

    Related links, documents and video:

    Download Adobe Acrobat
    Download Real One Player

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