TAMPA, Florida (CNN) # A Florida college professor alleged to be a top leader of a Palestinian terrorist organization and seven other people were charged Thursday with racketeering and other terrorism-related activities, Attorney General John Ashcroft said.
University of South Florida professor Sami Al-Arian, described by Ashcroft as the North American leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and three others were arrested.
The remaining four # allegedly the top leaders of Palestinian Islamic Jihad # were named as co-conspirators in the 50-count indictment but had not been arrested.
“The Palestinian Islamic Jihad is one of the most violent terrorist organizations in the world,” the attorney general said. “The Palestinian Islamic Jihad is responsible for the murder of over 100 people in Israel and the occupied territories, including at least two Americans: Alisa Flatow, age 20, and Shoshana Ben-Yishai, age 16.”
Palestinian Islamic Jihad is a militant group dedicated to the creation of an Islamic Palestinian state and the destruction of Israel. There are different groups called Islamic Jihad in different Arab countries. They have no connection with each other and there is no coordination or planning among them.
Reading from a “manifesto” he said was discovered during the investigation into the activities of Al-Arian and the others, Ashcroft said the organization rejects “any peaceful solution to the Palestinian cause and affirms “jihad and the martyrdom style as the only choice for liberation.”
“The indictment explains that the manifesto refers to the United States as ‘The Great Satan America’ and indicates that the only purpose of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad is to destroy Israel and to end all Western influence in the region,” he said.
Al-Arian, who has been under investigation since 1995, Sameeh Hamoudeh, 42, and Hatim Najifariz, 30, were indicted in Tampa, FBI spokeswoman Sara Oates said. Agents in Chicago arrested Ghassan Zeyed Ballut, 41, she said.
Also named in the indictment are Ramadan Abdullah Shallah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad’s secretary general; Bashir Musa Mohammed Nafi, a Palestinian Islamic Jihad founder and leader of the group in Great Britain; Muhammed Tasir Hassan Al-Khatib, Palestinian Islamic Jihad treasurer; and Abd al Aziz Awda, a founder and spiritual leader of Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
Ashcroft said Al-Arian was also the secretary of Palestinian Islamic Jihad’s worldwide governing body.
Shallah is in Damascus, Syria, and Nafi in Great Britain, Ashcroft said, and the other two are somewhere overseas.
Ashcroft said all of the defendants face the possibility of life sentences should they be convicted of the charges against them.
Al-Arian, Hamoudeh and Najifariz are scheduled to make their first court appearance before federal magistrate Mark Pizzo at 2:30 p.m. ET in Tampa.
Earlier in Chicago, Ballut appeared before a federal judge who ordered his transfer to Florida for prosecution.
Al-Arian co-founder of Islamic think tank
The Kuwaiti born Al-Arian, 45, fell under the scrutiny of federal authorities in 1995 when he and Shallah founded the Islamic think tank World and Islam Studies Enterprise (WISE) at the University of South Florida. About a year later, Shallah returned to the Middle East as the new head of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
Al-Arian, who had lived in the United States for more than 25 years, was put on paid leave in 1996 after Shallah returned to the Middle East, but returned to the school two years later.
The tenured computer engineering professor was placed on forced leave and banned from campus shortly after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and a subsequent TV appearance.
He has been in an ongoing battle with the university since December 2001, when the school’s board of trustees voted to fire him because of what it called “activities … outside the scope of his employment.”
The university says that he hurt the school’s fund-raising efforts and led to threats being made against the school. The school claimed the professor raised money for terrorist groups, brought terrorists into the country, and founded organizations that support terrorism.
He has called his troubles with the university an issue of academic freedom that violates a collective bargaining agreement.
“I believe that the issue was and still is an issue of academic freedom, the right to espouse views even though they may be unpopular,” he said at a news conference last August. “I am a pro-Palestinian person. I don’t wish death to any people.”
Al-Arian, who has lived in the United States for more than 25 years, said his involvement with WISE was only “to support the just cause of the Palestinian people.”
“I don’t support suicide bombings,” he has said. “I don’t support the targeting of civilians of any nationality, background or religion. I am deeply against it.”
U.S. says group responsible for deaths of 2 Americans
The United States believes the Palestinian Islamic Jihad conducted the April 9, 1995, suicide bombing that killed Flatow, a Brandeis University junior from West Orange, New Jersey, and seven Israeli soldiers, all under the age of 21.
The bombing occurred near the Israeli settlement of Kfar Darom in Gaza when the bomber rammed an explosives-laden van into a public bus.
The second American, Ben-Yishai of Queens, New York, was killed in a shooting at a Jerusalem bus station on November 4, 2001.
Ashcroft said the 121-page indictment describes wiretaps used to collect information against the defendants, and “describes other attacks and outlines what these defendants did here in the United States to both organize and fund the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.”
“Our message to them and others like them is clear,” Ashcroft said. “We make no distinction between those who carry out terrorist attacks and those who knowingly finance, manage and supervise terrorist organizations.”
Al-Arian’s brother in law, Mazen Al-Najjar, was deported on August 22 after being detained two months after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on a visa violation. Al-Najjar was previously arrested in 1997 and held without charges for 3 1/2 years.