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1996 report a sign of things to come

It has become a familiar story.

USF professor Sami Al-Arian makes an unpopular statement and has some shady connections. A nationally broadcast television show accuses him of being a high-ranking member of the terrorist organization Palestinian Islamic Jihad. While being investigated by federal officials, he continues to deny all of these charges.

But USF’s president is worried. She places Al-Arian on paid leave while deciding if disciplinary action should be taken.

As similar as they seem, those events are not the chronology of the last two years in the Al-Arian case. Instead, this chain of events culminated nearly eight years ago, proving yet again the adage that history repeats itself.

USF was, in many ways, a different place in 1996. Betty Castor was the university’s president. She had been made aware of how the Al-Arian situation develop since a November 1994 documentary called Jihad in America that aired on the Public Broadcasting Station. In that program, Al-Arian was identified as the president of The Islamic Concern Project, which, it said, supported the PIJ.

Castor placed Al-Arian on paid leave in 1995 while he was on sabbatical. Al-Arian’s scheduled return to campus was around August 1996. Trying to figure out what to do about the controversial professor, Castor sought the aid of former American Bar Association president Reese Smith.

Smith launched into an investigation that produced a recommendation two inches thick. His mission was twofold. First, he was asked to provide his assessment of whether Al-Arian should be disciplined or terminated.

Smith’s recommendation on that front was clear: The university, pending a federal arrest, had no reason to fire Al-Arian, and to do so would probably result in a string of costly lawsuits. Castor acted accordingly, reinstating Al-Arian to his teaching duties, and, until the post-Sept. 11 media furor brought Al-Arian onto The O’Reilly Factor television show, the accusations largely vanished from the public eye.

The second of Smith’s tasks was a little less black and white. Smith investigated whether the university had acted irresponsibly in entering into a relationship with the World and Islamic Enterprise Inc., a.k.a WISE, which was incorporated by Al-Arian in 1991. WISE, which was defunct by the time of Smith’s report, was, through Al-Arian, affiliated with the ICP. Even then, federal authorities had suggested that both were fronts for terrorist activities.

But, those who worked in the groups claimed that they were nothing more than scholarly operations meant to provide a forum for open debate on Palestinian issues. It was with that in mind that USF’s Middle East Studies Committee commenced its relationship with WISE.

After entering into a cooperation with WISE, the university was accused of facilitating appearances by terrorists. Smith concluded, however, that at the time of the affiliation, the committee members did not act in an overtly improper manner. He did, however, raise concerns about possible bias and poor presentation of information. Again, he recommended no severe action. His report included only a few caveats.

Seven years later, federal indictment in hand, the public can view Smith’s report in a new light. With the benefit of hindsight, and Smith’s meticulous accounting of the chain of events, the government’s case seems to rise out of Smith’s reports. All of the ambiguities seem to be suddenly clear.

Smith’s report provides, if nothing else, a who’s who of the people the government has listed as terrorists. Half of the men in the federal indictment also appear in the report.

It all started in 1988, when the men now accused of heading PIJ came together for the first time at a St. Louis meeting. Mazen Al-Najjar, Al-Arian’s brother-in-law who was deported in 2002 after being held on secret evidence, met with Bashir Nafi, named in the indictment, and Ramadan Shallah, the former USF instructor now considered the head of PIJ. The men also met with Al-Arian.

It was at that time that Al-Arian formed ICP. The group organized events from 1988-92, during the time of the Palestinian uprising known as Intifada. One of the speakers was Abdul Aziz Odeh, who Smith said was the spiritual leader of the PIJ. It was at those conferences that Al-Arian made his now infamous anti-Israeli comments, and money raised may have gone to terrorist organizations.

Also speaking at an ICP conference was Khalil Shikaki. A scholar from the West Bank, Shikaki was invited by Nafi and Al-Arian to come to Tampa and help form WISE. He arrived in 1991, and in June of that year, Al-Arian, Nafi and Shikaki met with USF representatives. That fall, Shikaki became an adjunct professor at the university.

Shikaki was considered by all involved to be a scholarly, honorable man with no terrorist connections. He has said repeatedly that he would not have worked at WISE if he had suspected that it was anything other than a scholarly endeavor.

But it is Shikaki’s brother who has raised alarm. Fathi Shikaki was the leader of PIJ at the time of Khalil Shikaki’s employment at WISE.

Shikaki left WISE in 1992. But before he left he did have contact with Al-Najjar, and Shallah.

Shallah was brought to WISE in mid-1991 by Nafi, and reportedly worked as an economist. As a high-ranking member of WISE, he had contact with several members of USF’s Middle East Studies Committee, who considered him quiet and scholarly. He was instrumental in facilitating WISE’s relationship with the university.

Shallah suddenly left Tampa in 1995, telling associates that he was leaving to visit his sick father. Fathi Shikaki was assassinated soon after, and Shallah emerged as PIJ’s leader. Smith, calling on research, concludes that Shallah “could not have become the new Islamic Jihad leader without significant previous involvement with that group.” Therefore, in all likelihood, Shallah was participating in terrorist activities while at USF and while working as head administrator in Al-Arian’s organization.

Nafi knew Shallah and Fathi Shikaki during his younger days. In the late 1980s, Nafi, Shallah and Al-Arian began substantial contact while Nafi was in London.

Smith calls into question some of Nafi’s activities, at one point suggesting that he is a high-ranking member of PIJ. Upon hearing of his indictment, Nafi, now living in England, said he is guilty of nothing more than some unfortunate associations. The United States is currently attempting to have him extradited.

Also working at WISE during that period was Sameeh Hammoudeh, a USF Arabic instructor arrested with Al-Arian on Thursday. After speaking at an ICP conference, Hammoudeh came to USF in 1993, and was employed by WISE. He worked with Shallah, Al-Arian and Al-Najjar. In 1994, the indictment alleges that Al-Arian had a telephone conversation with Nafi in which he suggested that Fathi Shikaki should send Hammoudeh $19,000 “back pay.”

And it was during this time that both sources in Smith’s report and the federal indictment suggest that Al-Arian is the Don, the king of the volcano, overseeing WISE and ICP and using USF to bring terrorists into the United States and using those groups to raise and launder money for violent activities.

In 1995, USF, learning of possible terrorist connections, broke its relationship with WISE, and soon, the group foundered. But it is that very group that has led to many of the accusations in the federal indictment.

A jury of his peers will decide if Al-Arian is guilty of terrorism. But a few conclusions can certainly be drawn from Smith’s report. Al-Arian was associated for many years with at least one confirmed, and several alleged, terrorists. If nothing else, it seems Al-Arian hung with the wrong crowd.

And it is that evidence of association, as circumstantial as it may be, that could put Al-Arian away for life.