Within a month's time in 1994, Sami Al-Arian went from being a Palestinian Islamic Jihad leader to a PIJ afterthought.
That was the overriding theme of Tuesday's testimony in the federal conspiracy trial of the former University of South Florida professor.
In February 1994, the think tank Al-Arian founded in Tampa was in dire financial straits and Al-Arian devised a scheme to raid the Gaza bank account of the PIJ treasurer without his knowledge.
Al-Arian's plan, according to FBI wiretaps: Transfer almost $350,000 from the Gaza bank account belonging to his brother-in-law, PIJ treasurer Mohammed Tasir Hassan Al-Khatib, into a Tampa bank account he once shared with Khatib, so he could pay salaries and operating expenses for the World and Islam Studies Enterprise.
Only a month before, according to FBI wiretaps of his conversations, Al-Arian expected access to the PIJ Gaza money because a financial plan he authored had been approved by top PIJ leaders in Syria. But, when the plan was inexplicably dumped, he was besieged with complaints from WISE employees who had not been paid for more than a month.
To make matters worse for Al-Arian, an Islamic think tank based in Virginia with better funding offered several of the employees jobs with regular salaries. Feeling shut out, Al-Arian talked to WISE employee Ramadan Shallah, who went on to become the top PIJ leader in late 1995, about the dismal future of WISE.
Shallah: "The subject of WISE, it's over. ... "
Al-Arian: "You mean we dismantle WISE?"
Shallah: "Let it be dismantled ... "
Desperate for money for WISE, Al-Arian then talked to Bashir Nafi, another WISE employee who had moved to England, about signing Khatib's signature on a money transfer request sent to the Gaza bank.
He told Nafi, according to the wiretaps, that he would first get the signature card from the Tampa bank in order to have the signature of Khatib. Then he would send a letter with Khatib's copied signature on it to "an uncle" in the occupied territories who would send it on to the Gaza bank, with the correct postmark, and request that the money be transferred to Al-Arian and Khatib's account in Tampa.
Al-Arian: "So, we leave one or two thousand dollars and we will send the rest."
Nafi: "It is possible that it works but everyone has his own style of writing ... "
Al-Arian: "My brother we write it; we type it. ... I am going to send it from my uncle. I want to send it from that country, not from here."
Nafi: "Okay, you can withdraw 100 (thousand) first and see if it works or not. ... "
But the plan went afoul because Al-Arian had closed down the Tampa account he shared with Khatib and couldn't get the bank to release the signature card. Prosecutors played a phone conversation between Al-Arian and Nation's Bank teller Sandra Lynch to show what happened.
Al-Arian: "Why can't we reopen the account?"
Lynch: "It's not that easy."
In a separate phone conversation, after Lynch confirmed that bank policy prohibited her from reopening a closed account, Al-Arian asked Lynch for a copy of Khatib's signature card.
"Why would you need a copy of that?" asked Lynch. "I don't know if we could do that."
"Why not?" asked Al-Arian. "I need a copy and he needs a copy, and I don't understand what the problem is."
Lynch, who testified Tuesday, said she refused to give Al-Arian the signature card. It appears that Al-Arian dropped the matter after that.
Al-Arian and co-defendants Sameeh Hammoudeh, Hatem Fariz and Ghassan Ballut are accused of using Islamic charities as fronts in a conspiracy to finance terrorist attacks by Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which has claimed responsibility for killing more than 100 people in Israel and the occupied territories. USF suspended its affiliation with WISE in 1995. It closed after it was raided by the FBI.
In mid March 1994, a month after the failed attempt to raid Khatib's account, Al-Arian got a phone call from him.
"Apprehension is evident in the tone of your voice," Khatib begins.
Al-Arian tries to finesse the comment and move on.
Khatib tells him about a plan to use part of the money for the "families of martyrs" in the occupied territories. Then, the PIJ treasurer says he is fearful Al-Arian has done things "behind our backs."
According to the transcript of the conversation, Al-Arian laughs, becomes a bit tongue-tied, then tells Khatib: "By God, there is nothing."
Khatib then brings up WISE, asking Al-Arian if Nafi will continue to work there.
"We don't have the funds," says Al-Arian. "How could he make a living?"
When Khatib doesn't respond to Al-Arian's question, Al-Arian tells him: "Brother, I have nothing. ... It's over."