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What I Saw at al-Arian's Trial By: Joe Kaufman
FrontPageMagazine.com | Tuesday, July 26, 2005

For the last two decades, Tampa Bay, Florida has been host to Sami al-Arian, the leader of one of the world’s most notorious terror organizations, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. The city served as al-Arian’s base of operations, as he allegedly assisted in the murders of numberless innocents. Today, Tampa is the site of al-Arian’s federal trial: he faces a 53-count indictment by the U.S. government, which identifies the former professor as a leading terrorist fundraiser.

Sitting in the 13th-floor courtroom of a Tampa courthouse recently, al-Arian looked like he does in so many of the photos that have appeared in newspapers for months: he has a noticeably bald head and wears his signature wry smile. Also present were several of al-Arian’s codefendants, the alleged terrorist operatives Sameeh Hammoudeh, Ghassan Zayed Ballut and Hatem Naji Fariz; the other suspects are still at large, reportedly in Damascus, Syria.

The initial testimony was not the stuff of a gripping terrorism trial: a standard procedure recitation of fax numbers, phone numbers, addresses, and P.O. Boxes. The real action was outside the courtroom. There a group of protestors from a local church, evidently one that al-Arian had been close with, was holding court in al-Arian’s defense.

They were a vocal bunch. One wielded a sign supportive of al-Arian that read, "GIVING MONEY TO ORPHANS AND WIDOWS IS NOT AN ACT OF TERROR." An attempt by this writer to point out that the money raised by Al-Arian was actually creating more orphans and widows left Al-Arian’s cheering section unimpressed: they would not be swayed by anything so silly as reason. Instead, one protestor asked whether I was Jewish. A reply in the affirmative prompted a burst of anti-Israel invective. Still another protestor, claiming to be an ex-CIA operative, thought to punctuate her anti-Israel diatribe by jabbing a finger in my face.

Back in the courtroom, I was introduced to a Muslim girl wearing a hijab. She claimed to be a friend of Sami al-Arian’s wife, Nahla, but asked that her name not be used: her father would be upset that she had attended the trial. She said that members of the local Muslim community were afraid to show their faces at the trial, fearing that they will be targeted themselves. Nervous about a possible backlash, the community was reluctant even to talk about al-Arian, she said. She offered an example: her "American" acquaintances had reacted with shock when she showed them a picture of herself with Nahla at an engagement party. She said she couldn’t understand why they would react in this way. After all, she complained, Nahla is her "friend."

But there is also another reason for the silence in the Islamic community: some of its members openly sympathize with al-Arian’s terrorist cause. Murdering Israelis, even if others die in the process, is considered to be a justified act; for some of the more extreme elements, it is even righteous, especially if the murderer dies in the process and achieves martyrdom.

The trial, meanwhile, was getting no more exciting. FBI intelligence analyst Sally Hayes was attempting to give her testimony, only to be met with frequent interruptions. It seemed as though the defendant’s lawyers raised objections to every 10th sentence. When the session ended, I decided to go on a tour of al-Arian’s old stomping grounds.

My first stop was the radical children’s school Sami Al-Arian founded, the Islamic Academy of Florida. Tucked into a cul-de-sac on a back road, the school is fairly well hidden. It stands adjacent to another school, the American Youth Academy, also run by the Islamic Academy. To a first-time observer, it is difficult to tell where one school ends and the other begins. That connection is mirrored in the schools’ suspiciously aligned operations: according to Florida’s incorporation papers, one Ayman Barakat is named as the director of both schools. In addition, both have been set up as elementary schools. In July of 2003, when news broke that the Islamic Academy was being used to fund overseas terror, the school was suspended from receiving government-funded student tuition vouchers. Later, the vouchers were permanently revoked. And soon after that, in an act that does not appear to be coincidental, the American Youth Academy was incorporated.

The next stop on my itinerary was the former home of the Islamic Concern Project, a.k.a. the Islamic Committee for Palestine, an extremist charity that Sami al-Arian had set up in 1986. This location, too, was reportedly used by al-Arian to fund the overseas jihad.

