Hiding in Plain Sight
Did a Muslim professor use activism as a cloak for terror?
By Michael Isikoff - NEWSWEEK
March 3 issue — For George W. Bush, it was just another campaign stop. But for Sami Al-Arian, a University of South Florida engineering professor, it was a golden opportunity. When Bush appeared at Tampa’s Strawberry Festival in March 2000, Al-Arian sidled up to the candidate and had his picture taken.
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BUSH JOKED AROUND with the professor’s son, Abdullah, nicknaming the 6-foot-3 teen “Big Dude.” Al-Arian later told friends he even used the occasion to press Bush on a key issue among Muslim Americans: the Justice Department’s use of “secret evidence” to deport accused terrorists.
In those pre-9-11 days, Bush was eagerly courting the growing Muslim vote—and more than willing to listen to seemingly sincere activists like Al-Arian. When he debated Al Gore later in the year, Bush even made a point of bringing up the secret-evidence issue. Al-Arian was thrilled—and began registering local Muslims for the Republican Party and praising Bush at local mosques. “I think I personally played a big role in electing Bush,” he boasted at a Muslim American dinner last April.
Al-Arian’s politics took on a decidedly darker cast last week when federal agents arrested him at his home in south Florida and charged him with being a top leader of one of the world’s most violent terrorist organizations: Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ).The Iranian-backed group has carried out a rash of suicide bombings that have killed more than 100 Israelis, as well as two Americans. Al-Arian had long been under government scrutiny for his alleged connections to the group. But the Palestinian professor dismissed the charges as Israeli propaganda. To many, the denials rang true—if only because the allegations didn’t seem to fit with the very visible public role he had assumed.
Al-Arian certainly didn’t act like a sponsor of suicide bombings. Far from keeping to the shadows, he repeatedly lobbied Congress on civil-liberties issues, made thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to influential members of Congress and renounced violence during appearances on TV talk shows. In June 2001 Al-Arian was invited to a White House briefing for 150 Muslim American activists, at which political director Karl Rove talked about the Bush administration’s “outreach” efforts. A law-enforcement official told NEWSWEEK the Secret Service had flagged Al-Arian as a potential terrorist prior to the event. But White House aides, apparently reluctant to create an incident, let him through anyway. Such access had its advantages. “He always told me the charges were garbage,” said Khaled Saffuri, chairman of the Islamic Institute. “When you hear he’s going to the White House, you figure what he’s saying must be true.” In fact, federal prosecutors charged last week, Al-Arian carried out his secret terrorist agenda “under the guise of promoting and protecting Arab rights”—making his public profile a critical part of his MO. “It was the perfect cover,” said Steven Emerson, a terrorism analyst who has followed Al-Arian for years.
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As the indictment makes clear, the Feds had been collecting information on Al-Arian for years. Using national-security wiretaps, agents began monitoring his phone calls as early as 1994, when the professor ran a university-sponsored think tank called the World and Islam Studies Enterprise. Al-Arian was overheard routinely consulting with terrorist leaders in the Mideast, authorities allege—speaking in code about moving hundreds of thousands of dollars abroad and seeking money for the families of “martyrs” who blew up Israeli civilians. After one grisly double-suicide bombing that killed 22 Israelis in 1995, Al-Arian wrote a fund-raising letter to a benefactor in Kuwait, bragging about the attack. “I call upon you to try to extend true support to the jihad effort in Palestine so that operations such as these can continue,” he wrote. Yet federal agents say they couldn’t use much of their evidence because of tight restrictions that kept them from sharing intelligence with criminal investigators. (“The wall,” as the feds called it, has now been lowered.) As he was led away in handcuffs last week, Al-Arian told reporters “it’s all about politics.” His lawyer called the indictment a “work of fiction.” But last week, some Muslim leaders who had stood by Al-Arian for years appeared shaken. “If these charges are true, then he’s betrayed me—and a whole lot of others in the Muslim community,” said Saffuri. It was a cover that may have misled many others—including no less a terrorism fighter than George W. Bush