Middle East studies in the News
'Professor by Day, Terrorist by Night' [on the al-Arian trial]
by Josh Gerstein
A grisly video of the aftermath of a bus bombing in the Gaza Strip played in a federal courtroom here yesterday as prosecutors began their closing arguments in a five month-long trial of four men, including a college professor, accused of operating the American wing of Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
The video shows the chaos and carnage that followed the April 9, 1995, suicide attack, which killed seven Israeli soldiers and an American college student, Alisa Flatow.
"She got in the way of the PIJ that day," a prosecutor, Cherie Krigsman, said, using an acronym for the terrorist group that claimed responsibility for the bombing. "Hot metal shrapnel propelled at blinding speeds murdered her," she said.
During the trial, prosecutors have focused most of their attention on the best-known of the defendants, a former professor at the University of South Florida, Sami Al-Arian. An indictment returned in 2003 charged Mr. Al-Arian with directing the American operations of Palestinian Islamic Jihad through the use of front organizations in Tampa and Chicago.
"Sami Al-Arian was a professor by day and a terrorist by night," Ms. Krigsman told jurors yesterday.
Prosecutors also used videos to remind the jury of some of Mr. Al-Arian's most fiery public appearances, such as a 1991 Chicago conference where, speaking in Arabic, he described Jews as "monkeys and pigs."
"Yes to the Intifada, yes to Jihad, victory is to Islam, and death to Israel," Mr. Al-Arian shouted at the gathering, which was sponsored by a group he headed, the Islamic Committee for Palestine.
In addition, the prosecution has played excerpts from more than 20,000 hours of surveillance tapes federal agents made of phone conversations of Mr. Al-Arian and others. Some of the conversations portray the former computer science professor as intimately involved in the affairs of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a group that has killed more than 100 people in attacks in Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank.
In January 1994, as the organization was in the midst of an internal struggle,
Mr. Al-Arian spoke by phone to many of its leaders, including the group's head, Fathi Shiqaqi. Ms. Krigsman said Mr. Al-Arian telephoned Shiqaqi at his headquarters in Damascus, Syria, "just like you or I would pick up the phone and order pizza."
In the conversation, Mr. Al-Arian pushed Shiqaqi to reverse a decision to stop funding for the terror group's American branch. "The brothers are very, very, very, very upset here," Mr. Al-Arian said, bluntly adding that he found Shiqaqi's stance "unbelievable."
Ms. Krigsman said the former professor's frankness reflected his status as a member of the group's governing council. "He went toe to toe with them. They sought his advice and counsel because he was obviously one of the movers and shakers," she said.
Also on trial are three of Mr. Al-Arian's associates, Sameeh Hammoudeh, Ghassan Ballut and Hatim Fariz. A 53-count indictment accuses the men of racketeering, conspiracy to commit murder, conspiracy to provide material support to a terrorist group, and conspiracy to violate a federal freeze on assets of terrorist organizations. Other counts accuse some of the defendants of money laundering, immigration fraud, and other crimes.
"Just like Sam Walton didn't stock shelves at the local Wal-Mart, Sami Al-Arian had others to carry out the local activities of the PIJ," Ms. Krigsman said.
All four of the men on trial have entered not guilty pleas. However, Mr.Al-Arian's lead attorney, William Moffitt, surprised some observers last month when he announced that the former professor would not mount a defense against the charges. None of the defendants chose to take the witness stand, though some family members were called to testify.
The father of the American woman killed in the 1995 bus attack showcased by the prosecution said in an interview that the trial is a test of America's ability to bring to justice those who facilitate terrorism. "In my book, this is one of the seminal cases of American jurisprudence," said Stephen Flatow, who testified for the prosecution in June. "If they can put Sami Al-Arian away for what I believe to be his role in fronting attacks that killed Alisa and others, then I believe they will have struck a blow," Mr. Flatow said. "An acquittal will be disastrous for the future of this type of prosecution," he added.
Mr. Flatow complained about the press's lack of interest in the trial, which has been covered regularly only by Tampa area newspapers and the Associated Press. "This case has not gotten the kind of respect it deserved," he said.
The prosecution is expected to conclude its presentation today, allowing defense lawyers to begin their closing arguments. Because of Veterans Day, jury deliberations in the case may not begin until next week.
Although jurors were presented with compelling video and audio evidence yesterday, they also heard about some of the dry legalities that could trip up the government's case. While the indictment charges conspiracies stretching back as far as 1984, American laws about crimes committed abroad and about the funding of terrorist groups have changed repeatedly over that time.
At one point yesterday, Ms. Krigsman, the prosecutor, showed jurors a flow chart that she said could help them decide whether a defendant in a long-running conspiracy violated a new legal provision added after the September 11, 2001 attacks on America. "I know this can get complicated," she said sympathetically.
Another possible pitfall for the prosecution is that the most dramatic and damaging evidence in the case dates to the mid-1990s. The prosecutor told the jury yesterday that Mr. Al-Arian and the other defendants came to suspect they were under surveillance and their caution made it harder to capture incriminating statements on tape.
Mr. Al-Arian first fell under public suspicion in 1994, when PBS broadcast a documentary alleging that he was tied to extremists. He was later suspended from teaching at the university. Academic groups and Arab American groups protested the suspension as a violation of academic freedom, and he was reinstated. He was fired in 2003 after the federal criminal charges were filed.Note: Articles listed under "Middle East studies in the News" provide information on current developments concerning Middle East studies on North American campuses. These reports do not necessarily reflect the views of Campus Watch and do not necessarily correspond to Campus Watch's critique.
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