TAMPA, Fla. – The University of South Florida professor charged with being a leader of a Palestinian terrorist group first caught the attention of the FBI nearly a decade ago and has made vitriolic public remarks about Israel since at least the early 1990s.
Sami Al-Arian, 45, a balding, bespectacled computer engineering instructor, was jailed in Tampa after he and seven others were charged in a federal indictment unsealed Thursday. He dismissed the charges as politically motivated.
Al-Arian, who is married with five children, is well known as a community activist who founded a Muslim school and community center. He denounced the mistreatment of Muslims in the United States following Sept. 11 and helped organize blood drives to assist survivors of the terrorist attack.
The Kuwaiti-born emigre earned computer-engineering degrees from Southern Illinois University and North Carolina State University, according to a Web site established by supporters. He was been at the university here since 1986 and won an outstanding teacher award in 1993.
The very next year, a PBS documentary first accused Al-Arian of raising money for Islamic Jihad, the terrorist group named in Thursday's indictment. The show, which cited unidentified law enforcement sources, also said Al-Arian had links to Omar Abdel-Rahman, the radical Muslim cleric tied to the World Trade Center bombing in 1993.
Al-Arian said the program was poorly translated and called it a deliberate attempt to distort the cause of U.S. Muslim organizations.
But the show brought attention to some of his other statements over the years. At a 1991 rally in Chicago, Al-Arian urged the crowd to "say yes to the intifadah (Palestinian uprising) in the past of Allah."
"Jihad (holy war) is our path," he said then. "Victory will be Islam's. Death to Israel. Revolution, revolution until victory!"
More serious in the eyes of federal officials was the World and Islam Studies Enterprises think tank co-founded at the university by Al-Arian, his brother-in-law and others. It was raided in 1995 by the FBI amid concerns it was sheltering a nest of terrorists.
Another co-founder, former university instructor Ramadan Shallah, had left Florida in 1995 and turned up as the head of Islamic Jihad. And federal officials said Al-Arian founded the think tank with help from the brother of an assassinated Islamic Jihad leader.
Al-Arian has said he knew the men only as academics and was shocked when they were later connected to terrorism.
His life has been especially tumultuous since he appeared on a Fox News Channel show in fall 2001 to discuss the allegations surrounding the think tank, which has been closed and its records seized by authorities.
The TV appearance brought death threats and the university put Al-Arian on paid leave the next day for his own safety. University President Judy Genshaft has been trying to fire him ever since, sparking a prolonged legal battle and national debate over academic freedom and discrimination.
Al-Arian has been an outspoken critic of the treatment of his brother-in-law, Mazen Al-Najjar, who spent more than three years in jail on undisclosed evidence authorities say links him to terrorists. Al-Najjar was deported last August.
His sister, Nahla, is married to Al-Arian.
"Everyone knows my husband is innocent, even those who accuse him of all these things for political reasons," she said. "I saw injustice happen to my brother, I see it now to my husband. I've been living it for years."