Former professor at the University of South Florida
North American head of Palestinian Islamic Jihad
Active in the Islamic Society of North America, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, the American Muslim Council, the American Muslim Alliance, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations
Co-founded the World and Islam Studies Enterprise
Created the National Coalition to Protect Political Freedom
Former Chairman of the Islamic Academy of Florida
Born in Kuwait to Palestinian parents on January 14, 1958, Sami Al-Arian was educated in Egypt and then came to the United States in 1975. Three years later he earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical sciences and engineering from Southern Illinois University. He thereafter earned advanced degrees in computer engineering at North Carolina State University -- a master's degree in 1980 and a Ph.D. in 1985. As of 1981, he was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. In 1986 he was hired as a professor of computer science by the University of South Florida (USF), where he eventually earned tenure.
Al-Arian himself had been the subject of an FBI investigation since 1996. He had long been publicly identified as a terrorist by close observers of the Islamic Jihadmovement, including reporters for the Miami Herald and Investigative Project director Steven Emerson.
In his book American Jihad: The Terrorists Living Among Us, Emerson gives evidence of how, at USF, Al-Arian founded and headed various terrorist fronts that operated as "the American arm of Islamic Jihad," and how Al-Arian damned the United States and Israel rhetorically while raising funds for terrorism overseas.
Emerson also had surreptitiously videotaped Al-Arian at a rally exhorting attendees, in English, to donate $500 so that a Palestinian terrorist could be financed to kill an Israeli Jew. Former U.S. attorney John Loftus, meanwhile, had obtained videotapes of Al-Arian exhorting murder in Arabic, and Loftus initiated a lawsuit to pressure the U.S. government to prosecute Al-Arian for complicity in international terrorism. The government was slow to act, however, partially because of Saudi pressure.
But on September 26, 2001, Al-Arian appeared on Fox News Channel’s O’Reilly Factor. The host confronted Al-Arian with his videotaped calls for terrorist jihad and declared, “If I was the CIA, I’d follow you wherever you went.” The ensuing public uproar produced enough embarrassment to USF officials that they finally suspended Al-Arian from his professorship, with pay, on December 19, 2001.
Al-Arian responded to the suspension by adopting the posture of a victim: “I’m a minority,” he said. “I’m an Arab. I’m a Palestinian. I’m a Muslim. That’s not a popular thing to be these days. Do I have rights, or don’t I have rights?”
The American Left sprang to Al-Arian’s defense. Their efforts included articles in The Nation and Salon.com, whose reporter Eric Boehlert lamented “The Prime Time Smearing of Sami Al-Arian.” The head of Georgetown’s Middle East Studies program, Professor John Esposito, expressed concern that Al-Arian not be made a “victim of … anti-Arab and anti-Muslim bigotry.” And Professor Ellen Schrecker characterized Al-Arian’s suspension as an example of “political repression.”
Others who joined the Al-Arian defense chorus included the ACLU, the Center for Constitutional Rights, the USF faculty union, and the American Association of University Professors, the latter of which threatened to challenge USF's accreditation on grounds that the school had “violated” Al-Arian’s “academic freedom.” Meanwhile, faculty at Duke University invited Al-Arian to be the featured speaker at an academic symposium on “National Security and Civil Liberties.”
In its investigation of Al-Arian, the FBI raided WISE headquarters and seized some 500 videotapes of conferences in which Al-Arian had participated, where funds had been raised to aid terrorism efforts overseas. One FBI surveillance video of Al-Arian’s fundraising tour of American mosques showed him being introduced as “the President of the Islamic Committee for Palestine … the active arm of the Islamic Jihad movement.” In addition to others in the video who praised the killing of Jews and Christians, Al-Arian declaimed, “God cursed those who are the sons of Israel ... Those people, God made monkeys and pigs ... Let us damn America, let us damn Israel, let us damn them and their allies until death.” In another videotaped speech, Al-Arian said: “We assemble today to pay respects to the march of the martyrs and to the river of blood that gushes forth and does not extinguish, from butchery to butchery, and from martyrdom to martyrdom, from jihad to jihad.”
