Residents charged with aiding terror group

4 U.S.

Government links men to attacks in Middle East

February 21, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - Four U.S. residents, including a computer engineering professor at the University of South Florida, were arrested yesterday on charges of financing and managing a terrorist group that has been blamed for killing more than 100 people.

The men are accused of running a U.S.-based operation for the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which the government believes is connected to attacks in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank, including many suicide bombings.

Attorney General John Ashcroft announced the arrests a day after a grand jury in Tampa, Fla., returned a 50-count indictment against the men and four others, who remain at large.

The indictment alleges that the eight men used the University of South Florida and other institutions to operate a racketeering enterprise since 1984 that has engaged in multiple acts of murder and extortion.

If convicted, they could face life in prison.

The Florida professor, Sami Amin Al-Arian, is named in the indictment as the leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad in North America and secretary of the organization's worldwide governing council.

The indictment says that Al-Arian "directed the audit of all monies and property of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad throughout the world."

Al-Arian was born in Kuwait and has lived in the United States since he came here as a college student more than 25 years ago.

The 45-year-old professor hasn't shied from controversy during his 16-year tenure at the University of South Florida.

In an interview last fall, al-Arian admitted consorting with Middle Eastern militants, encouraging violence against Israeli soldiers and shouting, during a 1988 speech, "Death to Israel."

Yet the balding and bespectacled father of five vehemently denied any links to terrorism.

"I'm against targeting any civilian of any faith and any background. My opposition [to this] is strong on ethical, moral and political grounds, and whoever does it - Islamic Jihad, Hamas - I condemn that, and I would never accept that," he said.

After Sept. 11, 2001, al-Arian became a lightning rod in the contentious national debate over free speech. He argued it was his constitutional and academic right to espouse views contrary to mainstream, newly jittery America.

To Al-Arian's supporters, the attempted censure of a Palestinian advocate was a blatant example of the guilt-by-association felt by many Arab-Americans.

Critics, including the University of South Florida, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and a range of pundits, countered that al-Arian's views were incendiary and should be muzzled.

Islamic groups and free-speech advocates expressed concern over Al-Arian's arrest.

"Our concern is that the indictment be based on criminal activity and not political affiliation or ... utterances," said Hodan Hassan, communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

In addition, Helen Samahan, executive director of the Arab American Institute, said the arrests raised questions about the profiling of Arab-Americans and the "multiple government initiatives that feed the general public's negative impression that we are not to be trusted as full Americans."

Federal officials defended their actions.

"We're not interested in political statements, that is not what this is about. This is about people who are alleged to be financing and promoting acts of terrorism," a Justice Department official said.

The other three U.S. residents arrested yesterday are:

Sameeh Hammoudeh, 42, born in the West Bank and a resident of Temple Terrace, Fla. Hammoudeh is an instructor and student at the University of South Florida and administrator at the Islamic Academy of Florida. The indictment alleges that Hammoudeh was a member of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad in the Tampa area.

Hatim Naji Fariz, 30, born in Puerto Rico and a resident of Spring Hill, Fla., where he manages a medical clinic. The indictment alleges that Fariz was also a member of the group.

Ghassan Zayed Ballut, 41, born in the West Bank and a resident of Tinley Park, Ill. Ballut, a small-business owner, was a member of a Palestinian Islamic Jihad cell in Chicago, the indictment alleges.

In addition, four other alleged conspirators remain at large in other countries, including:

Ramadan Abdullah Shallah, 45, born in the Gaza Strip and a resident of Damascus, Syria. The indictment alleges that he is the current worldwide leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Shallah, who previously lived in Tampa, is former executor director of the World and Islam Studies Enterprise and a former instructor at the University of South Florida.

Bashir Musa Mohammed Nafi, 50, born in Egypt and a resident of Oxfordshire, England. The indictment alleges that Nafi, a professor at a Muslim college, is the leader of the group in the United Kingdom.

Mohammed Tasir Hassan Al-Khatib, 46, born in the Gaza Strip and a resident of the Beirut, Lebanon, area. He was formerly associated with the Islamic Committee for Palestine in Tampa. The indictment alleges that Al-Khatib was treasurer of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

Abd Al Aziz Awda, 52, born in Gabaly, Israel, and currently an imam at the Al Qassam Mosque in the Gaza Strip. The indictment alleges that Awda was a founder and spiritual leader of the group.

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