University attempts to recover from accused terrorists in midst

KRT NEWSFEATURES By William Yardley and Phil Long Knight Ridder Newspapers (KRT) TAMPA, Fla. _ College professor. Graduate student. Defender of free speech. Ultimately, they all were aliases for terrorists, the FBI now says, who for more than a decade used the University of South Florida to serve their purposes: providing financial and organizational support for suicide bombings and other killings intended to destroy Israel. It began, USF officials say, as an honest if naive attempt to expand the young and ambitious university’s Middle Eastern studies program as interest increased during the Gulf War crisis. It ended Thursday, with the unsealing of a federal grand jury indictment that named eight men and led to the arrest of four. “The defendants and Palestinian Islamic Jihad utilized USF as an institution where some of their members could receive cover as teachers or students,” the indictment said. “Additionally, USF was utilized by PIJ as the instrumentality through which the co-conspirators could bring other PIJ members and associates into the United States under the guise of academic conferences and meetings.” The indictment links to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad at least four men with USF ties. The principal suspect, Sami al-Arian, has been a professor of computer engineering at the school for 17 years. Investigators say he leads PIJ in the United States. In addition to al-Arian, the indictment named USF doctoral student Sameeh Hammoudeh and former USF lecturer Ramadan Abdullah Shallah, who had moved to Syria by the time the United States first declared him a terrorist in 1995 and now is a primary leader of PIJ. It also describes a ninth man as an “unindicted coconspirator:” al-Arian’s brother-in-law Mazen al-Najjar, a part-time Arabic instructor at USF deported last August after years of imprisonment on secret charges. Their link to USF and Tampa began in 1986, when al-Arian arrived from North Carolina State University and entered a tenure-track teaching position in USF’s growing school of engineering. A few years later, during the Gulf War crisis, a Middle East studies committee began looking for ways to increase Middle Eastern and Arabic programs at the school. ___ “USF was receiving encouragement from officials at MacDill Field in Tampa, home of the United States Central Command, including General Norman H. Schwarzkopf, to develop scholarly interest in, and devote research and instructional effort to, the Middle East region,” according to an independent report attorney Reece Smith wrote for the university in 1996, after media reports increased and an FBI investigation was under way. Al-Arian introduced the committee to the World and Islamic Studies Program, WISE, a think-tank al-Arian had founded in Tampa in 1991 as a center that would increase understanding of the Muslim world. Like al-Arian and al-Najjar, many WISE members were Muslim clerics. Al Arian’s initial plan had been to base WISE in Washington, D.C., but when fundraising and logistical needs proved too challenging, Tampa, already home for al-Arian and al-Najjar, became the headquarters. The USF Middle Eastern studies committee, headed by now-retired professor Mark Orr, jumped at the chance to connect with WISE. With no Southeastern university offering a broad curriculum on the Middle East, USF, established in 1956, saw an opportunity to establish a niche. “We’d never really had a strong Middle Eastern studies program,” USF spokesman Michael Reich said. Tampa soon became an important destination for al-Arian’s colleagues, and Middle East studies grew at USF. It was 1992: the same year al-Arian founded the Islamic Academy of Florida, a K-12 school for Muslim children near USF; the same year Sameeh Hammoudeh arrived in Tampa and allegedly helped al-Arian and Shallah alter the wills of three PIJ suicide bombers using WISE computers; the same year al-Najjar allegedly used a USF credit union account for terrorist purposes, receiving by wire $99,990 from a “co-conspirator” in the United Arab Emirates. By 1994, Shallah also was a visiting teacher at USF, teaching Arabic through the relationship with WISE. In addition to his roles at the university, WISE and the Islamic Academy, al-Arian had founded the Islamic Committee for Palestine in 1988, and presented the group as a U.S.-based support network for Middle Easterners in need, including orphans. As ties between WISE and USF were strengthening, a journalist named Steven Emerson was completing a television documentary that, combined with other media reports and an ongoing FBI investigation, would rattle USF for much of the next decade. PBS aired Emerson’s documentary, “Jihad in America,” in 1994. The program claimed al-Arian was raising money for PIJ. The program prompted more media coverage, sometimes skeptical of the allegations. The next year the FBI raided the offices of al-Arian and al-Najjar. USF then put al-Arian on paid leave for two years beginning in 1996. Emerson, now a frequently consulted terrorism expert who runs the Investigative Project, a terrorism archive in Washington, D.C., said in an interview last week that USF, the media and even national politicians played indirect roles in protecting al-Arian and his alleged conspirators by not looking closely enough at their activities. Count 42 of the indictment says, “The enterprise members would and did make false statements and misrepresent facts to representatives of the media to promote the goals of PIJ.” Emerson said al-Arian exploited freedom of speech and freedom of religion _ fundamental elements of American constitutional rights _ along with the tolerant atmosphere of a university setting, to mask terrorist activity. “He had the humanitarian cover. He had the religious cover and he had an academic cover,” Emerson said. “I call it the trifecta of Western vulnerability.” ___ Former USF president Betty Castor, who left the school in 1999, said Friday the university “acted prudently” during the ongoing FBI investigation of al-Arian and other USF students and teachers. Two years after putting al-Arian on leave, with no concrete evidence from law enforcement, USF allowed al-Arian to return to teaching in 1998. “The university always cooperated with law enforcement and particularly the FBI,” Castor said. Law enforcement “could never extend enough information.” Firing a tenured professor is a complicated process that requires extensive justification; Castor made no moves to terminate al-Arian. “I suppose we could have left him on paid leave but it would have been hard to justify doing that forever,” she said. “It was an uncomfortable position and I’m pleased this is moving toward a resolution.” She would not discuss regrets. “It’s hard to go back and reconstruct,” Castor said. “I don’t want to add what-ifs to the whole issue.” Yet another man related to USF, former instructor Dr. Khalil Shikaki, was the brother of Fathi Shikaki, one of the founders of Palestinian Islamic Jihad who was assassinated in Malta in 1995. Khalil Shikaki moved to Florida in late 1990 to lead WISE, which was incorporated early the next year. He is not named in the indictment. The one defendant with Tampa ties but no reported link to USF is Hatim Naji Fariz, accused of supporting fundraising for terrorists. Fariz came to Florida about a year ago from the Chicago area, where he was a courier. Manal Ramadan, the woman at Fariz’s Spring Hill home who said she was his wife, said Fariz had met al-Arian and al-Najjar once or twice in Illinois, but she said the relationships were not the reason the couple moved to the Tampa area. Ramadan said they came because Fariz had accepted a job as office manager in a medical clinic. She later got a job teaching at al-Arian’s Islamic Academy. She said Hammoudeh’s wife also teaches there. At USF, spokesman Reich said the school is more careful now about creating alliances with outside groups. He emphasized that under current president Judy Genshaft, USF has begun the process of firing al-Arian. “We didn’t have the proper systems in place for entering into partnerships,” Reich said of the alliance between USF and WISE. “We’ve grown up quickly in the last decade.” Asked how USF reviews its employees’ pasts, Reich said of those accused this week, “There’s nothing in their background that would have shown up in a background check.” The bulk of the alleged “overt acts” occurred after the men were connected to USF. “Clearly,” Reich said. “USF was hurt by this.” ___ ‘copy 2003, The Miami Herald. Visit The Miami Herald Web edition on the World Wide Web at Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.