TAMPA, Fla. – Ten years ago, American student Alisa Flatow boarded a bus headed to a Gaza Strip beach resort for a much needed break from her studies.
At the Israeli settlement of Kfar Darom, a young man sat in a van loaded with explosives. As the bus approached, he steered his rolling bomb at it with ferocious speed and slammed into the bus' side. Eight people — seven Israelis and Flatow — died in the April 9, 1995, terrorist attack.
Now her parents are looking for justice half a world away in Tampa, where a former computer science professor and three others are going on trial on charges they helped fund the terrorist group that carried out the bombing. Jury selection begins Monday.
Sami Al-Arian (search), a University of South Florida (search) professor and nationally known Palestinian rights activist, was already secretly under investigation by FBI foreign intelligence agents at the time of the bombing.
Al-Arian had established an Islamic academic think tank, a school, a mosque and a charity for Palestinian children — but authorities were questioning whether the true mission of Al-Arian's work was to finance terrorist attacks in Israel.
In a 53-count indictment, Al-Arian, Sameeh Hammoudeh, Hatim Naji Fariz and Ghassan Zayed Ballut are accused of racketeering, conspiracy and providing material support to terrorists. Five other men have been indicted but are still at large.
The men face life in prison if convicted of charges they used Al-Arian's think tank and charity as fundraising fronts for the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (search).
"These people, they have no respect for life," said Alisa Flatow's father, Stephen Flatow of West Orange, N.J. "They will continue to pick on innocent people just to accomplish their means. That's why this trial is so important. You have to send a message."
Al-Arian is alternately viewed as a crusader for Palestinian rights who is being persecuted for his unpopular views and as a terrorist who hid behind a veil of legitimacy while secretly financing deadly attacks thousands of miles away.
"Much of what people are saying about Sami Al-Arian could have been said likewise about Nelson Mandela," attorney William Moffitt said.
"Now Nelson Mandela is a hero for having supported his people. Sami Al-Arian is a villain for being the voice of the Palestinian people. There aren't really a lot of voices in this country who have spoken favorably for the Palestinian people."
Prosecutors contend there is direct evidence of Al-Arian's involvement with actual attacks. The indictment alleges that in 1993, Al-Arian sent four wire transfers of nearly $2,000 each to the relatives of four convicted Islamic Jihad terrorists who had been convicted of the murder of three Israelis.
They point to video from the early 1990s in which a fiery Al-Arian shouts "Death to Israel" or when he shared the stage with Sheik Omar Abdul Rahman (search), the blind Egyptian cleric convicted for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
Al-Arian's attorneys question how a supposedly dangerous terrorist financier could have gained access to the White House and met with Presidents Clinton and Bush.
Nearly two dozen other prominent political and government leaders from both parties — Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Trent Lott, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and House Speaker Dennis Hastert among them — are reported by Al-Arian's attorneys to have had contact with him.
If Al-Arian "is supposedly this awful terrorist, how did he get so close to these people is a really interesting question," Moffitt said. He declined to elaborate on Al-Arian's prominent connections, calling them a key component of the defense.
The prosecution said more important than his well-placed contacts are the shadowy figures with whom Al-Arian did business.
Chief among them is Ramadan Abdullah Shallah, one of the five indicted co-conspirators who has not yet been arrested. Al-Arian brought Shallah to the University of South Florida to run the think tank, the World and Islam Studies Enterprise (search). Shallah abruptly left Tampa in mid-1995 and resurfaced in Damascus as the Islamic Jihad's new leader.
Stephen Flatow, who has been subpoenaed to testify, said he was not told until 2003 that agents believed there was a connection between Al-Arian and the bombing that killed his daughter.
"I felt very, very good our government was finally standing up for Americans who are killed by other Americans on the other side of the world," he said. "If someone is going to provide the means to commit a crime, you are just as guilty as the person who pulled the plunger. If anything, these guys are cowards."