Feds: Professor by day, terror fund raiser by night
Lawyer: Indictment 'a work of fiction'
TAMPA, Florida (CNN) -- The Florida college professor arrested Thursday and charged with conspiracy to commit murder for his alleged support of a Palestinian terrorist organization has long been a vocal supporter of the Palestinian cause, but denies any links to terrorism.
University of South Florida professor Sami Al-Arian -- a 45-year-old father of five children -- has lived in the United States for more than 25 years. He made a name for himself as an outstanding computer engineering professor, eventually gaining tenure at the university.
He was also a high-profile figure in Florida, campaigning among Arab-Americans for George W. Bush's presidential bid.
But while he gained accolades in the classroom, he was being investigated by law enforcement, suspected of funding terrorists.
"I don't support suicide bombings," Al-Arian once said in a CNN interview. "I don't support the targeting of civilians of any nationality, background or religion. I am deeply against it."
At 5:30 a.m. Thursday, FBI and Joint Terrorism Task Force agents raided his home and took him away while his wife and three of his children watched, trembling. If convicted, Al-Arian faces up to life in prison for his alleged ties with Palestinian Islamic Jihad. (Full story)
"My father's an optimist. He's a good man," his 17-year-old daughter Lena said after a court appearance Thursday afternoon.
Al-Arian's lawyer, Nicolas Matassini, called the indictment "a work of fiction" and said his client planned to go on a hunger strike in protest.
A Kuwaiti native, Al-Arian fell under the scrutiny of federal authorities in 1995 when he and another USF instructor -- Ramadan Abdullah Shallah -- founded an Islamic think tank, World and Islam Studies Enterprise (WISE). About a year later, Shallah returned to the Middle East as the new head of Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
Shallah was among those indicted Thursday with Al-Arian and six others. Shallah and three of the co-defendants remain at large.
According to the 50-count, 121-page indictment, Al-Arian is the leader of Palestinian Islamic Jihad in the United States and acted as the secretary for the group's governing body.
The indictment alleges Al-Arian made wire transfers of tens of thousands of dollars to Palestinian Islamic Jihad and relatives of the group's members jailed for their involvement in terror attacks in Israel and Gaza in the 1990s.
"We make no distinction between those who carry out terrorist attacks and those who knowingly finance, manage and supervise terrorist organizations," Attorney General John Ashcroft said.
Sources said newly relaxed rules allowing law enforcement use of intelligence intercepts helped make the case that Palestinian Islamic Jihad was involved in the criminal racketeering enterprise to support the terror operations.
Ashcroft referenced those new rules, saying coordination "between the intelligence effort and the law enforcement effort, which previously had been forbidden," tremendously helped investigators.
Al-Arian had been in a battle with the University of South Florida to keep his job after a tape became public showing him shouting "Death to Israel" in Arabic. He went on paid leave from the university in 1996 and was banned from the campus following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks against the United States.
Al-Arian had called his troubles with the university an issue of academic freedom, and said there was "no evidence in the record" that he was linked to terrorist groups.
"I am a pro-Palestinian person. I don't wish death to any people," he said last year. "I have absolutely nothing to do with any of these things. How would I? ... I mean, this is ridiculous. This is absolutely ridiculous for people even to insinuate that."
He added, "I feel that the American values that I got to practice and respect have been betrayed, and that is not just a sense of personal betrayal, but more of a national betrayal."