The FBI further learned that Al-Arian had connections to the blind sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, mastermind of the first World Trade Center attack in 1993; to Hamas official Mohammed Sakr; to the high-ranking Sudanese terrorist Hassan Turbai; and to Islamic Jihad co-founder Abdel Aziz-Odeh.
In February 2003 a federal grand jury handed down a 50-count indictment against Al-Arian and six others in Tampa, Florida who were believed to be fellow leaders of PIJ.
In Al-Arian's 2005 trial (which began in June and went on for 5 months), his attorney conceded that the client was an operative for PIJ. A reporter covering the trial summarized: “The trial exposed the professor as having been deeply enmeshed in the internal workings of Palestinian Islamic Jihad …” On December 6, 2005, Al-Arian was acquitted on eight of the seventeen counts against him, including "conspiracy to murder and maim people abroad," which was the most serious charge. The remaining nine counts ended in what was considered a mistrial, as the jury was deadlocked on them.
On February 28, 2006, Al-Arian signed a plea agreement in which he agreed to plead guilty to a single count of conspiracy to "make or receive funds ... for the benefit of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad." He was sentenced to 57 months in prison, (which included 38 months that he had already served). The judge who sentenced Al-Arian made reference to PIJ suicide bombings and told the defendant: "Anyone with even the slightest bit of human compassion would be sickened. Not you, you saw it as an opportunity to solicit more money to carry out more bombings." Vis a vis Al-Arian's claim that he had raised money for charities, the judge said: "Your only connection to widows and orphans was that you create them."
In June 2008, Al-Arian was indicted for criminal contempt after he repeatedly refused to testify before a federal grand jury investigating terror financing in northern Virginia. Al-Arian argued that his 2006 guilty plea contained an agreement absolving him of any future obligations to provide information to the government, either voluntarily or as a result of a court order. But Al-Arian's claim was rejected by the judge who had sentenced him in Tampa, by another judge in Alexandria, and by their respective circuit courts of appeal. Moreover, Al-Arian's attorneys have never produced any written evidence supporting their client's claim.
In April 2012, the Investigative Project on Terrorism (IPT) reported: "The case has been frozen in limbo ... by U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema's refusal to rule on defense motions to dismiss the contempt case despite repeated promises to deliver a written order as far back as the spring of 2009."
Also in April 2012, Al-Arian issued a statement "on behalf of all victims of injustice," in which he named a number of "innocent" Muslims who had been "targeted ... because of their beliefs, opinions, associations, and advocacy":
"Today Ali Al-Tamimi is serving life for giving a religious fatwa. Tarek Mehanna is serving 17 years for translating a document. Mufid Abdel Kader is serving 20 years because he had a beautiful voice and sang for Palestine. Ghassan El-Ashi and Shukri Abu Baker are serving 65 years each for feeding and clothing hungry Palestinian children ... Aafi (sic) Siddqui was sentenced to 86 years after she was shot and nearly died."
In response to Al-Arian's statement, IPT set the record straight:
"Al-Tamimi's fatwa urged followers to wage war against American troops and help the Taliban. Mehanna was convicted of conspiracy to provide material support to al-Qaida, providing material support to terrorists and conspiracy to commit murder in a foreign country. Abdel Kader, Elashi and Baker each were convicted for their work with the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, which illegally routed more than $12 million to Hamas before being shut down in 2001. Aafia Siddiqui was apprehended in Afghanistan in possession of plans for a 'mass casualty attack' in the United States, including a list of New York City landmarks. Prosecutors say she grabbed an Army officer's M-4 rifle and fired it at another officer and other members of a U.S. interview team at an Afghan police compound in July 2008."
In early December 2013, Al-Arian attended a Washington, DC event hosted by the Egypt Freedom Foundation, a recently formed group advocating for the restoration of Muslim Brotherhood leadership in Egypt.
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