TAMPA, Fla. - A federal prosecutor has described former college professor Sami Al-Arian and three other men facing terrorism-related charges as a shrewd group of intellectuals who led double lives for much of the past decade.
During the first day of trial for Al-Arian and his co-defendants yesterday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Walter Furr told jurors the men carried out "economic jihad" to raise funds and pay members of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group.
"You'll get to see their double lives," Furr said of the former University of South Florida computer-science professor and others who were once instructors or graduate students at the campus. "You'll see their dedication to the PIJ, and you'll know that they are guilty."
Al-Arian's defense attorney countered that the professor was an outspoken Palestinian activist and described him as a "power broker" who once hobnobbed with the nation's top politicians. William Moffitt said the government was intent on criminalizing his client's actions, which he said were protected speech and freedom of assembly.
Moffitt said that if Al-Arian was a national security threat, why did the U.S. Secret Service allow him to enter the White House at least four times in the past decade. As proof, Moffitt showed jurors a picture of Al-Arian grinning alongside President Bush while he campaigned in Florida in 2000.
Al-Arian and eight others face a 53-count indictment accusing them of numerous charges, including conspiracy to commit racketeering, money laundering, murder of civilians abroad and providing material support to a terrorist group. The case relies heavily on thousands of hours of intercepted calls and faxes, which prosecutors say show that Al-Arian and others ran a criminal enterprise.
Furr said that Al-Arian, 47, and other suspected group founders were well-educated academics who used their backgrounds as cover while they ran their clandestine organization.
He said the PIJ operated on a "terror cycle," a chain of murders and bombings with claims and publicity that were later exploited by Al-Arian and others to gain financial support and recruit new suicide bombers.
"Evidence will show that it is one of the deadliest organizations in the world, run by an elitist group of intellectuals who aim to annihilate the state of Israel," said Furr, who used a projector to enlarge maps of Israel and the Middle East. "These people were way above the people who blew themselves up."
Furr said two nonprofit organizations that Al-Arian and others founded and ran in Tampa - the Islamic Concern Project and the World and Islam Studies Enterprise - were used to launder proceeds and to pay the salaried terrorists.
Furr described Al-Arian as No. 3 in the organization and one of its most influential.
"He was the secretary of the board of directors," Furr said. "You'll see, for a time, that he was the most powerful person in the organization."
Furr said Al-Arian went so far as to solicit funds for the group in 1995, when he wrote someone in Kuwait in February of that year. Less than three weeks earlier, two PIJ suicide bombers had killed 22 people and injured several others in Israel.
Furr's portrait of the accused contrasted sharply with that of Al-Arian's attorney William Moffitt, who later mocked the government's account.
"You would have thought this was a case of financing terrorism," Moffitt began telling jurors. "For 3 1/2 hours, you heard that money was being sent into the United States to finance political speech."
Moffitt said the government has admitted there is no evidence his client took part in any acts of violence or planned terrorist attacks in the United States. Instead, he said, Al-Arian was being punished for espousing views that some might find reprehensible.
"Evidence will show that this case is about Dr. Al-Arian's freedom of speech, your right to hear it and the attempt by the powerful to silence it," he said. He described Al-Arian's organizations as legitimate.
"Do not allow the silencing of Dr. Sami Al-Arian to serve some unknown foreign-policy goal of the United States," he said.
The trial began amid tight security, with barricades around the courthouse, extra deputy U.S. marshals and other law-enforcement officers, and thorough screenings at the entrances to the building and Moody's courtroom.
The measures prompted Assistant Federal Public Defender M. Allison Guagliardo to argue that her client, Hatem Naji Fariz, 32, might not receive a fair trial because jurors could be influenced by the unusual steps.
The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.