- Former professor at the University of South Florida
- North American head of Palestinian Islamic Jihad
- Active in the Islamic Society of North America, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, the American Muslim Council, the American Muslim Alliance, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations
- Co-founded the World and Islam Studies Enterprise
- Created the National Coalition to Protect Political Freedom
- Former Chairman of the Islamic Academy of Florida
Sami Al-Arian was born in Kuwait on January 14, 1958. His parents, Amin and Laila Al-Arian, were Palestinians who had become refugees after the establishment of Israel in 1948. The Al-Arian family was expelled from Kuwait in 1966 after refusing to become informants for Kuwaiti intelligence, and Sami Al-Arian received his primary and secondary education in Cairo, Egypt. The family then immigrated to the United States in 1975. Three years later, Al-Arian obtained a bachelor’s degree in electrical sciences and engineering from Southern Illinois University. He thereafter attended North Carolina State University, where he earned both a master’s degree (1980) and a Ph.D. (1985) in computer engineering.
By 1981, Al-Arian was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. In 1986 he was hired as an Assistant Professor of computer science by the University of South Florida (USF), where he eventually earned tenure in 1992 and was promoted to Associate Professor.
As an academic, Al-Arian published several dozen papers in his field of study. He was also a civil liberties activist and a key player in numerous Islamic-interest organizations, including the Hillsborough Organization for Progress and Equality; the Islamic Academy of Florida (where he served as chair and principal); the Islamic Association for Palestine (which he co-founded in the 1980s); the Islamic Committee for Palestine (which he founded in 1988); the Islamic Society of North America (which he co-founded in 1981); and the World Islam Study Enterprise (which he co-founded in 1991). Moreover, Al-Arian received the “Civil Rights Award” of three prominent Arab and Muslim Organizations: the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, the American Muslim Alliance, and the American Muslim Council.
During a speech he delivered in 1988, Al-Arian made clear his passion for Islamic jihadism, proclaiming: “From butchery to butchery and from martyrdom to martyrdom, from jihad to jihad . . . this is the sweetness of Islam, and the taste of faith.”
Al-Arian served as Secretary of the Shura Council — i.e., leadership board — of the Islamic terrorist organization Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) during the 1990s and early 2000s. In this capacity, he directed the audit of all PIJ funds and property worldwide.
Al-Arian’s financial duties with PIJ included the distribution of money to the families of PIJ suicide bombers, or “martyrs.” For over a decade, federal investigators amassed reams of phone conversations, faxes, letters, videotapes and other documents proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was an indispensable part of PIJ. In one recorded telephone conversation, for instance, Al-Arian and a fellow PIJ conspirator agreed that PIJ could afford to pay $120 per month to the families of 400 “martyrs.” In another phone exchange, federal agents recorded Al-Arian telling a PIJ associate in Syria that he would “send via facsimile the names of people in the Occupied Territories who needed financial support” — i.e., the spouses or other relatives of recently convicted PIJ terrorists serving sentences in Israeli jails for their participation in a February 1992 terrorist attack that had killed three Israelis. To help cover the cost of such payouts, Al-Arian became a very active and effective fundraiser. At one event in Chicago, for example, he raised $53,000 for PIJ suicide operations, nearly half of it in cash.
In 1990, U.S. national security agents gained access to a wiretapped recording of Al-Arian making a long-distance phone call to the Syrian headquarters of PIJ, screaming: “Do you realize that Hamas is taking public credit for the attack that I paid for? Don’t you realize this is hurting my fund-raising in America?!”
During a 1991 speech in Chicago, Al-Arian shouted: “The Koran is our constitution! Jihad is our path! Victory to Islam! Death to Israel and victory to Islam! Revolution! Revolution until victory! Rolling, rolling to Jerusalem!”
Al-Arian served as the visa sponsor for Gaza native Ramadan Abdullah Shallah, thereby enabling the latter to enter the United States shortly before he and Al-Arian — as well as another Gaza native named Khalil Shikaki — collaborated in 1991 to create the World Islam Study Enterprise (WISE). Shallah directed WISE from 1991 until mid-1995. He also worked as an economist and held a teaching position in USF’s department of international affairs — a post he obtained as a result of Al-Arian’s intercession and lobbying on his behalf. Al-Arian also placed Shallah on the board of the Islamic Committee for Palestine. But in 1995, Shallah — with federal authorities closing in on him because of his suspected terrorist ties — abruptly left the United States and returned to the Middle East, where he became head of the Syrian chapter of PIJ.
