Monday, May 16, 2005

Al-Arian, three others to face jury on terrorism finance charges


TAMPA, Fla. - Ten years ago, American student Alisa Flatow boarded a bus for a trip to a beach resort in the Gaza Strip for a much needed pre-Passover break from her studies at a Jewish women's seminary.

At the Israeli settlement of Kfar Daroom, a young man sat in a van loaded with explosives. As the bus approached, he steered his rolling bomb at it with ferocious speed and slammed into the bus' side.

Eight people died from the April 9, 1995 terrorist attack - seven Israelis and Alisa Flatow.

A few months later and half a world away in Tampa, a computer science professor at the University of South Florida who had become nationally known a Palestinian rights activist became the subject of intense scrutiny.

Sami Al-Arian already had been secretly under investigation by FBI foreign intelligence agents as he had quietly gone about establishing an Islamic academic think tank, a school, a mosque and a charity for Palestinian children. But authorities were questioning whether the true mission of Al-Arian's work was to finance terrorist attacks in Israel.

Years would pass before the seemingly parallel lives of the idealistic university student who loved Israel and the impassioned Palestinian professor - who went on to gain access to the White House and a handful of powerful politicians - would be connected in that violent and deadly attack.

When Al-Arian and three other men go on trial before U.S. District Judge James Moody in Tampa, Flatow's family will be in the courtroom to watch the men they believe are responsible for her death brought to justice. Jury selection begins Monday and opening arguments aren't expected to start until June 6 .

The trial is expected to last six months and will be thick with emotional issues of politics, prejudice, religion and free speech.

"These people, they have no respect for life," said her father, Stephen Flatow of West Orange, N.J. "They will continue to pick on innocent people just to accomplish their means. That's why this trial is so important. You have to send a message."

On trial will be Al-Arian, Sameeh Hammoudeh, Hatim Naji Fariz and Ghassan Zayed Ballut on a 53-count indictment which includes charges of racketeering, conspiracy and providing material support to terrorists. Five other men have been indicted but have not been arrested.

The attack that killed Alisa Flatow is one which prosecutors say was carried out by the Islamic Jihad with Al-Arian's financial backing.

The men face life in prison if convicted of charges they used an Islamic academic think tank and a Palestinian charity Al-Arian founded as a fundraising fronts for the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

The indictments were handed down in February 2003 and Al-Arian and Hammoudeh have been held without bail and spent much of their confinement at the federal prison north of Tampa where they were housed in a security unit reserved for the most dangerous federal convicts.

The men have protested their treatment as another indication the government's response to anti-Islamic "hysteria" behind their prosecution.

Al-Arian is alternately viewed as a crusader for Palestinian rights who is being persecuted for his unpopular views and as a terrorist who hid behind a veil of legitimacy while secretly financing deadly attacks thousands of miles away and flexing his political muscle.

In a statement released after his February 2003 arrest, Al-Arian called himself a "prisoner of conscience."

"Much of what people are saying about Sami Al-Arian could have been said likewise about Nelson Mandela," said William Moffitt, the Washington criminal defense attorney who is representing Al-Arian.

"Now Nelson Mandela is a hero for having supported his people. Sami Al-Arian is a villain for being the voice of the Palestinian people. There aren't really a lot of voices in this country who have spoken favorably for the Palestinian people."

Defense attorneys do not believe that Al-Arian can get a fair trial in Tampa - where his activities have been the subject of intense media scrutiny for eight years and the subject of a bitter U.S. Senate campaign last year - and have asked the trial be moved.

In Tampa's large Muslim community, where Al-Arian is respected community leader, the feelings are mixed. But the government's move to detain Al-Arian and Hammoudeh is largely viewed as a civil rights violation and a move to halt his pro-Palestinian activities, said Ahmed Bedier, the head of the local chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

"The opinion of the community is diverse" and if Al-Arian is convicted, "some will reject the verdict by saying we knew he would not get a fair trial. Others will go further to defend him and push for an appeal," Bedier said.

Al-Arian, who was born in Kuwait to Palestinian parents, came to the United States in 1975 to study and became a permanent resident alien in 1989. He has organized voter registration drives, campaigned for candidates and lobbied politicians.

Court documents show the government has built the case reaching back through decades of intercepted telephone calls, faxes and other documents gathered by the FBI's foreign intelligence agents dating back to 1984.

Former agents have said the case took so long because much of the evidence against Al-Arian couldn't be used in court before the Patriot Act - the post Sept. 11 law which allowed the sharing of information between the different units of the FBI which gathered foreign intelligence and those who investigated crimes.

Prosecutors contend there is direct evidence of Al-Arian's involvement with actual attacks. The indictment alleges that in 1993, Al-Arian sent four wire transfers of nearly $2,000 each to the relatives of four convicted Islamic Jihad terrorists who had been convicted of the murder of three Israelis.

They point to video from the early 1990s where a fiery Al-Arian shouts "Death to Israel" or when he shared the stage with Sheik Omar Abdul Rahman, the blind Egyptian cleric convicted for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

Al-Arian's attorneys are also questioning how, if he were a dangerous terrorist financier, could he have gained access to White House and met with Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush on four separate occasions.

Nearly two dozen other prominent political and government leaders from both parties - Hilary Clinton, Newt Gingrich, Trent Lott and Dennis Hastert among them - are reported by Al-Arian's attorneys to have had contact with him.

The attorneys declined to elaborate on Al-Arian's prominent connections, calling them a key component of the defense.

"If Dr. Al-Arian is supposedly this awful terrorist, how did he get so close to these people is a really interesting question," Moffitt said.

But some of those named as having contact with Al-Arian say they have no memory of him, and even if they had met him it still means nothing.

"It's frankly irrelevant," said Rick Tyler, a spokesman for Gingrich. "Many politicians meet with thousands of thousands of people. It's the nature of being a public figure."

While the defense may be focusing on the prominent people Al-Arian might have known, the prosecution said more important is the shadowy figures with whom Al-Arian did business.

Chief among them is Ramadan Abdullah Shallah, one the five indicted co-conspirators who have not yet been arrested. Al-Arian brought Shallah to USF to run the think tank, the World and Islam Studies Enterprise, which had office space at USF. Shallah abruptly left Tampa in mid-1995 and resurfaced in Damascus as the Islamic Jihad's new leader.

Stephen Flatow, who has been subpoenaed to testify, said the trial will be an important moment in his family's continuing quest for justice in his daughter's death. Flatow said he wasn't told until 2003 that agents believed there to be a connection between Al-Arian and the bombing which killed Alisa Flatow.

"I felt very, very good our government was finally standing up for Americans who are killed by other Americans on the other side of the world," he said. "If someone is going to provide the means to commit a crime, you are just as guilty as the person who pulled the plunger. If anything these guys are cowards."
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