Almost eight years have passed since Ramadan Abdullah Shallah, an obscure professor at the University of South Florida, departed to become head of a Middle East terrorist organization.
His colleagues in Tampa said they were shocked by news that Shallah was connected to the Damascus-based Palestinian Islamic Jihad. He never preached extremism here, they said.
On Thursday, some of those colleagues were arrested and charged as Shallah's conspirators, accused of raising funds in the United States to support acts of terrorism in Israel.
"It's important to send a message that there's no difference between the guy who pulls the trigger and the guy who sends support," says Matthew Levitt, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, of Thursday's arrests.
He says, "Shallah plays a very proactive role," in the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, "including personally sending funds to terrorists in the West Bank."
Shallah has been increasingly visible in the media, claiming responsibility for attacks in November and December that killed 16 Jewish settlers.
"The operation," Shallah told the al-Jazeera satellite channel, "is a clear message to the Zionist enemy that it can enjoy no security while it continues to perpetrate massacres against the Palestinian people."
Shallah was born in Gaza. With a doctorate in economics from the University of Durham in Britain, Shallah came to Tampa in 1991, teaching a politics class at USF and joining the World and Islam Studies Enterprise, a think tank on Middle East issues affiliated with USF and founded by USF professor Sami Al-Arian.
"He did good scholarly work and there was never any evidence that he was active on the part of Islamic Jihad," says professor Arthur Lowrie, a retired foreign service officer who helped coordinate academic conferences sponsored by USF and WISE.
Palestinian Islamic Jihad emerged in the early 1980s. Less organized and smaller than Hamas, a fundamentalist group with an extensive social network of hospitals and schools, Islamic Jihad has more recently claimed increasing numbers of attacks on settlers and Israeli troops.
Shallah said he was going home to be with family when he left Tampa in spring 1995. He was announced as leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad after his predecessor, Fathi Shikaki, was assassinated in October 1995, purportedly by Israeli agents. Shallah does not leave Syria to avoid being similarly targeted.
Shikaki's brother, respected pollster Khalil Shikaki, also spent time at WISE and is credited with establishing the think tank and its ties to USF.