Al-Arian applied for U.S. citizenship in December 1993, and in September 1994 he passed the citizenship exam. That November, he voted in America’s midterm elections. But his ballot was an illegal one, in light of the fact that he had not yet been officially sworn in as a new citizen. As a result, the Immigration & Naturalization Services (INS) agency revisited Al-Arian’s citizenship application, but the State Attorney elected not to prosecute.
The FBI obtained a tremendous amount of incriminating evidence against Al-Arian when it raided WISE headquarters in 1995 and seized some 500 videotapes of conferences in which Al-Arian had participated for the purpose of raising money to aid terrorism efforts overseas. According to former U.S. government prosecutor and and Army intelligence officer John Loftus: “This guy [Al-Arian] videotaped all his terrorist conventions. It was as if the Godfather kept home movies of all the Mafia meetings! They were amazing! There was even a letter bragging about a terrorist operation that took place ‘two weeks ago in Israel where two of our Mujahedeen died but killed 17 of the enemy,’ the famous Megiddo Junction Massacre [a June 5, 2002 bus bombing], and Sami was begging for money to conduct more such operations and talking about how collaboration and cooperation with Hamas is progressing nicely.”
From 1995-97, Al-Arian was suspended from his USF teaching position as a result of increasing government concerns about his possible ties to PIJ.
In February 1996, the INS reversed its approval of Al-Arian’s 1993 citizenship application, and Al-Arian appealed the decision. The FBI, meanwhile, continued its investigation of Al-Arian.
In 1997 Al-Arian created the National Coalition to Protect Political Freedom (NCPPF) in an effort to challenge the Anti-Terrorism Act of 1996, which was the predecessor to the Patriot Act of 2001. Pursuant to the Anti-Terrorism Act: (a) PIJ had been officially designated as a terrorist organization; (b) “material support” for terrorist organizations had been made explicitly illegal; (c) the government’s use of secret evidence in terrorist cases had been authorized; and (d) Professor Al-Arian’s brother-in-law Mazen al-Najjar had been arrested and incarcerated for his terrorist connections. Other key members of Al-Arian’s anti-Patriot Act coalition included the American Civil Liberties Union, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), and the National Lawyers Guild. CCR’s lead spokesman in the coalition was David Cole, Professor of Law at Georgetown University and the lawyer for Mazen al-Najjar.
In 1998, USF lifted Al-Arian’s suspension and rehired him — ostensibly to uphold the principle of “academic freedom.”
On September 26, 2001 — just two weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attacks — Al-Arian appeared on Fox News Channel’s O’Reilly Factor, where host Bill O’Reilly confronted him with a videotape that showed Al-Arian calling for terrorist jihad and “Death to Israel.” Pressed by O’Reilly to explain his violent statements, Al-Arian stammered, “Let me just put it into context…we have to understand the context. When you say ‘Death to Israel,’ you mean death to occupation, death to apartheid, death to oppression, death to…”
Also during Al-Arian’s O’Reilly Factor appearance, the host grilled the professor about Ramadan Abdullah Shallah’s role as director of WISE, a title bestowed upon him by Al-Arian himself. Al-Arian answered, “We were shocked like everyone else in the world when [Shallah] became the leader of the jihad movement…everyone who knew him here at the University of South Florida, everyone who knew him personally was extremely surprised.” But in fact, Al-Arian and Shallah had worked diligently together to maintain their North American fronts, dipping into the PIJ treasury as a source of funds for WISE and ICP in order to keep the organizations afloat.
The interview concluded with O’Reilly telling a visibly rattled Al-Arian, “Well, Doctor, you know, with all due respect—I appreciate you coming on the program, but if I was the CIA, I’d follow you wherever you went… I’d go to Denny’s [restaurant] with you, and I’d go everywhere you went.”
The day after the O’Reilly segment aired, scores of angry e-mail and phone messages flooded USF’s administrative offices, most demanding Al-Arian’s immediate ouster. Some, however, contained death threats, which led USF president Judy Genshaft to put Al-Arian on paid leave on December 19, 2001, banning him from campus until further notice.
No sooner was the suspension announced, than the American Left sprang to Al-Arian’s defense. Their efforts included articles in The Nation and Salon.com, whose reporter Eric Boehlert lamented “The Prime Time Smearing of Sami Al-Arian.” The head of Georgetown University’s Middle East Studies program, Professor John Esposito, expressed concern that Al-Arian not be made a “victim of … anti-Arab and anti-Muslim bigotry.” And Professor Ellen Schrecker of Yeshiva and Columbia Universities characterized Al-Arian’s suspension as an example of “political repression.”
