TAMPA, Fla. – Sami Al-Arian (search) emerged as a key figure in a "terror cycle" perpetrated by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (search), whose members targeted Israelis in deadly bombings and bragged about them to raise money for more attacks, a prosecutor said Monday on the opening day of the fired college professor's trial.
In fact, Al-Arian, a University of South Florida (search) computer science instructor, was at one time "the most powerful man in the world in the organization" blamed for more than 100 deaths in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, federal prosecutor Walter E. Furr III told jurors in his opening statement.
Al-Arian, 47, and three co-defendants face a 53-count indictment that includes charges of providing material support to terrorists, racketeering and conspiracy. Five other men have been indicted but have not been arrested. The trial is expected to last six months.
Prosecutors allege the men used an Islamic academic think tank and a Palestinian charity founded by Al-Arian in Tampa as fundraising fronts for the PIJ, which is on a State Department list of terrorist organizations. Furr described them as "an armed, criminal group of violent thugs" opposed to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories and committed to disrupting the peace process.
Furr described how Al-Arian, as secretary of the organization, and the others were involved in soliciting financial support for families of suicide bombers, getting money to PIJ headquarters in Syria and spreading word that the PIJ was responsible for attacks.
"These are the managers. These are the guys who ran the organization," Furr said, describing the defendants and other key PIJ figures as "an elitist group of intellectuals" far above those who strapped on bombs and carried out the attacks.
"They were pure PIJ," Furr said of Al-Arian and co-defendants Sameeh Hammoudeh, Ghassan Zayed Ballut and Hatem Naji Fariz.
The defendants have denied the charges, saying that they are being persecuted for their unpopular pro-Palestinian views. Each could get life in prison if convicted. Openings statements by their attorneys were planned later in the day and possibly Tuesday.
Furr told jurors that the government built its case around wiretaps of telephone calls and faxes beginning in 1994. An investigation had begun three years before.
"You will be taken inside the Palestinian Islamic Jihad," Furr promised the 12-member jury and seven alternates. "You will visit them on a day-to-day basis. You will be with them through their successes and failures."
Al-Arian, who has been in jail since his arrest more than two years ago, shook his head from side to side at times as Furr spoke. Relatives watched from the courtroom gallery, and supporters staged a lunchtime rally outside the federal courthouse in downtown Tampa.
Hammoudeh, 44, is a former instructor and student at USF and an administrator at the Islamic Academy of Florida, which was founded by Al-Arian. Fariz, 32, managed a medical clinic in Spring Hill, and Ballut, 43, is a small business owner from Tinley Park, Ill.