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Terrorists Arrests

February 20, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: The eight men indicted today include four U.S. residents. One of those is University of South Florida Prof. Sami Amin al-Arian, known widely for his pro-Palestinian views.

PROFESSOR: It’s all about politics.

RAY SUAREZ: The other four men charged live in the Middle East and England. They are not in U.S. Custody. The Justice Department accuses the men of membership in Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a group on the U.S. list of terror groups. Last summer the organization took responsibility for this suicide bombing in Israel which killed 20 civilians. In Washington, Attorney General John Ashcroft explained the allegations.

JOHN ASHCROFT: They financed, extolled, and assisted acts of terror. Our message to them and to others like them is clear: We make no distinction between those who carry out terrorist attacks and those who knowingly finance, manage, or supervise terrorist organizations.

RAY SUAREZ: The government says the 45-year-old al-Arian is the U.S. head of the Palestinian Jihad. The engineering professor has denied terrorist links, but the accusation isn’t new. Just after the Sept. 11 attacks, his university placed him on forced leave, saying he was funding and aiding terror groups. Al-Arian said he was being punished for his political views. Here’s an audio portion of a speech he gave last August.

AL-ARIAN: I’m also a Palestinian by birth, which to a lot of people may not mean a lot, but to a Palestinian it means homeless, stateless, someone who cannot identify to any country or land, someone who is always searching for that thing that a lot of people take for granted.

RAY SUAREZ: If convicted, the eight men face life in prison. We get more on today’s arrests from Eric Lichtblau, Justice Department reporter at the New York Times.

Eric, in addition to being members of this group, what are these eight men accused of doing? What does the indictment say they were up to?

ERIC LICHTBLAU: Well, the indictment lays out a case against all eight alleging that they in essence were helping to organize the Jihad movement in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and were providing hundreds of thousands of dollars in laundered money to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group and were intimately involved in the organizational and planning efforts of the group.

RAY SUAREZ: Do they say that this has been going on from the United States for a long time?

ERIC LICHTBLAU: They trace this back to the late ’80s and early ’90s. The wire intercepts that they have on these men, taped phone recordings, particularly of Mr. Al-Arian, go into a lot of detail and conversations throughout the early ’90s, ’94, ’95 particularly. There are dozens of phone calls in which they are quoting verbatim conversations with Mr. Al-Arian allegedly had with people both in the United States and overseas.

RAY SUAREZ: In their indictment, does the Justice Department connect any specific activities of these eight to specific acts of terrorism on particular dates anywhere else in the world?

ERIC LICHTBLAU: No. They don’t put them at the trigger. They are saying that the four Americans and the four men overseas were providing the backbone of this organization, that they were providing money and organizational support. The closest they really come to identifying them to specific acts is to say that Mr. Al-Arian had knowingly given money to the families of suicide victims, to martyr families as sort of a payback for suicide killings.

RAY SUAREZ: As someone who has been watching the Justice Department since 9/11, can you conclude from the indictment that the kinds of information included in there or the kinds of information that the government doesn’t have to tell you about the indictment is a result of new laws like the Patriot Act that came into force after the terrorist attack?

ERIC LICHTBLAU: Well, certainly the Justice Department is using tools that they did not have before 9/11. The patriot act gave them the ability to use information gathered in intelligence information… intelligence investigations in criminal cases. They are putting that to the test, really, here in this case by citing dozens and dozens of electronic intercepts and other information gathered from intelligence and using that in the criminal case.

RAY SUAREZ: A lot of the things that the Justice Department alleges today to my understanding are crimes under any standard: Immigration fraud, perjury, interstate extortion, conspiracy to kill and maim. Why charge this case under RICO? Is there anything that they are allowed to put in evidence, or does it lower their burden of proof or change the way they have to argue their case in any way?

ERIC LICHTBLAU: It doesn’t really lower their burden of proof. It just allows them to sort of paint a broad picture of what they’re alleging was a criminal enterprise of an organization that by definition they’re saying was in the business of financing terrorism.

RAY SUAREZ: So if they can just prove that– well, RICO is an acronym for Racketeering, Influence, Corrupt Organizations– RICO, if they can prove membership, a system, contact, then they’ve shown a conspiracy, right?

ERIC LICHTBLAU: Right. What they’re saying here is that Mr. Al-Arian and the others who were indicted today were essentially using fronts in the world of academia and in fundraising to aid and abet terrorism.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor al-Arian was already the subject of a lot of controversy in Florida already, wasn’t he?

ERIC LICHTBLAU: Sure, especially after 9/11. He made some rather provocative comments, pro-Palestinian, anti- Israeli comments that attracted a lot of controversy, and as you noted, he was suspended by the University of South Florida because of that. His status there is still pending, but certainly this isn’t going to help today.

RAY SUAREZ: Were any of the other accused men — people that when you heard the names or saw the names you said, “aha,” knew that these were subjects of interest to the Justice Department?

ERIC LICHTBLAU: None of the high-profile that Mr. Al-Arian had, but there was one other gentleman who was also an instructor at university of south Florida.

RAY SUAREZ: What kind of track record does the Justice Department have, specifically the Ashcroft Justice Department, since 9/11 in cases like this? Have there been a lot of them?

ERIC LICHTBLAU: There have been more than a hundred terrorist financing investigations, and the Justice Department has a somewhat spotty record. They had a case just last week where they reached a plea bargain with the head of a Chicago fund-raising organization where he admitted to having given money, laundered money to rebel groups in Chechnya and Bosnia, but didn’t admit to anything involving terrorism, which was the original charge. They were alleging essentially that he was the financier for bin Laden, and the plea bargain did not show that in the end.

RAY SUAREZ: Was he connected in any way or is the Justice Department saying he’s connected in any way with the Chicago area man who was indicted today?

ERIC LICHTBLAU: No, there’s no connection, and they haven’t drawn any connection between the people implicated today and al-Qaida. This is being portrayed strictly as a Palestinian effort.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, these men will go through the normal court system? There is no special court or special process that you know of… since a lot of these prosecutions have been the subject of some controversy in their nature, the Taliban-connected cases and the people who were detained after the terrorist attacks?

ERIC LICHTBLAU: Right. They’re not using any tribunals. This is strictly going through the federal courts as a standard criminal case, the same as it would have, really, before 9/11. You know, there’s some interesting questions to be raised there as to how they’re deciding who will go through regular courts and who will not as in the cases of the “dirty bomber” Jose Padilla, for instance, who is being held in non-civilian court.

RAY SUAREZ: Are there a lot of these cases currently being argued, prosecuted, heard in federal courts around the country?

ERIC LICHTBLAU: There are probably about 100 or so cases of individuals who have been charged with in some way aiding terrorist organizations overseas, either providing material support, financial support, or otherwise.

RAY SUAREZ: Is there any connection to foreign intelligence services in helping develop the information? I noted that several of the men are permanently resident overseas either in the MidEast, one in the United Kingdom.

ERIC LICHTBLAU: Right. Well, the Israelis certainly played a part in this investigation in providing some of the key intelligence. There are even indications that they were… that they initially handed the case to U.S. authorities back in the early ’90s — that they tipped them off to the existence of this supposed cell group in Florida.

RAY SUAREZ: Eric Lichtblau of the New York Times, thanks a lot.