I next headed for the business center that housed the former office of the World Islam Studies Enterprise (WISE). This group, a "think tank" al-Arian had started in 1991, held events in coordination with al-Arian's employer, the University of South Florida. Reports indicate that the group, in common with the previous two mentioned, was being used to finance terrorism abroad.

Having surveyed the three organizations, all named in the Al-Arian indictment, I headed for the Islamic center al-Arian helped found in 1987. The center, called the Islamic Community of Tampa Bay, also goes by the name of Al-Qassam, the same moniker of the fanatical mosque where Sami’s Palestinian Islamic Jihad is said to have been founded. With no street sign to indicate direction, the center is easy to miss. Situated at the end of a series of several non-descript brick housing units, Al-Qassam seems shrouded in secrecy: apart from the human traffic that must occasionally pass through for prayer, passersby would never be able to tell the center from one of the unmarked neighboring units.

As chance would have it, on the right side of the street lies the Tampa office of CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations). It turns out that CAIR-Tampa is just a minute or two from Sami al-Arian’s mosque. That makes sense: Ahmed Bedier, the Director of Tampa chapter of the radical Islamic organization, is also an unofficial spokesman for al-Arian.

The next day, the trial focused on a series of videos featuring al-Arian. The witness for the prosecution was FBI translator Tahsin Ali, who had supplied the subtitles for the videos.

In preparation for the screening, I had decided to get up close and personal with al-Arian’s children, who sat in the row preserved for their family and friends. Informed that security had at times prevented observers from sitting in that row, I nevertheless decided to take my chances. One of al-Arian’s sons, Abdullah, and one of his daughters, Laila, sat to the left of me. Abdullah, it may be recalled, was the same individual that President Bush nicknamed "Big Dude" during a trip that Sami and family made to the White House in 2000. I politely asked them if they needed me to leave the row. They politely said "No." I noticed that the girl was having trouble opening up her bottle of water, and her brother was just sitting there not doing anything about it, so I motioned towards the bottle, she handed it to me, and I opened it for her. Soon, another of al-Arian’s daughters, Leena, joined them and sat between me and Laila. She offered me a Starburst candy.

A 15-minute break, during which I was left alone with Abdullah and Leena, afforded me the opportunity to ask the children a question: "Do you believe this trial represents something much bigger than just your father?" The son looked at me but wouldn’t open his mouth. Leena, by contrast, was more than willing to talk. All Muslims were being put on trial in America, she declared. I asked her whether the people in her community believe the accusations leveled at her father, based in part on the video we were about to watch. Leena insisted that the video merely presents people with differences of opinion.

The video in question was of a 1991 Cleveland fundraiser for Palestinian Islamic Jihad. It opened with cleric Fawaz Mohammed "Abu" Damra introducing al-Arian. Prior to becoming the Imam of the Islamic Center of Cleveland, Damra was the Imam of the Al-Farooq Mosque in Brooklyn, where he set up the flagship office of al-Qaeda co-founder Abdullah Azzam’s Alkifah Refugee Center. Damra stated that al-Arian was the head of the Islamic Committee for Palestine and described the ICP’s relationship to Islamic Jihad. He said, "A brief note about the Islamic Committee for Palestine, it is the active arm of the Islamic Jihad movement in Palestine. We prefer to call it the ‘Islamic Committee for Palestine’ for security reasons."

Following Damra’s introduction, al-Arian took the microphone. When he started to speak, I looked over at his daughter, Leena, and observed a huge smile taking form from one side of her face to the other. Al-Arian exhorted his followers to "not befriend Jews or Christians" and proceeded to let out a cascade of violent rhetoric aimed at Jews. He predicted the future destruction of the entire state of Israel, repeating the oft-used Palestinian mantra about their supposed claim to the land "from the sea to the river." He spoke of martyrs sacrificing themselves in the cause of Allah: "Thus is the way of jihad. Thus is the way of martyrdom. Thus is the way of blood, because this is the path to heaven." It was a side of al-Arian hidden for years behind the guise of academia and "interfaith" religious outreach.

