A hotbed for terrorism?

Is USF a hotbed for terrorist activity? That?s what Bill O?Reilly said Wednesday night on his nationally televised political commentary show, The O?Reilly Factor.

In a Fox News interview with Sami Al-Arian, a USF computer science and engineering professor, O?Reilly said the CIA needs to keep its eye on this university.

“What is going on at the University of South Florida?” O?Reilly asked as he opened the segment with Al-Arian.

O?Reilly tried to link Al-Arian to Ramadan Abdullah Shallah, leader of an Islamic Jihad militant group who has claimed responsibility for numerous terrorist attacks in the Middle East. Al-Arian said, though he worked with Shallah for three years at USF, Shallah left the states, and it wasn?t until six months after that when he became involved with the militant group.

“You were shocked? He never told you his political views were that extreme? You were just taken by surprise?” O?Reilly asked.

Al-Arian responded: “Everyone who knew him personally here at the University of South Florida was extremely surprised.”

Al-Arian was part of the think tank World and Islam Studies Enterprise, which he described as an intellectual think tank ? housed, but not funded, by USF ? to promote dialogue between Islam and the Western World.

O?Reilly said that another man who worked in the think tank scheduled an interview with ABC News with Osama bin Laden and was also implicated in the embassy bombings in Africa.

Al-Arian said he was unaware of the man?s ties to bin Laden or the bombing and said that he left WISE eight or nine years ago.

O?Reilly?s questioning was unrelenting.

“You bring a guy over here who gets paid by the good citizens of Florida and then goes back and becomes one of the lieutenants or generals of the Islamic Jihad, but you don?t know anything about it,” O?Reilly said. “Another guy sets up an interview with Osama bin Laden for ABC, and you don?t know anything about that? You know doctor, it looks to me like there is something wrong down there at the University of South Florida.”

Al-Arian responded: “The fact of the matter is, we have been involved in intellectual type of activities, and we have been investigated by the FBI for many years, and there has been no wrong-doing whatsoever.”

O?Reilly concluded the interview by further making clear to Al-Arian his suspicions.

“With all due respect, I appreciate you coming on the program, but if I were the CIA, I?d follow you wherever you went,” he said.

Al-arian said it was unfair for O?Reilly to judge him because he did not know him.

O?Reilly responded: “Alright, Doc, I?d still shadow you. I?d go to Denny?s with you. I?d go everywhere you went.”

In an interview conducted by The Oracle after the show?s airing, Al-Arian said the show?s producers misled him by telling him that he would only be discussing one topic: his involvement with WISE.

“The producers tricked me,” Al-Arian said. “I can?t believe these news organizations. They?re nuts.”

As for O?Reilly?s questioning of Al-Arian?s relationship with Shallah, Al-Arian said he has not spoken to him since he left Florida in 1995, but said he thinks Shallah wasn?t connected with the attacks on the United States two weeks ago.

“He has nothing to do with what happened on Sept. 11,” Al-Arian said. “The only group to be implicated is the group associated with Osama bin Laden.”

Al-Arian said nothing new was learned from the live interview on national TV.

“(These allegations) are beyond commentary,” Al-Arian said. “There is nothing new here. They were trying to sensationalize a story to increase ratings. It had no bearing on the Sept. 11 tragedy.”

Jack Wheat, special assistant to USF president Judy Genshaft, said the university has no reason to believe the allegations are valid, but said if an investigation is conducted, the university would fully cooperate with law enforcement.

“If we have any indication of anything wrong, we will work with the justice department,” Wheat said. “This is just old news brought back recently, in light of what happened two weeks ago.”

In May 1997 Mazen Al-Najjar, Al-Arian?s brother-in-law and USF professor, was jailed based on FBI evidence that he had terrorist connections. The evidence was never made public, but Al-Najjar was kept behind bars until December 2000. Following his release, he was never charged with any crime.

An Oct. 1998 report filed by The Washington Post said the FBI considered Al-Najjar and Al-Arian “mid-level operatives” for the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. The report said an FBI agent testified about a letter he read that was written by Al-Arian. The letter solicited funds for the Islamic Jihad, the report said, in an attempt to gain support for the militant group.

Contact Ryan Meehanat oracleryan@yahoo.com