Terrorist Ramadan Shallah left US after being warned of media scrutiny by USF colleague and former diplomat Arthur Lowrie
Murderer Shallah told terrorist leader Shikaki that staying in US "transforms people into freaks"
Jihad Trial Transcript Bemoans Effects Of Living In U.S.
By ELAINE SILVESTRINI
"Running around in this country, even staying in it, transforms people into freaks," he wrote in a March 21, 1995, fax sent to Fathi Shikaki, the secretary general of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
Shallah, who was born in the Gaza Strip, had been in the United States since the early 1990s, sponsored by Sami Al- Arian, then a professor at the University of South Florida.
At the time Shallah sent the fax to Shikaki, Shallah was teaching Middle East Studies at USF and working at Al-Arian's think tank, World and Islam Studies Enterprise. He would leave the United States that June. After Shikaki was assassinated in 1995, Shallah emerged as the secretary general of the Islamic Jihad.
He almost left the country without anyone noticing he was here.
But The Tampa Tribune started asking questions.
In April 1995, reporter Michael Fechter wanted to talk to Al-Arian and Shallah about WISE and its ties to USF and their relationship to Shikaki and the Islamic Jihad.
On April 15, USF Professor Art Lowrie called Shallah to let him know the paper was "doing a story on the connection between USF and WISE," according to a tape of the conversation played in Al-Arian's trial Wednesday. "The thing he [Fechter] kept coming back to is Sami," Lowrie said. "It all goes back to `Jihad in America,' " he said, referring to a controversial documentary that linked Al-Arian to the Islamic Jihad.
On April 29, two days after Fechter faxed Al-Arian a list of questions, Shallah called Shikaki to talk about "problems with the press," according to a transcript of the conversation read to jurors Wednesday.
Among other issues, Shallah worried that his name was going to be made public, and he seemed to think Al-Arian partly was to blame.
"There were some internal problems, the way that he [Al- Arian] from the beginning, you know, made mistakes that have to do with his passion for appearing in the press," Shallah said.
Referring to himself in the third person by a code name, Rashad, Shallah said, "For the first time in this entire story, this is what will possibly happen in the next two to three days," he said. "For the first time, Rashad's name will be mentioned in it. You know, all the time there was nothing or any relation with the press."
At least not with the American press.
Transcripts read to jurors show Shallah wrote articles for an Islamic Jihad publication, Al-Esteqlal, and more than once telephoned the publication's offices in Gaza to talk about editing and distribution.
In one conversation, an unidentified man in Gaza talked about something Shallah had sent late.
"Please don't reproach me," Shallah responded, "but I am actually tired of being a journalist. ... I mean this situation is very tiring. When you practice it, you feel that it is not the same as when you consider it from a distance."
Prosecutors also have alleged that Shallah, Al-Arian and the other defendants helped the Islamic Jihad publicize its violent activities.
On Wednesday, the prosecution presented more evidence to support that assertion, reading to jurors from a fax that "cheerfully" announced a suicide bombing in Israel that had claimed the lives of a 20-year-old U.S. college student, Alisa Flatow, and seven Israelis.
The fax was sent from Islamic Jihad headquarters to Shalah's residence on April 9, 1995. According to the evidence presented in court, a minute after Shallah received the announcement, he faxed it to a phone number in Chicago.
Reporter Elaine Silvestrini can be reached at (813) 259-7837.
TAMPA - The news from the Associated Press late on the night of Oct. 30, 1995, was shocking: Ramadan Shallah, who had been a scholar at an Islamic think tank in Tampa associated with the University of South Florida, was the new leader of Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
Shallah had been an instructor at USF as well, and now he was head of an organization that was claiming responsibility for terrorist attacks in Israel and the occupied territories.
St. Petersburg Times reporter Jim Harper called University of South Florida professor Sami Al-Arian at home after midnight to ask him about the news. Shallah had worked at World and Islam Studies Enterprise, the think tank founded by Al-Arian.
