Sami Al-Arian has strange friends.
12:01 AM, Oct 3, 2001 • By DAVID TELL
SAMI AL-ARIAN, THE UNIVERSITY OF SOUTH FLORIDA PROFESSOR featured in the editorial I wrote for this week's print edition of The Weekly Standard, now appears to be in some difficulty with his employers.
Last Wednesday, during an on-air interview with Fox News Channel controversialist Bill O'Reilly, Al-Arian was invited to explain certain public remarks he's made ("Jihad is our path! Victory to Islam! Death to Israel!") and certain formal and informal relationships he's enjoyed (for example: with Sheikh Abdul Rahman, now in prison for directing the first World Trade Center bombing, and Ramadan Abdullah Shallah, current head of the Islamic Jihad terrorist organization). Professor Al-Arian told O'Reilly that incendiary comments he's made in the past should be placed in proper "context." He further claimed to have been surprised when several of his acquaintances later surfaced in connection with political violence.
Reaction to this interview was swift down in Florida. The next day, USF president Judy Genshaft released a blunt statement underscoring that "Dr. Al-Arian does not speak for the university" and promising that, should he fail to make that clear in the future, "we will take the strongest possible discipline." Al-Arian expressed some disappointment at Genshaft s words, calling them "disingenuous." Then, on Friday, citing a blizzard of phone calls and e-mails from angry and concerned USF parents--along with at least one death threat--the university suspended Al-Arian, with pay. USF spokesmen say the suspension is indefinite and will be lifted only when campus security can be guaranteed.
Defenders of the professor, a permanent legal resident of the United States, contend that he is being "viciously maligned" purely on the basis of what he thinks and whom he's known. "My father is innocent" of actual involvement with terrorism, Georgetown University student Laila Al-Arian proclaimed in a letter published yesterday by the Oracle, USF's campus newspaper. She cited a ruling last fall by immigration judge R. Kevin McHugh in a case involving the detention of her uncle, Mazen Al-Najjar. "There is no evidence before this court, " McHugh wrote, sufficient to prove that a think tank and charity founded by the senior Al-Arian were fronts for Islamic Jihad.
But McHugh's ruling was a bit more complicated than the professor's daughter lets on. In 1997, following a two-year FBI investigation, Mazen Al-Najjar, in this country on an invalid visa, was detained by the Immigration and Naturalization Service--and kept in detention for more than three years--on the basis of terrorism evidence the government said was too sensitive to be made public or shared with the suspect s lawyers. Given a peek at this evidence, Judge McHugh originally upheld the detention, calling Al-Najjar a "threat to national security, a threat to society, and a possible flight risk."
Complaining that they could not defend their client against evidence they hadn't seen, Al-Najjar's attorneys then appealed to federal district court judge Joan Lenard, who agreed that his due process rights had been violated. She ordered the government to make available a summary of its secret evidence and directed McHugh to rehear the case without reference to any facts not contained either in that summary or in the public record. But though the FBI and INS had already made plain their determination that Mazen Al-Najjar and his brother-in-law, Sami Al-Arian, were "mid-level operatives" for Islamic Jihad, they remained unwilling to reveal precisely why. So McHugh was forced to make the ruling Laila Al-Arian now calls a complete exoneration of her father.
Today, while Mazen Al-Najjar fights an INS deportation effort, the Department of Justice continues to sit on nearly 2,000 pages of classified material collected during its investigation of Sami Al-Arian's now defunct USF think tank and his affiliated charity, the Islamic Committee for Palestine. Some things are known, however. One of the think tank's early directors was a man named Khalil Shikaki, whose brother Fathi was then head of Islamic Jihad. When Fathi Shikaki was assassinated in 1995, a subsequent director of the think tank, Ramadan Abdullah Shallah, took his place. And while all this was going on, the Islamic Committee for Palestine, on behalf of "widows and orphans" in the West Bank and Gaza, was soliciting American donations in a most peculiar fashion.
Videotape exists of a 1988 fund-raiser at which Fawaz Damra, imam of a Cleveland mosque, introduces Sami Al-Arian as "the director of the program." Al-Arian s charity, Damra explained, "is the active arm of the Islamic Jihad movement in Palestine, and we like to call it the Islamic Committee for Palestine here for security reasons. Donate to the Islamic Jihad. If you write a check, write it for the Islamic Committee for Palestine: ICP. "