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Florida Professor Stands Trial on Terrorism Charges

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

A terrorism trial begins today in Tampa, and the defendants include a former professor at the University of South Florida. Sami Al-Arian is one of four men on trial. The government says that for much of the '90s, Al-Arian helped direct the operations of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which the United States designated as a terrorist group. NPR's Greg Allen reports.

GREG ALLEN reporting:

Although he was indicted two years ago, the charges against Sami Al-Arian stretch back more than a decade. They began in the mid-1990s when Al-Arian was the head of an Islamic think tank and charity at the University of South Florida and a prominent fund-raiser for Palestinian causes. His activities became the subject of investigations by the Tampa Tribune and independent journalist Steve Emerson. In 1994, Emerson produced a film that identified Al-Arian as a fund-raiser for terrorist groups.

Mr. STEVE EMERSON (Independent Journalist): That was 11 years ago, which disclosed his ties at that point to the Islamic Jihad, not something that was barely a secret, and yet he successfully portrayed himself as a victim of, quote, "political persecution," that he was an apolitical religious leader and a humanitarian.

ALLEN: Al-Arian has always denied supporting terrorism, advocating violence or being part of Palestinian Islamic Jihad. For years the University of South Florida resisted calls for his ouster. Things changed shortly after September 11th when he was interviewed by Bill O'Reilly on the FOX News show "The O'Reilly Factor." O'Reilly pressed Al-Arian about his connections to Ramadan Abdullah Shallah, who was part of Al-Arian's think tank and who went on to become a leader of Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

(Soundbite from "The O'Reilly Factor")

Mr. BILL O'REILLY (Host): All right. What say you, Professor? This guy is now a big shot in the Islamic Jihad, and they're taking credit for all kinds of terrorist activity, and you know him pretty well. Got an explanation here?

Professor SAMI AL-ARIAN: Well, I mean, when he came here, he came as a volunteer. He was--worked in an intellectual think tank, and he taught at the university.

ALLEN: The show raised Al-Arian's profile and increased pressure on the University of South Florida. Shortly afterwards, the university suspended Al-Arian from his position as a professor of computer science. And then a year and a half later, the bombshell dropped: a 53-count indictment based on hundreds of wire-tapped phone calls stretching back to the mid-1990s. Sifting through the voluminous evidence against Al-Arian and the others has been a challenge for the defense and one reason why it's taken more than two years to bring this case to trial. William Moffitt is the attorney representing Sami Al-Arian.

Mr. WILLIAM MOFFITT (Attorney): The government has had 13 years to play around with this information. We, for the defense of Dr. Al-Arian, have had a year and a half, and it has presented enormous problems. It is an enormous undertaking when you're talking about over 20,000 hours of wire-tapped information.

ALLEN: The indictment of Al-Arian and the three other men was largely made possible by the USA Patriot Act, in particular a provision that makes it easier for the government to use material gathered by intelligence agencies in a criminal prosecution. Federal prosecutors won't comment on the case outside of court, but in pretrial hearings and court documents, they've indicated they'll introduce documents and wire taps that they say link Al-Arian and the others with more than a dozen attacks committed by Palestinian Islamic Jihad. They also plan to call as witnesses families of those killed by suicide bombers in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.

Moffitt maintains the case is not about terrorism but about Sami Al-Arian's political views and US foreign policy in the Mideast. For years, while Steve Emerson and others were raising concerns about him, Al-Arian was active in American politics. Moffitt says at the trial, he plans to introduce pictures and videos of Al-Arian meeting with a wide range of US officials, including then presidential candidate George W. Bush.

Mr. MOFFITT: How would you let someone who's a dangerous terrorist get close to the president of the United States?

ALLEN: And no question in your mind that the evidence that they have now against him, the government had against him at that time?

Mr. MOFFITT: Well, not only did the government have it; the same evidence that the government had is evidence that is purportedly published in the Tampa Tribune.

ALLEN: Moffitt wanted to challenge in court the US government's designation of Palestinian Islamic Jihad as a terrorist group. US District Judge James Moody denied that request, saying he will not allow the trial to become a discussion of Middle East history. Security has been tightened in Tampa in preparation for the high-profile trial, which is expected to last at least six months. Greg Allen, NPR News.

INSKEEP: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Greg Allen
As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.