TAMPA, Fla. – A Florida professor and seven other men were charged Thursday with operating a global terrorist organization that the federal government says is responsible for the deaths of 100 people in and around Israel.
University of South Florida computer engineering professor Sami Al-Arian is the North American leader of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Attorney General John Ashcroft said in announcing the federal indictment.
The Palestinian Islamic Jihad is a U.S. government-designated foreign terrorist organization committed to homicide bombings and violent jihad activities, Ashcroft said Thursday.
"Palestinian Islamic Jihad is one of the most violent terrorist organizations in the world," he said.
Earlier in the day, Al-Arian was shown in television images being led in handcuffs to FBI headquarters in Tampa.
"It's all about politics," the Kuwaiti-born professor told reporters as agents led him inside.
Al-Arian was placed on forced leave and banned from campus shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and his subsequent appearance on Fox News Channel's The O'Reilly Factor.
He was questioned about links to known terrorists and about tapes from the late 1980s and early 1990s in which he said, "Death to Israel" in Arabic.
He and seven other men were charged Thursday in a 50-count indictment with operating a criminal racketeering enterprise since 1984 that supported Palestinian Islamic Jihad. They are also charged with conspiracy to kill and maim people abroad; conspiracy to provide material support to the group; extortion; perjury; mail and wire fraud; obstruction of justice; and attempt to procure citizenship or naturalization unlawfully to help terrorists.
All eight could get life in prison if convicted.
"Our message to them and others like them is clear," Ashcroft said. "We make no distinction to those who carry out terror attacks and those who finance and manage [them]."
The indictment says the group's purpose is to destroy Israel and end all U.S. and Western influence in the region and that it rejected peaceful solutions to the Palestinian quest for a homeland in the Middle East and embraced "the Jihad solution and the martyrdom style as the only choice for liberation."
The group's manifesto calls the United States "the Great Satan America."
Among the 100 people allegedly killed by the terror group are two U.S. citizens: Alisa Flatow, 20, and Shoshana Ben-Yishai, 16.
Flatow, then a junior at Brandeis University, died in a 1995 bus bombing in the Gaza Strip. Her father, Stephen Flatow of West Orange, N.J., said Thursday he "thought this would never happen ... This demonstrates the old saw about the wheels of justice -- they grind slow, but they grind exceedingly fine."
The killings included homicide bombings, car bombs and drive-by shootings, most recently a June 5, 2002, homicide attack in Haifa, Israel, that killed 20 and injured 50.
Those arrested allegedly set up a terrorist cell at USF. They are:
-- Al-Arian, the college professor and Kuwait native.
-- Sameeh Hammoudeh, 42, born in the West Bank, now a resident of Temple Terrace, Fla. He also is an instructor at the University of South Florida and administrator at the Islamic Academy of Florida.
-- Hatim Naji Fariz, 30, born in Puerto Rico and now living in Spring Hill, Fla. He is a manager at a medical clinic.
-- Ghassan Zayed Ballut, 41, a West Bank native now living in Tinley Park, Ill., and owner of a small business.
Four men who live abroad were also charged but have not yet been arrested. They are:
-- Ramadan Abdullah Shallah, 45, a Gaza Strip native and resident of Damascas, Syria. He is described as the worldwide leader of Palestinian Islamic Jihad and is a former USF instructor.
-- Bashir Musa Mohammed Nafi, 50, originally from Egypt and now living in Oxfordshire, England. The indictment calls him the United Kingdom leader of the group.
-- Mohammed Tasir Hassan Al-Khatib, 46, originally from the Gaza Strip and now living in Beirut; described as the treasurer of the organization.
-- Abd Al Aziz Awda, 52, born in Israel and now imam of the Al Qassam Mosque in Gaza Strip. The indictment calls him the founder and "spiritual leader" of the group.
The U.S. Attorney's Office in Tampa said last year that Al-Arian was under federal investigation.
"This was disconcerting but not surprising," said USF spokesman Michael Reich. University President Judy Genshaft will meet with the school's lawyers Thursday.
"The fairest thing to do would be to allow him to take an unpaid leave of absence so he can defend himself in this criminal matter," said Al-Arian's civil attorney, Robert McKee. "Obviously if he's convicted of some offense, then his job goes away in the process. If he's cleared of these criminal charges then the cloud that's been following him and USF all these years will be lifted."
The university says Al-Arian's comments on the O'Reilly Factor hurt the school's fund-raising efforts and resulted in threats being made against the school. It also claims the professor raised money for terrorist groups, brought terrorists into the United States and founded organizations that support terrorism.
Al-Arian and his brother-in-law, Mazen Al-Najjar, founded the World and Islam Studies Enterprises, a now-defunct Islamic think tank at USF that was raided by the FBI in 1995. Al-Arian also founded the Islamic Concern Project Inc. in 1988.
"Everyone knows my husband is innocent, even those who accuse him of all these things for political reasons," Al-Arian's wife, Nahla, said as she left her home Thursday to attend her husband's court hearing. "I saw injustice happen to my brother, I see it now to my husband. I've been living it for years."
Al-Najjar spent more than 3 1/2 years in jail on secret evidence linking him to terrorists. He was released in 2000 but arrested again in November 2001 and deported last August.
Al-Arian argues that he has never advocated violence against others and that his words were a statement against Israeli occupation. He also has consistently denied any connection to terrorists.
"Not only have many of these media reports frequently misrepresented the facts, but they are to a large extent responsible for my current predicament," he wrote in August 2002 for the political newsletter Counterpunch.
"I have never once in my life advocated the killing of innocent civilians. I abhor terrorism at all levels, against all people. I condemn all violence against civilians - regardless of the faith of the perpetrators - whether they are in pizza parlors, bus stations or refugee camps."
Al-Arian says he was one of the first Muslim leaders to condemn the Sept. 11 attacks and call for justice. He said his mosque and the Islamic Community of Tampa Bay collected more than $10,000 for the victims' fund in New York, and he himself led a blood drive during which 75 local Muslims participated.
Al-Arian has lived in the United States since 1975. He had never been charged with a crime.
Last month, the USF faculty union filed a grievance on Al-Arian's behalf, saying that banning him from campus violated the union's contract, Al-Arian's right to academic freedom and its own policy of nondiscrimination.
Three days after his appearance on Fox News, Genshaft suspended Al-Arian with pay for what was described as a security issue.
"The issue before us is how much disruption the university must endure because of the manner in which a professor exercises his right to express political and social views that are outside the scope of his employment," Genshaft said.
The O'Reilly Factor will have special coverage of Al-Arian's arrest Thursday at 8 p.m and 11 p.m. EST.
Fox News' Liza Porteus and The Associated Press contributed to this report.