The indictment, returned by a federal grand jury in Tampa, Fla., was unsealed Thursday. It charges that the men are members of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, designated by the United States as a terrorist organization. Among them are a Palestinian professor at the University of South Florida, 45-year-old Sami Amin Al-Arian, who is described as the group’s U.S. leader and secretary of its worldwide council.
In announcing the indictment, Attorney General John Ashcroft said the eight supported numerous violent activities.
“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,” he said.
The indictment charges the eight men with operating a criminal racketeering enterprise since 1984 that supported the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Other charges facing the men include extortion, perjury, conspiracy to kill and maim people abroad and conspiracy to provide material support to Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
Each defendant faces up to life in prison if convicted.
Al-Arian and two others were arrested in Tampa and a fourth man was arrested in Chicago. The other four were living abroad and are not in custody, Ashcroft said.
The indictment describes the group as rejecting peaceful solutions to the Palestinian quest for a homeland in the Middle East and with embracing “the Jihad solution and the martyrdom style as the only choice for liberation.” The group’s purpose, prosecutors allege, is to destroy Israel and end all U.S. and Western influence in the region.
The indictment alleges the organization participated in suicide bombings, car bombs and drive-by shootings. The most recent incident blamed on the group is a June 5, 2002 suicide attack in Haifa, Israel, which killed 20 and injured 50.
The defendants allegedly provided financial support through a number of U.S.-based entities, resolved internal conflicts, helped communicate claims of responsibility for terrorist actions and made false statements to immigration officials to help terrorists.
Al-Arian, the Florida college professor the government says ran the Jihad’s U.S. operations, is a native of Kuwait and teaches engineering.
The office of U.S. Attorney Paul Perez in Florida had said last year that Al-Arian was under federal investigation.
“This was disconcerting but not surprising,” University of South Florida spokesman Michael Reich said of the arrest. He said university President Judy Genshaft will meet with the school’s lawyers Thursday to discuss it.
The tenured computer engineering professor was placed on forced leave and banned from campus shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and a subsequent television appearance.
The university’s trustees voted to fire Al-Arian in December 2001, but the university has put off a final decision on his dismissal.
In Florida, his attorney Robert McKee told reporters that Al-Arian believed the arrest was politically motivated because of his support for creation of a Palestinian state.