Intelligence supplied by Israel played a key role in the indictment last week of University of South Florida professor Sami Al-Arian on charges that he is a leader of the Islamic Jihad Palestinian terrorist group, the Forward has learned.
An FBI delegation traveled to Israel late last year to collect intelligence obtained by Israel during the mid-1990s, a former top counterterrorist official said on condition of anonymity. “The evidence the U.S. government has is intelligence, much of it from the Israeli government, relating to 1994 — when the Mossad had a penetration of [Islamic Jihad] headquarters in Damascus,” the official said. “Much of the intelligence was turned over to the FBI on a recent visit to Israel.”
The FBI and the Justice Department would not comment.
Jonathan Peled, a spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, acknowledged that Israel was cooperating with American authorities, although he said he did not have specific knowledge about the Al-Arian case or of the FBI visit.
Matthew Levitt, a former FBI official now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a pro-Israel think tank, acknowledged that “Israel has every reason to be very forthcoming” on Islamic Jihad and that he had “heard about” the FBI trip.
However, he stressed that “there was no reason to assume that the indictment was not mostly based on U.S. intelligence and police work,” essentially phone and fax wiretaps started in 1994.
Al-Arian, a tenured computer engineering professor at the University of South Florida, was charged with racketeering along with seven other people. In a 50-count indictment unsealed last Thursday in Tampa, prosecutors accused the eight men of conspiring since 1984 to support Islamic Jihad by helping finance and organize suicide bombings in Israel. It is the first time an indictment is centered on terrorist acts committed abroad. Four men were arrested — including Al-Arian — and the other four remain at large and abroad. They face life imprisonment if convicted.
Born in Kuwait to a family of Palestinian refugees, Al-Arian moved to the United States in 1978 and has been a permanent resident since 1989. Al-Arian is described in the indictment as a member of the top Islamic Jihad advisory council, the group’s leader in the United States and the group’s international financial chief officer.
The professor, who was suspended last year from the University of South Florida, has consistently denied the claims, telling reporters last week that his indictment was “all about politics.” His supporters have consistently raised the issue of free speech and Arab advocacy groups say he is a victim of a discriminatory campaign fuelled by the post-September 11 climate.
In public appearances and interviews last week, Attorney General John Ashcroft hailed the indictment as a triumph for the new prerogatives granted his department under the 2001 Patriot Act to use intelligence in criminal cases in ways that were previously off limits, particularly wiretaps.
Those new powers were affirmed by an appellate court decision last November. Following the ruling, Ashcroft gave prosecutors a “broad green light” to pursue criminal charges in cases such as Al-Arian’s, he told The New York Times.
Concretely, the FBI decided to use the wiretaps it had in its possession for years and to send a team to Israel to collect additional information on the professor.
“The Israeli intelligence provided communications between the [Islamic Jihad] headquarters and [Islamic Jihad] members in the U.S., primarily Bashir Nafi and Sami Al-Arian” during the early 1990s, the former top official said. Nafi, one of those named in the indictment, was deported from the United States to Great Britain in 1996. “This information illustrated the fact that Sami and Bashir were members of the Majlis Ashura, or Council of Advisors, of the [Islamic Jihad]. As one of the senior advisors, Sami had input into some of the [Islamic Jihad] operations in Israel and the territories, and allegedly helped to funnel funds collected in the U.S. to Jihad headquarters.… Since then, U.S. intelligence has determined that Sami remained a member of the council of advisors.”
Israel was able to obtain such information because the Mossad successfully infiltrated an agent into Islamic Jihad’s offices in Damascus during the early 1990s, the former official said. The Israeli agent, a Libyan man, reportedly tipped off the Mossad prior to its October 1995 assassination of then- Islamic Jihad secretary general Fathi Shikaki in Malta.
The agent was then caught and turned over to the Syrians, who interrogated him and then executed him, the official added.
Shikaki was succeeded at the helm of Islamic Jihad by Abdullah Ramadan Shallah, who is another defendant in the case. A former colleague of Al-Arian at the University of South Florida from 1991 to 1995, Shallah abruptly left the United States and moved to Damascus in the summer of 1995, where he was quickly chosen to succeed Shikaki.
Israeli officials declined to comment.
Islamic Jihad has taken credit or been blamed for scores of shootings, bombings and suicide bombings in Israel, including the April 1995 suicide bombing in Gaza that claimed the life of 20-year-old American Alisa Flatow, and the November 2001 shooting in Jerusalem’s French Hill neighborhood in which an American citizens, Shoshana Ben-Yishai, 16, was killed and another, Shlomo Kaye, 15, injured.
Allusions to Israel’s role in directing American efforts towards Al-Arian was made in a separate lawsuit filed last year against the professor by John Loftus, a controversial former prosecutor and Nazi hunter. Although the complaint was thrown out by a judge, it contains many of the allegations of last week’s indictment and matches the account given by the former American official.
In his suit, Loftus claims that “client confidential sources” had told him that “the intelligence service of a friendly country alleged that they had wiretapped the Damascus, Syria, headquarters of the [Islamic Jihad]… [and] inadvertently intercepted a telephone conversation from an unknown person in Tampa, Florida.”
In the alleged conversation, the caller from Tampa screams at a senior Islamic Jihad official about Hamas taking credit for a terrorist attack committed by Islamic Jihad, complaining that it would hinder his fundraising efforts in the United States for the group. Worried about the possible existence of an Islamic Jihad cell operated by a person with such stature, the friendly country shared the intercept with American intelligence and asked for assistance in identifying the Tampa caller, according to Loftus’s suit. The caller turned out to be Al-Arian, the lawsuit claims.
The discovery prompted the United States to move against Al-Arian, examining his bank records and obtaining secret warrants through the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to wiretap him, the suit contended.
According to the federal indictment, the FBI began bugging Al-Arian’s phone and fax line in January 1994. The FBI raided his home and office in 1995 and continued to closely monitor him and his associates. However, the government was unable to bring charges against him because of restrictions in the use of intelligence information in criminal cases. The Associated Press reported this week that Al-Arian visited the White House as part of a 160-person group from the American Muslim Council in June 2001, where the group was briefed on President Bush’s faith-based agenda and other issues by Karl Rove, the president’s chief political adviser. (Please see separate story.)
The main obstacle to indicting Al-Arian, observers said, was that most of the material against him precedes the enactment of the 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act that barred material support to foreign terrorist groups listed by the State Department. Islamic Jihad was designated as a foreign terrorist group in October 1997.
The indictment indicates that most of the evidence stems from 1994 and the first half of 1995, when the FBI wiretaps went unnoticed. Following the FBI raids in November 1995, Al-Arian apparently stopped his allegedly incriminating conversations on the phone, using more cryptic references to Islamic Jihad support activities.
However, since the enactment of the Patriot Act last year and the court ruling, such evidence can now be used to build criminal indictments — to the dismay of civil liberties activists. Government officials note that this is precisely why they issued the indictment now.
Levitt, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that the evidence was so overwhelming that the issues of free speech and of the use of secret evidence raised by Al-Arian supporters are moot.
“The government has decided to declassify a lot of intelligence and there is no shortage of it in this case,” he added.