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RESPONSE TO TERROR | EDUCATION

Palestinian-Born Professor Is a Campus No-Show

Safety: He's on paid leave in Florida amid a controversy over his fiery rhetoric and associations with suspected terrorists.

November 08, 2001|JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TAMPA, Fla. — Sami A. Al Arian should be at work, imparting the secrets of computer engineering to students at the University of South Florida. But for the Palestinian academic and his school, times are not normal.

These days, Al Arian doesn't drive his own car. He has changed his telephone number. He has received death threats by phone and e-mail. And for his own safety and everyone else's, he has been ordered to stay off campus.

The 43-year-old father of five now spends his days at a nearby Islamic school that he helped establish, drawing strength from his faith's holy scriptures.

"Whenever you remember God, your heart will be serene and peaceful," says Al Arian, citing his favorite Koranic verse.

Is the tenured professor, who wears Hush Puppies and resembles Mahatma Gandhi, a victim of anti-Muslim feelings that have boiled over since the Sept. 11 terror attacks--or is there more to his story than meets the eye?

In the 1990s, Al Arian was a driving force behind an Islamic think tank that gave the University of South Florida the unwelcome sobriquet "Jihad U."

Al Arian's creation, World and Islam Studies Enterprise, or WISE, brought Islamic public figures to the United States, including Hassan Turabi, who was responsible for inviting Osama bin Laden to make Sudan his home before he shifted his terrorist operation to Afghanistan, and blind Egyptian cleric Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, convicted of plotting the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

Al Arian, meanwhile, was giving speeches in which he often used the slogan "death to Israel."

"When you say 'death to Israel,' you mean death to the system that is oppressing the Palestinian people, occupying their land," he says now. "It doesn't mean the death of Jews. No one thinks that."

Former Colleague Linked to Bombing

In 1995, Ramadan Abdullah Shallah, another Palestinian faculty member at USF who had served as co-editor of WISE's journal, left Tampa. Late that year, the former economics professor resurfaced in Syria as general secretary of the terror group Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

Shallah's organization has claimed responsibility for the suicide bombing at a Tel Aviv disco in June of this year that killed 21 people.

Finally, Al Arian's Palestinian brother-in-law, Mazen Al Najjar, 44, who was a USF adjunct professor of Arabic and earned a doctorate in industrial engineering there, worked as WISE's executive director. He was arrested in an FBI raid on WISE's office in 1995.

U.S. authorities said that Al Najjar was a terrorist sympathizer with links to Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and undertook to have him deported on the basis of secret evidence they never divulged.

For 3 1/2 years, he was locked up at an Immigration and Naturalization Service facility in nearby Bradenton.

Al Najjar was freed last Dec. 15 after U.S. District Judge Joan A. Lenard in Miami found that his constitutional rights had been violated because he was not sufficiently informed of the charges against him.

"We're not asking to know what the government's sources are," said Martin Schwartz of Tampa, one of Al Najjar's lawyers. "We just want to know enough about the charges to defend our clients."

Al Najjar's legal problems are not over: Government attorneys will go into federal appellate court in Tampa today to seek a reversal of Lenard's decision.

In a recent interview, Al Najjar's weary eyes gave a hint of the toll taken by his odyssey through the U.S. courts.

"I feel there is a divine purpose to it--to provide a new, fresh defense of constitutional rights," Al Najjar said.

The American Civil Liberties Union has joined the case on Al Najjar's behalf.

"The outcome of this challenge to the constitutionality of the INS practice of detaining immigrants solely on the basis of secret evidence is critically important," said Randall Marshall, legal director for the ACLU in Florida. "Since Sept. 11, the government has detained over 1,000 immigrants, and it undoubtedly will seek to rely on secret evidence to detain and deport many of them."

Now without steady employment, Al Najjar, father of three girls, performs odd jobs at the Islamic school Al Arian helped establish.

Controversy Revived by Television Report

Like Al Najjar, Al Arian has never been convicted of a crime, though he was the prime focus when FBI agents probed WISE as a suspected front for Middle Eastern terrorists. The controversy over the Muslim academics and the university was revived after Fox News television talk show host Bill O'Reilly aired a report earlier this fall in which USF was branded a potential "hotbed of support for Arab militants."

E-mail and phone calls flooded in by the thousands; the computer and engineering department where Al Arian holds his $66,175-a-year job was evacuated because of a death threat. The board of trustees held an emergency session and placed Al Arian on indefinite paid leave, where he remains more than a month later.

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