TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — A Palestinian college professor previously accused of having terrorist ties was arrested early Thursday by federal agents. He was one of several people arrested here, in Chicago and overseas, the FBI said.
Television reports showed Sami Al-Arian being led in handcuffs to FBI headquarters in Tampa after the arrest. His indictment is sealed until a court hearing scheduled for Thursday afternoon.
“It’s all about politics,” Al-Arian told reporters as agents led him inside.
FBI spokeswoman Sara Oates said that three people were arrested in Tampa, one person was in custody in Chicago, and an undisclosed number of people were arrested overseas. She identified the other two arrested in Tampa as Sameeh Hammoudeh, 42, of Tampa, and Hatim Naji Fariz, 30, of Spring Hill, but she had no detail on those arrested elsewhere.
Randall Samborn, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago, declined to comment, and the FBI there did not immediately return a phone call.
In Tampa, U.S. attorney’s office spokesman Steve Cole said that Attorney General John Ashcroft would be holding an afternoon news conference in Washington with Paul Perez, U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Florida. He said that the arrests were related, but would not elaborate.
Al-Arian’s criminal attorney, Nicholas Matassini, did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment.
Perez’s office had said last year that Al-Arian was under federal investigation.
“This was disconcerting but not surprising,” USF spokesman Michael Reich said about the arrest. He said university President Judy Genshaft will meet with the school’s lawyers Thursday to discuss it.
The tenured computer engineering professor was placed on forced leave and banned from campus shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and his subsequent appearance on Fox News Channel. The school also is trying to dismiss him.
He was quizzed about links to known terrorists, and asked about tapes from the late 1980s and early 1990s in which he said “Death to Israel” in Arabic.
Al-Arian has said that he has never advocated violence against others and that his words were a statement against Israeli occupation. He also has consistently denied any connection to terrorists.
The university says that hurt the school’s fund-raising efforts and resulted in threats being made against the school.
The university also claimed the professor raised money for terrorist groups, brought terrorists into the United States, and founded organizations that support terrorism.
Al-Arian and his brother-in-law, Mazen Al-Najjar, founded the World and Islam Studies Enterprises, a now-defunct Islamic think tank at USF that was raided by the FBI in 1995. Al-Arian also founded the Islamic Concern Project Inc. in 1988.
Al-Arian has lived in the United States since 1975 and had taught at the university since 1986.
Last month, the faculty union at the University of South Florida filed a grievance on Al-Arian’s behalf, saying that banning him from campus violated the union’s contract, Al-Arian’s right to academic freedom and its own policy of nondiscrimination on the basis of ethnicity and religious affiliation.
His brother-in-law, who also had taught at the university, spent more than 3 1/2 years in jail on secret evidence linking him to terrorists. He was released in 2000 but arrested again in November 2001 and deported last August.