Damra again took the microphone, urging the congregants to donate funds for jihad activities and for the families of martyrs. "This is the Islamic Jihad movement!" he stated. "Anyone like to donate for the Intifada? A knife to stab the Jews." The audience responded with thousands of dollars and shouts of "Allahu Akbar!" ("Allah is great!") They also broke out in song: "Khyber, Khyber, ya Yahood, jesh Mohammed sofa ya'ud." ("Khyber, Khyber, oh Jews, Mohammed’s Army will return.") This is a reference to the Saudi city of Khyber, where Mohammed’s followers attacked and enslaved its Jewish inhabitants in the year 628. The Cleveland congregation repeated this chant about four or five times. I had viewed many similar proceedings like this before, though never in the same room as Sami al-Arian. Just as the singing started, I turned to Leena to discover her breaking out in laughter. She put her hands over her mouth to hold it in. Her sister next to her - sensing that they were in a courtroom and possibly sensing that I was attentive to what was going on around me - quickly motioned for al-Arian’s daughter to stop, which she did.

I observed something similar with al-Arian. Before the viewing of the video, whilst the prosecution was questioning the witness about materials specifically concerning the subjects of "jihad" and "martyrdom," I watched al-Arian grinning gleefully: one would hardly suspect that he was facing life in prison for being an accomplice to the murders of over 100 innocent human beings, including two Americans. But he abruptly turned serious, as if he was caught up in the moment until he suddenly remembered where he was.

At the conclusion of the video, Judge Moody admonished one of al-Arian’s lawyers, Linda Moreno. Prior to the viewing, Moreno had voiced her "objection" to any of the videos being shown. She also called for a "mistrial" due to a statement by prosecution concerning something said on the video by an "unidentified" person of interest. The courtroom, including the jury, got a good laugh from this. Judge Moody, too, was obviously amused over this unfounded call for mistrial, and he mockingly commented to Moreno, "You said it was an improper statement that could not be supported by any understanding!" In fact, however, everything the prosecution had said was supported by that video. With that, the judge adjourned court until the next day.

I left the courtroom trailing behind al-Arian’s children. Everyone piled into one of the elevators. The three of them lined up on the left side, I was next to them, and the other reporters were on the right. I couldn’t have had a better opportunity to pose a final question. I asked Laila al-Arian, "Do you agree with the things that were said in the video?" Surprised by the question, she only stared at me, offering no answer. I next asked al-Arian’s other daughter, Leena, the same question. She gazed blankly at the floor of the elevator with her head down. I then turned to the son, Abdullah, "Do you agree with the things that were said in the video?" He looked at me, and unlike inside the courtroom, he finally spoke. "What do you mean?" he asked. Again I asked, "Do you agree with the things that the people said in the video?" Still looking at me, he replied with a well traveled Constitutional excuse, "I agree with the fact that the people in the video have Freedom of Speech. This is still America."

It was a telling reply. In addition to refusing to answer the question, it is clear that Sami al-Arian’s eldest son does not comprehend America’s laws. What he and his ilk refer to as "Freedom of Speech" is, in fact, illegal: American laws prohibit from raising funds for an entity deemed by the United States government to be a terrorist organization. Yet that was precisely the intent of the Cleveland event so vividly captured on video.

Outside, one of the defendants, Hatim Fariz, walked past me. Though he is being tried for his part in the murder of scores of civilians, he’s free to walk around alone. So, too, is Ghassan Ballut; only al-Arian and Sameeh Hammoudeh are in custody. I asked Fariz the same question I had asked Al-Arian’s kids. "Hatim, do you agree with the things that were said on the video?" He thought about it for a second, rolled his eyes and robotically answered: "I leave it to my counsel."

Sami al-Arian has apparently opted for the same strategy. But one can’t help but wonder what the reaction will be in the event of a conviction. In the eyes of his followers, al-Arian is already a martyr. In the eyes of his fellow radicals, he is already a righteous man. No doubt the Israeli victims of Palestinian terrorism, were they around to see, would take a different view.

Joe Kaufman is the Chairman of Americans Against Hate and the founder of CAIR Watch.

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