Al-Arian affair biggest local Tampa story that resulted from 9/11 attacks

Cecause it lasted for years and had national security considerations, I didn't hesitate in calling the Al-Arian affair the biggest story of the 2000's when CL asked me to document the top stories of the decade back in December 2009, superseding Terri Schiavo, the 2000 presidential recount, and Florida's four hurricanes in seven weeks in 2004.

That's because his situation absolutely roiled this community, with friends and even family members disputing whether the former chemical engineering professor was truly linked with terrorism or not.

Local media organizations in town were considered to be biased about Al-Arian in one form or another. The Times, WMNF radio (where I covered the story) and this publication, then known as the Weekly Planet, were considered by some to be in the Al-Arian "camp," while the Tampa Tribune, which wrote the first newspaper story that revealed his involvement with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), was believed to be pro-prosecution of Al-Arian.

(The PIJ claimed responsibility for dozens of suicide bombings and hundreds of deaths in Israel’s occupied territories, and was declared a terrorist group by President Bill Clinton in 1995).

The Trib's Michael Fechter didn't "break" the story per se, but stayed on it after Steven Emerson's 1994 PBS documentary “Jihad in America." (In 2007, Fechter left the Trib to go work directly with Emerson).

But back to Lindsey Peterson's story in the Trib, which brings back the memories, especially between the time when Al-Arian was suspended by USF and his indictment in February of 2003.

She writes about the December 19, 2001 USF Board of Trustee meeting, where the board voted to issue a "notice of intent to terminate" his employment. Officials said Al-Arian's acts had caused "substantial disruption to the university's operations."

I was at that meeting, and it was a huge deal. There were immediate recriminations about whether USF had panicked due to the tenor in the country. Critics complained about the lack of due process (Al-Arian was not at the meeting and nobody spoke representing him).

Peterson tells more:

In an emergency session, the Faculty Senate voted down a motion to support the administration, as faculty members questioned whether they, too, could be fired for causing controversy.

Soon the American Association of University Professors opened an investigation, saying the Dec. 19 move "raised core issues of academic freedom."

With pressure rising and Al-Arian still on the payroll, on Aug. 21, 2002, USF renewed its "intent to terminate" but for new reasons. It charged that between 1988 and 1995, Al-Arian had used his academic position to raise money for a terrorist organization.

Finally, after he was arrested in February 2003 on a federal indictment calling him a key official in the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, USF fired Al-Arian

The AAUP rebuked USF. It didn't issue a censure, its harshest penalty, but formally "condemned" the university for its treatment of Al-Arian.

Al-Arian's story didn't end with his arrest in 2003. In 2005, the federal government then put on their case against Al-Arian and three co-defendants, a case that's original indictment contained 121 counts and ran 50 pages.

But the trail didn't go so great for John Ashcroft's Justice Department.

Six months after it began, the federal jury rejected all of the charges against Al-Arian, deadlocking others, leading George Washington University Law School professor Jonathan Turley at the time to label it "one of the most significant defeats for the U.S. government, for the Justice Department since 9/11." (Turley would end up representing Al-Arian in his later battles with the feds on a contempt of court charge for not testifying in another case).

In what thought was a face saving move, the feds then got Al-Arian to plead guilty on a single count of conspiracy to contribute services to or for the benefit of the PIJ, but that didn't end the raging controversy over whether Al-Arian was "dirty," as the critics claimed, or vindicated, as his supporters charged.

There's more to say about all this of course (Al-Arian now lives in Virginia under house arrest, allegedly still waiting to be deported).

In addition to life never being the same for the friends and family members who lost loved ones in the terrorist attacks on that day, life in America to some extent has never been the same for Muslims and Arab-Americans since that incident a decade ago (remember the whole "9-11 Mosque" story from a year ago?). The Sami Al-Arian saga was the backdrop for some of those angry emotions that played out here in the Tampa Bay area.

The St. Petersburg Times has two excellent stories regarding 9/11 in their Sunday editions; A front-pager from Leonora LaPeter Anton about the mission of one man bring a piece of the World Trade Center to Venice in Sarasota County, and Sherri Day's moving personal account of covering the fall of the Twin Towers as a New York Times reporter in Lower Manhattan that fateful day.

But the Tampa Tribune's Lindsey Peterson's recount of the Sami Al-Arian saga and what it did to the University of South Florida's Tampa campus brings home what was Tampa's biggest contribution to the national narrative of post 9-11 America.

The wars on Afghanistan and Iraq have been plotted from South Tampa, at U.S. Central Command at Mac Dill Air Force Base. But with the exception of a few news conferences that were open to the media, those operations have been performed out of the public eye, and thus are hard to categorize as being a "Tampa story," per se.

But the Al-Arian case was a Tampa story that went national just two weeks after 9/11 when the then USF professor appeared on Fox News' O'Reilly Factory, who rehashed some of the incidents that put him in the spotlight at USF in the mid 90's regarding his Islamic think tank called WISE (World and Islam Studies Enterprise). Just two days later, USF suspended him with pay after being besieged by angry phone calls and e-mails from people around the nation.

When people talk about America changing after 9/11, no story proved that truer than Al-Arian.

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