- Founding member of World Islam Study Enterprise, an Islamic think tank
- Was arrested on secret FBI evidence that he was supporting terrorism
- Was deported from the U.S. in 2002
Born in Gaza in 1957, Mazen al Najjar worked as an Arabic language professor at the University of South Florida during the early to mid-1990s. He was a founding member -- along with Sami Al-Arian, Ramadan Abdullah Shallah, and Khalil Shikaki -- of the World Islam Study Enterprise (WISE), which was shut down in 1995 for its suspected ties to terrorism.
Al Najjar first entered the United States on a student visa in December 1981. He enrolled at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, where he went on to earn a master’s degree. In June 1986 he relocated to Tampa, Florida, and earned a doctorate in engineering at the University of South Florida (USF).
In May 1995, the Tampa Tribune reported that al Najjar and his brother-in-law, tenured USF professor Sami Al-Arian, were at the center of a Mideast-linked terrorist cell operating out of Tampa. Soon the INS and FBI began secretly investigating al Najjar, believing that WISE was a cover for terrorist fundraising and plotting. Their suspicions were heightened when WISE co-founder Ramadan Abdullah Shallah became the new leader of the terrorist organization Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) in October 1995, a few months after having left Tampa.
On July 18, 1996, the U.S. government initiated an immigration hearing on al Najjar (whose student visa was long expired) in Orlando, with the intent of deporting him as an illegal resident. In an open trial where the defendant was fully represented by legal counsel, the Immigration Court ruled that he had violated American immigration law.
On May 13, 1997, al Najjar was officially ordered deported. But when he subsequently announced his intent to appeal the ruling, he was detained (at an INS facility in Bradenton, Florida) without bail on the basis of classified information alleging his “association with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.” Detention in the immediate aftermath of a deportation order was a rarely utilized but entirely legal process. Yet it should be noted that if he had simply dropped his appeal (and had accepted deportation), he would have been a free man immediately, albeit in a country other than the United States.
Individuals and organizations sympathetic to al Najjar soon began impugning the U.S. government for its “draconian” use of “secret evidence” to justify holding the defendant “without charges.” Some of that secret evidence was information the government did not yet want to reveal, because further investigations were continuing against other, related, suspects.
On June 6, 1997, Immigration Judge R. Kevin McHugh denied al Najjar’s bail request after reviewing classified evidence furnished by the government. In a one-sentence summary, McHugh stated that al Najjar was “associated with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and a threat to national security.” On July 7, 1998, Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder declared that the defendant’s detention on secret evidence complied with legal procedural requirements. On September 15, the Board of Immigration Appeals upheld Judge McHugh’s denial of al Najjar’s bail.
On December 7, 1997, al Najjar asked U.S. authorities for permission to relocate, while he awaited his appeal hearing, to the South American country of Guyana. But this request quickly became a moot point when the Guyanese government stated that it would not permit al Najjar to settle there under any circumstances.
On December 22, 1999, al Najjar’s attorneys filed a habeas petition in a Miami federal court, demanding their client’s release on constitutional grounds. On May 31, 2000, U.S. District Judge Joan A. Lenard in Miami ruled that the government had violated al Najjar’s constitutional rights. Though she did not order the defendant released, she instructed the government to provide al Najjar with enough information about the nature of the evidence against him, so that he and his attorneys could prepare a legal defense.
On July 24, 1999, Amnesty International declared al Najjar a “prisoner of conscience” and asked the U.S. Justice Department to review his case.
On August 29, 2000, al Najjar’s public bail hearing got underway, with Judge R. Kevin McHugh presiding. Georgetown University law professor David Cole played the role of lead counsel for al Najjar. During the proceedings, the government introduced evidence consisting of videotapes of political conferences which had been held in the early 1990s. When Sami Al-Arian was called as a witness, he invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination some 100 times because he, too, was under investigation for terrorism at that time.
On August 31, 2000, al Najjar’s attorneys called a halt to the bail hearing when the government was about to present secret evidence in a closed-door session with Judge McHugh. David Cole demanded that McHugh first rule on the public portion of the hearing, and not take any secret evidence until after ensuring that an adequate summary of that evidence had been given to the defendant.
On September 12, 2000, Federal Judge Joan Lenard sided with al Najjar’s legal team, declaring that McHugh should first rule on the defendant’s bail based on the public case, before proceeding to the classified information.
At that point, al Najjar’s immigration case (before Judge McHugh) resumed. During the hearing, defense attorneys held daily press conferences outside the court while U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno’s Justice Department essentially muzzled the prosecution side. There were strong indications that a senior adviser on Reno’s staff was in direct contact with one of al Najjar’s lawyers during that period. On October 27, Judge McHugh -- after reviewing the same classified evidence he had reviewed in 1997 plus much new evidence -- issued a lengthy, convoluted decision stating that he would release al Najjar unless the government agreed to submit its secret evidence in a timely fashion.
The government complied with McHugh’s order, presenting him with its secret evidence as well as a written summary of that evidence (a summary which the government intended to share with al Najjar and his legal team). But McHugh deemed the summary inadequate and ordered the defendant released on $8,000 bail. The INS requested a stay of that release and expressed its wish to appeal the ruling. The Board of Immigration Appeals in Washington granted the stay.
On December 11, 2000, the Board of Immigration Appeals vacated the stay and indicated that it would permit al Najjar to bail out of custody. The following day, Attorney General Reno stayed al Najjar’s release until December 15. But ultimately the defendant won a temporary release from detention after Reno (who, for three-and-a-half years, had supported the position that al Najjar was a PIJ-linked supporter of terrorism) allowed Judge McHugh’s decision to stand. Thus the defendant was released on the $8,000 bond.
In November 2001 al Najjar lost his deportation appeal before the 11th Federal Circuit Court of Appeals. He was re-arrested by the INS and was detained without bond.
In a May 2002 press release, the American Civil Liberties Union stated: “Mazen Al Najjar has never been charged with a crime, yet he has spent more than four years behind bars, first on secret evidence that he had no chance to rebut, and for the last six months on no evidence of dangerousness whatsoever.”
In August 2002 al Najjar was finally deported to Lebanon.