Others who joined the Al-Arian defense chorus included the ACLU, the Center for Constitutional Rights, the USF faculty union, and the American Association of University Professors, the latter of which threatened to challenge USF’s accreditation on grounds that the school had “violated” Al-Arian’s “academic freedom.” Meanwhile, faculty at Duke University invited Al-Arian to be the featured speaker at an academic symposium on “National Security and Civil Liberties.”
Al-Arian responded to his suspension from USF by adopting the posture of a victim: “I’m a minority,” he said. “I’m an Arab. I’m a Palestinian. I’m a Muslim. That’s not a popular thing to be these days. Do I have rights, or don’t I have rights?”
Meanwhile, the FBI continued to compile evidence against Al-Arian. One FBI surveillance video of Al-Arian’s 1991 fundraising tour of American mosques showed him being introduced as “the President of the Islamic Committee for Palestine … the active arm of the Islamic Jihad movement.” In another videotaped speech, Al-Arian said: “We assemble today to pay respects to the march of the martyrs and to the river of blood that gushes forth and does not extinguish, from butchery to butchery, and from martyrdom to martyrdom, from jihad to jihad.” In other videos, Al-Arian issued such proclamations as: “Death to Israel“; “God cursed those who are the sons of Israel … Those people, God made monkeys and pigs”; and “Let us damn America, let us damn Israel, let us damn them and their allies until death.”
The FBI further learned that Al-Arian had connections to: (a) the blind sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, mastermind of the first World Trade Center attack in 1993; (b) Hamas official Mohammed Sakr; (c) the high-ranking Sudanese terrorist Hassan Turbai; and (d) PIJ co-founder Abdel Aziz-Odeh.
On February 20, 2003, a federal grand jury handed down a 50-count indictment against Al-Arian and six others in Tampa, Florida who were believed to be fellow leaders of PIJ.
Among the many Muslim organizations that stood reflexively in defense of Al-Arian were the the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the Muslim American Society, and the Muslim Public Affairs Council.
Al-Arian’s trial began in June 2005 and went on for five months. His attorney conceded that the defendant was indeed an operative for PIJ. As a reporter covering the proceedings summarized: “The trial exposed the professor as having been deeply enmeshed in the internal workings of Palestinian Islamic Jihad …” Some noteworthy revelations that were made during the trial included the following:
- The wills of three PIJ members had been found on al-Arian’s computer.
- Investigators had found lists of the dates on which PIJ suicide bombers had died; those lists were used to ensure that PIJ money would be sent to the families of those “martyrs.”
- Al-Arian had demonstrably transferred money to the surviving family members of deceased PIJ foot soldiers.
- Al-Arian had written a note to a Kuwaiti financier citing a PIJ bombing as a sign of what the organization could achieve and soliciting funds for further terrorist operations.
- Al-Arian had tried to recruit a witness named Muneer Arafat to serve in the Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine.
On December 6, 2005, Al-Arian was acquitted on eight of the seventeen counts against him, including “conspiracy to murder and maim people abroad,” which was the most serious charge. The remaining nine counts ended in what was considered a mistrial, as the jury was deadlocked on them.
On February 28, 2006, Al-Arian agreed to plead guilty to a single count of conspiracy to “make or receive funds … for the benefit of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.” On May 1, 2006, he was sentenced to 57 months in prison — which included 38 months that he had already served; he also agreed to allow himself to be deported after completing his sentence. The judge who sentenced Al-Arian made reference to PIJ suicide bombings and told the defendant: “Anyone with even the slightest bit of human compassion would be sickened. Not you, you saw it as an opportunity to solicit more money to carry out more bombings.” Vis-a-vis Al-Arian’s claim that he had raised money for charities that helped widows and orphans rather than for terrorists, the judge said: “Your only connection to widows and orphans was that you create them.” The judge also called Al-Arian a “master manipulator” who had “looked your neighbors in the eyes and said you had nothing to do with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.” “This trial exposed that as a lie,” the judge added.
