An irresistable blaze

The intertwined paths of Sami Al-Arian and Ramadan Shallah

Ramadan Abdullah Shallah is charismatic and bold on the tape of a speech he gave after the 1995 assassination of Palestinian Islamic Jihad founder Fathi Al-Shiqaqi. His voice rises and falls hypnotically.

It is an amazing transformation for the formerly unknown economist and University of South Florida think-tank director turned leader of the terrorist Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

"Fathi Al-Shiqaqi is not a floating name on a passing occasion," Shallah says on the videotape. "Fathi Al-Shiqaqi is the sacred duty, Fathi Al-Shiqaqi is the revenge inhabiting our blood around the clock, in minutes and in seconds. So beware Fathi Al-Shiqaqi all your days and all your times. He will come suddenly upon you as an irresistible blaze and explosion from Beit Lid, from Kfardrom and Dizengoff in the heart of Tel-Aviv. At any moment, from any place in our usurped country Palestine, Fathi Al-Shiqaqi will come suddenly upon you once again."

Beit Lid. Kfardrom. Dizengoff. The site of terror attacks that killed dozens of Israeli soldiers and civilians, and two Americans as well. Attacks that are despicable to one side in this ancient struggle, but viewed as justified self-defense by the Palestinian side.

Sami Al-Arian, the former USF computer science professor, brought Shallah to this country and installed him as the director of the World and Islam Studies Enterprise, which published scholarly articles on the struggle in the Middle East. They worked together closely until Shallah's departure in 1995.

"1995 is an interesting year because you can see the decision-making process that went on with Ramadan Shallah and Sami Al-Arian," attorney William Moffitt told jurors in closing arguments on Day 70 of Al-Arian's trial on terrorism-related charges.

"Ramadan Shallah decided he was going to go full bore," Moffitt said. "Sami stayed home."

Stayed at USF. Stayed in the line of fire of Tampa Tribune articles that were pointing out his ties to terrorism and the role of Al-Arian's think tank and other organizations in spreading the word of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Stayed on the telephone with a St. Petersburg Times reporter, lying about the depth of his knowledge about Shallah. Stayed in the public eye trying to keep his brother-in-law Mazen Al-Najjar in this country during deportation proceedings. Stayed even though he knew the FBI was watching and listening. Stayed through his 2003 indictment.

He stayed and spoke publicly while another left and advocated violence. Does that demonstrate Al-Arian's commitment to free speech? Does that mean he isn't a terrorist? Does that mean he is innocent of the 17 charges he faces?

Al-Arian's jury was expected to start debating those questions this week, with the image of Shallah's fiery speech fresh on their minds.

Outside the federal courthouse on Nov. 9, ringed with yellow bomb barricades, an Al-Jazeera reporter talked in Arabic on his cellphone after getting an interview with co-defendant Hatim Fariz, who called it "a political trial." Inside, Michael Fechter, the Tampa Tribune reporter whose controversial stories a decade ago helped set the trial in motion, sat quietly taking notes and highlighting them with a blue marker, his eyeglasses pushed down to the end of his nose.

It was Fechter's work in April 1995 that focused the spotlight on Al-Arian and his world. Although his stories have been reviled as unfair and incomplete (including on, in the Miami Herald and the St. Petersburg Times, and on these pages), Fechter's basic premise has turned out to be true. There was more to Al-Arian and his work than met the eye. But Fechter isn't gloating as he goes about the daily task of chronicling the end game of a decade-long preoccupation. He seems weary.

It is hard not to see 1995 as a moment of inevitability for Al-Arian. On that Oct. 30th, when Shallah was named leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Al-Arian's fate in Tampa was likely sealed. You can hear it in his voice in taped conversations with Times reporter (and former Planet editor) Jim Harper, as he fumbles through tough questions about his association with Shallah. He is more confused than dissembling.

More than the newspaper stories or the ambushing he suffered at the hands of Fox's Bill O'Reilly in 2001, Shallah's ascension in 1995 may have sealed Al-Arian's fate. It is hard to proclaim your peacefulness when your associate claims the top job at one of the world's most notorious terrorist organizations. Or, as federal prosecutor Cherie Krigsman told jurors, "You know [Shallah] didn't become a world-class terrorist overnight."

By 1995, Al-Arian was moving away from the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. In phone calls and in faxes, his efforts to create a unified non-violent voice for the Islamist movement in Palestine had failed. He had grown disillusioned with the organization, in which he was either a major player (if you believe prosecutors) or simply an associate (if you believe defense attorneys). Either way, earlier that year he wrote to a Kuwaiti legislator asking for money for the effort in Palestine in aftermath of the Beit Lid double suicide bombing. "I call upon you to try to extend true support of the jihad effort in Palestine so that operations such as these can continue... ," he wrote in the disputed "al-Shatti" letter.

So after 70 days of testimony and opening and closing arguments, this much seems true:

Sami Al-Arian was not the terrorist mastermind that his opponents and prosecutors would have you believe, given evidence of how he was ignored and belittled by top folks at Palestinian Islamic Jihad. The monies raised and sent to the Middle East are in the thousands or tens of thousands over two decades; not exactly major terrorist funding.

Nor was he exactly the peace-loving USF professor whose advocacy for Palestine was merely academic in nature. His words in letters (whether mailed or not) and in secretly recorded conversations reveal an embrace of violence; whether those expressions were made in frustration or anger at the state of affairs in Palestine or the words of a committed terrorist is debatable.

He led a double life. Jurors will decide if that hidden world was illegal, if his actions to advocate for Palestine and raise money for charities there had the effect of furthering terrorism attacks. More importantly, District Judge James S. Moody Jr. told the jury that they would have to find that Al-Arian had the "specific intent" of furthering the attacks.

To do so will require two leaps. First, jurors will have to decide that Al-Arian's al-Shatti letter makes the connection between his ideas and a specific desire to further terrorist operations in Israel and the Occupied Territories. Second, they will need to decide that the money raised and sent by Al-Arian and his three co-defendants ended up helping the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, despite the fact that much of the money trail was lost or ended up in charities. (The legitimacy of those charities is debatable.)

In the end, Al-Arian's fate came down to Moffitt's attempts to humanize him for the jury.

Yes, Al-Arian was frustrated by the plight of the Palestinians. Yes, he made mistakes. He came to America because it was the only place in the world where his message could be freely delivered. Where in 1995, when it all started tumbling down around him, he hid the truth. Either to protect a terrorist group or, as his defense suggests, to keep his academic center and freedom alive.

"So he lied," Moffitt told jurors. "He lied to the newspapers, there is no question about it. Once the story changed [from academic speech to affiliation with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad], there was going to be a backlash.

"Confronted with the same thing, what would you do?"

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