USF professor Sami Al-Arian questioned the credibility of a Dateline NBC segment Sunday night, calling the main source of the story a liar and a phony.
That source, Steven Emerson, a terrorism expert and NBC consultant, said on the program that there is a direct link between Al-Arian and the militant Islamic terrorist group Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
Al-Arian was placed on paid administrative leave in September after he appeared on Fox News Channel’s The O’Reilly Factor. During the Sept. 26 broadcast, Bill O’Reilly, host of the political talk show, accused Al-Arian and the university of being a hotbed for terrorism because of Al-Arian’s association with former USF professor and present leader of PIJ, Ramadan Abdullah Shallah. The two men worked hand in hand for the World and Islam Studies Enterprise, a group Al-Arian said was designed to promote diplomacy between the West and Islam.
Bob McKeown, of Dateline interviewed Emerson, who has been tracking the actions of Al-Arian for more than a decade.
McKeown said Emerson and other terrorist experts say that one of the reasons why Al-Arian was not successfully prosecuted was because of vague anti-terrorism laws. He said the laws were updated in 1996 and in the recent weeks since the Sept. 11 attacks.
During the interview, Emerson said there was no doubt that Al-Arian was involved with terrorist groups.
“You have exhortations to commit violence. You have fund-raising for Jihad operations,” Emerson said, referring to a 1989 conference in Cleveland wherein he accuses Al-Arian of soliciting funds for a terrorist group.
Emerson said he doesn’t buy Al-Arian’s denials of his involvement and said he needs to step forward and accept responsibility for his actions.
“He should be held accountable about what he said,” Emerson said. “To deny that he was supporting the Islamic Jihad, to deny that he was somewhat involved in exhorting followers to commit violence is a brazen lie.”
Emerson said he didn’t believe Al-Arian when he was said he was “shocked” to learn of his former coworker’s involvement with PIJ.
“It reminds me of the scene in Casablanca,” Emerson said. “Shocked that there is gambling in the casino.”
But Al-Arian said people should be cautious of whom they trust and said that Emerson has a history of lying.
Al-Arian said that Emerson, while reporting on terrorism for the Associated Press, fabricated documents and submitted them for publication, leading AP editors to believe that the documents were compiled by the FBI.
“He tried to pass off his own documents as if they were from the FBI,” Al-Arian said. “He’s a phony. He’s a liar.”
A February 1996 St. Petersburg Times report further justifies Al-Arian’s claim that Emerson is less than truthful, Al-Arian said. In the report, Emerson said that Palestinian advocates from USF were involved in the World Trade Center bombing in 1993, saying he had evidence of money transfers, reservations and interaction between the conspirators of the bombing and “groups (operating at USF).”
“Steven Emerson comes to Tampa in February 1996 and says Sami Al-Arian was involved in the World Trade Center bombing in 1993. How credible is he?” Al-Arian said, referring to the fact that neither he nor anyone else from USF had ever been linked to that bombing.
Al-Arian blames ignorance for the allegations made against him.
“A lot of people are misinformed about me and about my positions,” Al-Arian said. “I condemn the killing of any civilian regardless of faith or ethnicity.”
He said one thing people are misinformed about are the accusations that he fundraised for PIJ. In that video that has been broadcast on numerous cable networks, including Fox News and NBC, Al-Arian is shown at the event in Cleveland yelling in Arabic, “Death to Israel.”
Emerson said that at this meeting he is actively raising money for PIJ. Al-Arian did not argue that representatives from PIJ and Hamas – another group that conducts suicide bombings – were present at the fundraiser but said that he was not affiliated with any particular group but rather was speaking to support the general cause: an uprising of Palestinians under occupation by Israel from 1987 to 1993, also known as an intifada.
In addition, Al-Arian said both PIJ and Hamas had not committed any suicide bombings at the time the meeting took place in 1989 and said the intifada he supported was not violent.
“The first suicide bombing took place in 1994,” he said. “The first intifada was not violent. This was when people were using stones.”
Al-Arian, who has never been charged with a crime relating to any terrorist activity, said the news is old and Dateline’s segment produced no new, relevant information.
“What else do people want?” he said. “All these things were raised in front of a judge. Do they not trust the legal system?”
Roy Weatherford, president of the Faculty Senate, was interviewed by Dateline last week, but his interview was not broadcast.
Weatherford said that he was disappointed in Dateline, saying it focused on old facts. He said that The O’Reilly Factor showed numerous viewpoints, and therefore, Dateline’s segment was unbalanced.
“The whole tone was muckracking,” Weatherford said. “(Dateline) had fun stirring people up and had no point.”
Michael Reich, a spokesman for USF, agreed with Weatherford and said the accusations are old and Al-Arian has been cleared before.
“This isn’t new, and it isn’t news,” Reich said. “These are old allegations presented as if they are new. If the guy’s done something wrong, the FBI should know about it.”