Four months before, Shallah had left WISE, amid a flurry of allegations in the Tampa Tribune about WISE having connections to the PIJ. Harper had interviewed Al-Arian about this previously, and he was skeptical of the accusations.
"But that night when I called Sami, I had a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach that there really was something to what the stories said," said Harper, now a writer in Tampa.
On Thursday, Harper's phone conversations with Al-Arian became evidence in Al-Arian's federal trial. He, along with three other defendants, is charged with conspiring to provide material aid to PIJ terrorists.
In the 10-year-old phone conversation, Al-Arian initially told Harper that "it can't be the same person" who had taken over the PIJ leadership.
And he said the man who worked with him in Tampa didn't go by the name "Shallah."
"Ramadan is in Sudan. ... He has been out of the country for ... almost four months ... I mean I know Ramadan Abdullah, that's the same name ... but I've never heard the name Shallah."
But on Thursday, prosecutors showed jurors a U.S. work visa application from September 1993 for Ramadan Abdullah Shallah with Al-Arian's signature on it.
Al-Arian told Harper on that night more than 10 years ago that "Ramadan Abdullah" was "highly recommended ... an excellent researcher, excellent economist." Al-Arian ended the conversation by telling Harper that the news "is going to be sensational in this area."
The night of Oct. 31, 1995, Harper called Al-Arian again. This conversation was also played in the courtroom.
Al-Arian told Harper that he had seen a photo in the paper and it was, indeed, his colleague from WISE who had taken over the helm of the PIJ, in Damascus, Syria.
Harper told him that those who believed the accusations against WISE saw the news "as a vindication of their suspicions."
Responded Al-Arian: "Well, I can't really comment on ... any ties. ... I don't think we should make any kind of assumptions. ... Ah, he didn't do anything really for me to feel that he was party to anything happening."
The prosecution's case against Al-Arian indicates that he knew quite a bit more about Shallah than he let on during that interview.
Over the past few weeks, prosecutors have been reading FBI wiretaps of Al-Arian's conversations with PIJ leaders in late 1994. Repeatedly, Al-Arian expressed concern about PIJ money being cut off, including a salary for Shallah, who was director of WISE.
In that 1995 phone conversation about Shallah, Al-Arian emphasized to Harper that he was "an independent. ... I don't belong to any political group."
In their 2003 indictment against Al-Arian, prosecutors said they entered these phone conversations with Harper into evidence because they show that Al-Arian "did ... misrepresent facts to representatives of the media to ... further the conspiracy" with a coverup. Faxes and phone conversations, secretly taped by FBI agents in late 1994 and early 1995, indicated he was on the PIJ board of directors along with Shallah during that time.
In 1994 and 1995, the PIJ claimed responsibility for five terrorist acts which killed 22 people. Most of the dead were Israeli soldiers, but several were civilians - one, an American student studying in Israel.
In late 1994, however, according to the wiretaps, Al-Arian tried to persuade PIJ leaders to join with Hamas to become a voice in the Palestinian Authority, which was negotiating with the Israelis.
A month before Shallah left WISE in June 1995, militant PIJ members issued a communique condemning the idea of a coalition, saying this strategy could result in an end to armed operations and require them to turn in their weapons.
But none of Al-Arian's secretly recorded conversations were known when Harper was talking to Al-Arian on Oct. 31, 1995.
The issue then was whether Shallah had been connected to the PIJ when he was director of WISE, raising questions about Al-Arian and other staff members.
At the conclusion of his conversation with Harper, Al-Arian assured the journalist that those at WISE would have never put themselves "in a situation like this ... if this guy is ... somewhere in the higher up of the organization.
"I mean we wouldn't be fool enough to put him ... as director of anything," Al-Arian said.
Staff writer Meg Laughlin can be reached at 813 226-3365 or firstname.lastname@example.org