Walking down a street in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1977, 17-year-old Walid Phares stopped to tie his shoe. Seconds later, he felt a wave of heat pushing him back. He saw a ball of fire about 300 feet away and then saw cars, bodies and black smoke coming from the fireball.
"If it wasn't for my shoe lace, I'd be dead," says Dr. Phares. "Sixty five people were killed that day; many children. That was my first experience with terrorism."
Since then, Phares, whose Mediterranean appearance goes along with his Arabic accent, has dedicated much of his life to informing people about the threats of terrorism. A full-time political science professor at FAU, he is a nationally recognized terrorism expert who appears regularly on MSNBC, NBC, CBS, C-SPAN and PBS.
In addition, he heads numerous clubs and organizations at FAU, including the Human Rights Organization, Student Association of Middle East Studies and the American Foreign Policy Association.
"Phares is ubiquitous," says former student Iyad Awadalah. "I'd see him on campus and in class. At home, I would see him on MSNBC being interviewed. Then, I'd turn on the radio in the car and hear Phares explaining the latest crisis, sometimes all in the same day!"
Dr. Phares started teaching at FAU in 1993. He teaches Comparative Religion, Ethnic Conflict, Middle East Conflict and Terrorism to graduate, undergraduate and Lifelong Learning students. Since 9/11, Phares' classes have continued to grow in popularity with students who are eager to broaden their knowledge of international issues, such as terrorism and human rights abuses.
"I felt called upon to give younger people a better view worldwide, especially of the Middle East," he says.
Phares' knowledge of terrorism literally hits home. Born and reared in Beirut, he witnessed the terrorist-inflicted atrocities the Lebanese War brought to his hometown between 1975 and 1990.
"Through my experience in Lebanon," he says, "I felt that we are the very few in the whole world to experience and be the victim of terrorism. There are very many in the free world, America, who are unaware of it. I felt I had a mission: inform and educate the world."
Phares has a bachelor's degree in political science and public law from St. Joseph University and Lebanese University in Beirut and a master's in international law from Universite de Lyons in France. He practiced law and taught at a French university in Beirut. He was well established. But after his home and office were destroyed in 1990 as a result of the war, he fled to the United States for what he thought would be a temporary stay.
That was the defining point in Phares' life. He had felt the impact of terrorism and understood the realities. "Every time I now hear of terrorism, I know exactly what it is. It is like seeing evil return," says Phares.
Though Phares fully expected to return to Beirut, the University of Miami offered him a fellowship to study for a Ph.D. He says he could not resist and in 1993 received a doctorate in international relations.
"[Studying at UM] gave me the opportunity to develop my research in America and test theories I had been working on for many years," says Phares.
He was later hired as an adjunct instructor by Florida International University and as a visiting professor by FAU. The Department of Political Science invited Phares for one year, but then hired him as a full-time professor in 1995.
Phares' responsibilities extend far beyond the classroom. In 1997, he first appeared on CNN. His main goal was to inform Americans of the threats of terrorism. He has traveled to the Middle East, Sweden, the United Kingdom and France talking about terrorism and human rights abuses.
"I was able to talk about potential terrorist cells in the U.S. and I described what became a reality six years after," says Phares.
Since 1998, Phares has conducted regular briefings and done research for congressional committees about terrorism. He warned of potential terrorist dangers on American soil. He has been called upon by the U.S. Department of Justice to view confidential documents and provide his expertise to the government in reference to terrorist related trials.
In 1998 he also testified before Congress regarding two bills: the Freedom from Religious Persecution Act and the International Religious Freedom Act. Both passed.
Though the U.S. seemed oblivious, Phares noticed early signs of Osama bin Laden's 9/11 attack, such as the U.S. embassy bombings in Africa in 1998 and the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000.
"If the people of the U.S. don't understand what's going on, that [terrorism] may occur in the U.S., I feel I must offer my expertise," says Phares.
Phares has authored eight books and numerous articles on subjects such as Islamic fundamentalism, Middle Eastern politics, human rights and terrorism.
When the 9/11 attacks occurred, Phares was "shocked, but not surprised." He had a feeling of deja vu from his years in Lebanon, he recalls. Many of Phares' students approached him and said, "You were right."
Phares, who speaks Arabic, French and English, was the first in the U.S. to appear on Fox News and NBC to analyze the Al Jazeera-aired message from Osama bin Laden following the 9/11 attacks. The media have since called him for comment and insight whenever a major event occurs. He has appeared on major national prime time TV shows such as O'Reilly, Hardball, Dan Abrams, Greta Van Susteren, Dateline, Tony Snow, and many others.
Phares is now an MSNBC terrorism analyst. Due to his knowledge of Arabic and Middle Eastern culture, his expertise is much sought after. He has placed himself on-call 24 hours a day.
Yet Phares makes time in his schedule to educate his increasing number of students.
"The most rewarding part of teaching is seeing students evolve," he says. "They don't realize it, but I do, noting from the beginning of the semester to the end of the semester.
"Another rewarding part of teaching is when students share with me how their lives were affected by this teaching experience in the classroom."
His undergraduate and graduate courses on the Middle East have doubled in size since 9/11. His new Conflict in the Middle East course is now the largest 4000 level class in the college, with 160 students.
That isn't his largest class, though. He also teaches at the FAU Lifelong Learning Center, which sponsors the largest senior citizen education program in the U.S. With a full amphitheater and a long waiting list, Phares now addresses more than 500 seniors once a week both in Boca Raton and in West Palm Beach.
The Sun-Sentinel described his following as an "army of faithful." Marylin Cutler, a Lifelong Learning student, says, "People keep coming for years. Some among us are called the 'Phares veterans.'"
Phares is anxious for his Human Rights Organization at FAU to grow and recently organized its first sponsored forum at which he showed two documentaries about slavery in Africa. He gave a lecture and had guest lecturers speaking about slavery.
"Phares is determined to raise awareness about human rights abuses around the world," says Adrianne Johnson, HRO media relations director. "Through this program, abuses going on in Africa to slaves and in the Middle East to women are brought right to FAU for students to see and get involved."
Phares has always enjoyed teaching, but since 9/11 he has felt it is his duty.
"I have never seen the wondering eyes of students [so much]," Phares says. "'What's going on?' [they seem to ask]. For the first time ever, my classes went beyond the limit, the students were hungry for knowledge . . . Education is not a job any more, it's a mission."