In a trial with more important national security implications than any since the Rosenbergs', Sami Al-Arian now begins his third month in the dock. The defense claims that Al-Arian is a peaceful Muslim with unpopular political views. But according to prosecutors, while Al-Arian was a professor at the University of South Florida, and Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times was affectionately characterizing him as a "rumpled academic with a salt-and-pepper beard," he was actually the head of the American wing of the terrorist group Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), held a key position in the group's worldwide leadership, and even established a cell of the terrorist group at his university.
Al-Arian's ties to PIJ have long been widely known. As long ago as 1994, Steve Emerson's PBS documentary, Jihad in America, identified him as the head of PIJ's American group. Federal officials began to investigate him for terrorist activities in 1996. But now the trial has brought a great deal of information about the nature and extent of Al-Arian's activities on behalf of Palestinian Islamic Jihad to light. Much of this was hitherto unknown or only sketchily reconstructed by intelligence officials. The trial has become the occasion for the professor, whose case has for years been a minor cause celebre among Leftists, to be confronted with the fruit of his labors for the first time. Israeli policeman Yuval Avargil was on the scene at Beit Lid in Israel on January 22, 1995, when a PIJ suicide bomber exploded a bomb that killed twenty-two people. "I opened my eyes," Avergil recounted at the trial on August 15, "I heard something rolling near me, I saw a head of a soldier with his eyes open on the side."
What did the Rumpled Academic think of this attack? He wrote about the bombing enthusiastically almost three weeks later in a letter to Kuwaiti politician Ismail al- Shatti: "The latest operation, carried out by the two mujahideen who were martyred for the sake of God, is the best guide and witness to what the believing few can do in the face of Arab and Islamic collapse at the heels of the Zionist enemy and in keeping the flame of faith, steadfastness and defiance glowing." He also asked for donations so that "operations such as these can continue." Key to the defense's case at this point is Al-Shatti's contention that he never received this letter: on August 9, the defense asked for a mistrial on the grounds that they had only just received word from the FBI that Al-Shatti was claiming that he had never received the letter. They claim that this violates the rule stipulating that they must receive information that could help their case in a timely manner. Prosecutors, meanwhile, are now hoping that Abdurraham Alamoudi, once the leading "moderate Muslim" and now serving a 23-year prison sentence on other charges, will corroborate their claim that the letter was hand-delivered to Al-Shatti.
Al-Arian, for his part, has consistently denied any involvement with the leadership of PIJ or any other "political organization." In fact, when in early 1995 Tampa Tribune reporter Michael Fechter probed his ties to the jihad group, Al-Arian attributed it all to the sinister hand that jihadists so often see behind their misfortunes, no matter how farfetched the connection: "This," he intoned to another PIJ member on a tape played at the trial on August 11, "is an Israeli job, my brother." Prosecutors played the tape to establish that Al-Arian had lied to Fechter about his terrorist ties, and specifically about his relationship with Ramadan Shallah. Shallah, whom Al-Arian had brought to the University of South Florida and given a job as the head of a think tank, was likewise unhappy about the media coverage. According to transcripts of wiretapped conversations and intercepted faxes read out in court in August, he contacted PIJ chief Fathi Shiqaqi in Damascus to notify him that Al-Arian and his operation were having "problems with the press….We are sitting under the, what do you call it, sitting under the guillotine, you know." One recently released transcript revealed that Shallah had made his loyalties clear in February 1994 when he quoted to Shiqaqi a work by Arabic poet Ahmad Matar: "I am against America until this life ends and the scale is placed in the afterlife. I am against her even if the stones relented one day and the flint liquefied. My hatred for America is so that if the worlds contained some of it, the worlds would tumble down. She is ... in evils and all evil on this earth. Who other than her planted tyrants on our land?" Shallah then got onto the phone to explain to Al-Arian: "I sent it to soothe his mind about the issue of America."
Shiqaqi need not have worried. Not long after investigations by terrorism expert Steven Emerson and the local Florida press began bringing too much unwanted attention to Al-Arian's activities, Shallah left the country. When Shiqaqi was killed, Al-Arian's protégé became head of the PIJ. Shallah recently warned that Palestinian Islamic Jihad had no intention of renouncing violence against Israel in the wake of the Gaza pullout. The jihad that he and Al-Arian once pursued from South Florida would continue.
But does Sami Al-Arian actually disapprove of such statements by his former associate? Is he caught in the middle of terrorist activities by others who are linked to him, but with which he has had nothing to do? A clue may come from a 1989 conference of the Islamic Committee for Palestine – captured on a video that has just come to light, and was shown at the trial in late July. Held in Chicago, the conference featured a panel discussion moderated by Al-Arian. As the Rumpled Academic looked on, one panelist addressed a question about how to solve the Israel/Palestinian conflict by inviting him to talk with him later about weapons smuggling techniques. Another, Imam Fawaz Damra of Cleveland, a former high-profile "moderate" who has recently been deported for failing to disclose his ties to terrorist groups on his visa application, declared: "The first principle is that terrorism, and terrorism alone, is the path to liberation."
Damra, incidentally, was one of the signers of the recent fatwa condemning terrorism issued by the Fiqh Council of North America under the auspices of the Council on American Islamic Relations and the Muslim Public Affairs Council. Damra's name among the signatories lends credence to the view that this fatwa, despite the enthusiastic praise it has received from the mainstream media, is in fact another exercise in the deception that Damra and others so skillfully practiced in America for so long, while continuing behind closed doors to support terror. Just how skillfully Sami Al-Arian played this game is now becoming clear in South Florida. Another video that has been shown publicly for the first time at the trial depicts Al-Arian exhorting his Muslim audience to "adopt the choice of jihad."
Ah, but surely he was urging them to wage a spiritual struggle to bring their lives into conformity with the will of Allah, right? Perhaps – but last Tuesday FBI Agent Kerry Myers even testified that Palestinian Islamic Jihad was planning a strike inside the United States. Myers declined to give any details of this attack, saying that they were classified – which drew derisive laughter from some of Al-Arian's supporters. But every day the trial seems to reveal more evidence that the Rumpled Academic's gentle demeanor and liberal pieties masked something considerably more sinister: they may not be laughing for much longer.
Robert Spencer is a scholar of Islamic history, theology, and law and the director of Jihad Watch. He is the author of five books, seven monographs, and hundreds of articles about jihad and Islamic terrorism, including Islam Unveiled: Disturbing Questions About the World's Fastest Growing Faith and The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades). He is also an Adjunct Fellow with the Free Congress Foundation.