In June 2008, Al-Arian was indicted for criminal contempt after he repeatedly refused to testify before a federal grand jury investigating terror financing in northern Virginia. He argued that his 2006 guilty plea contained an agreement absolving him of any future obligations to provide information to the government, either voluntarily or as a result of a court order. But Al-Arian’s claim was rejected by: (a) the judge who had sentenced him in Tampa, (b) another judge in Alexandria, and (c) the circuit courts of appeal in both of those areas. Moreover, Al-Arian’s attorneys never produced any written evidence supporting their client’s claim.
In April 2012, the Investigative Project on Terrorism reported: “The [Al-Arian] case has been frozen in limbo … by U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema’s refusal to rule on defense motions to dismiss the contempt case despite repeated promises to deliver a written order as far back as the spring of 2009.”
Also in April 2012, Al-Arian issued a statement “on behalf of all victims of injustice,” in which he named a number of “innocent” Muslims who had been “targeted … because of their beliefs, opinions, associations, and advocacy.” Said Al-Arian: “Today Ali Al-Tamimi is serving life for giving a religious fatwa. Tarek Mehanna is serving 17 years for translating a document. Mufid Abdel Kader is serving 20 years because he had a beautiful voice and sang for Palestine. Ghassan El-Ashi and Shukri Abu Baker are serving 65 years each for feeding and clothing hungry Palestinian children … Aafi (sic) Siddqui was sentenced to 86 years after she was shot and nearly died.”
In response to Al-Arian’s statement, the Investigative Project on Terrorism set the record straight vis-a-vis the aforementioned “victims of injustice”:
“Al-Tamimi’s fatwa urged followers to wage war against American troops and help the Taliban. Mehanna was convicted of conspiracy to provide material support to al-Qaida, providing material support to terrorists and conspiracy to commit murder in a foreign country. Abdel Kader, Elashi and Baker each were convicted for their work with the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, which illegally routed more than $12 million to Hamas before being shut down in 2001. Aafia Siddiqui was apprehended in Afghanistan in possession of plans for a ‘mass casualty attack’ in the United States, including a list of New York City landmarks. Prosecutors say she grabbed an Army officer’s M-4 rifle and fired it at another officer and other members of a U.S. interview team at an Afghan police compound in July 2008.”
In early December 2013, Al-Arian attended a Washington, D.C. event hosted by the Egypt Freedom Foundation, a recently formed group advocating for the restoration of Muslim Brotherhood leadership in Egypt.
On June 27, 2014, the U.S. Justice Department dropped the long-stalled prosecution of Al-Arian for the criminal contempt charges that had been brought against him in 2008. As Politico.com reported: “[P]rosecutors said they decided to give up on the contempt case after delays precipitated by U.S. District Court Judge Leonie Brinkema sitting for years on a critical motion in the case without ruling one way or another.”
In February 2015, Al-Arian was deported from the U.S. to Turkey. In 2017 he founded the Center for Islam and Global Affairs (CIGA) at Sabahattin Zaim University in Istanbul, and he has served as CIGA’s director ever since.
In mid-December 2020, Al-Arian spoke via Zoom at the Fourth International Conference on the Muslim Ummah, which was co-sponsored by CIGA. In the course of his remarks, he called for “defeating and dismantling the Zionist project,” adding: “We cannot pursue an ummah [worldwide Muslim community] project without actually attaining our real independence. We cannot attain our real independence without dealing with the problem of Israel….As long as Israel exists, the ummah will stay weak and fragmented, and disunited and divided and dependent and under control.”
Also at the 2020 conference, Al-Arian emphasized the “centrality of the Palestinian cause” to the Muslim ummah “because of what Israel represents in this international system, in the regional system, and in the different relationships that take place in this region.” He added that: (a) “confronting that menace, confronting that threat must become a priority” and “unite all efforts” within the ummah; (b) Israel’s creation “in the midst of the Muslim world was a major goal for colonialist powers to maintain hegemony and control, and to keep that area fragmented and weak”; and (c) “any revivalist project, if it does not deal with this fact, then it is ignoring the 800 pound gorilla in the room.”
Further Reading: “The Strange Trial of Dr. Sami Al-Arian” (The Pluralism Report, 2005).
By Erick Stakelbeck
May 14, 2003
Sami Al-Arian and the Anti-Patriot Act Movement
By David Horowitz
Unholy Alliance: How the Left Supports the Terrorists at Home
By David Horowitz
September 24, 2004
What I Saw at Al-Arian’s Trial
By Joe Kaufman
July 26, 2005
Sami Al-Arian Pleads Guilty To Conspiracy To Provide Services To Palestinian Islamic Jihad
By Department of Justice
April 17, 2006