TAMPA, Fla. -- For more than seven years, a Palestinian professor in Florida has been under federal scrutiny for possible ties to terrorists.
Armed with information from wiretaps on telephones and faxes, a 1995 FBI raid of an Islamic think tank, and conferences and meetings, federal prosecutors now believe the professor and seven others had alleged ties to a terrorist group responsible for 100 deaths.
On Thursday, a 50-count indictment was unsealed against computer engineering professor Sami Al-Arian -- on paid leave from the University of South Florida -- and seven other alleged members of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
Al-Arian was identified as the group's U.S. leader. He directed the audit of all the group's money and property throughout the world from his home and workplace in Tampa, the indictment said.
Al-Arian has publicly rejected the idea that he has ties to terrorism. He denounced the indictment as he was led into FBI headquarters here Thursday morning.
"It's all about politics," Al-Arian said.
The eight men, who face life sentences if convicted, were charged with operating a racketeering enterprise since 1984. The charges include conspiracy within the United States to kill and maim persons abroad; conspiracy to provide material support and resources to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad; conspiracy to violate emergency economic sanctions, engaging in various acts of interstate extortion, perjury, obstruction of justice and immigration fraud.
"We make no distinction between those who carry out terrorist attacks and those who knowingly finance, manage or supervise terrorist organizations," Attorney General John Ashcroft said at a news conference announcing the indictment. "We will bring justice to the full network of terror."
Al-Arian's attorney, Nicholas Matassini, called the indictment "a work of fiction."
"He's a political prisoner, right now as we speak," he said.
Among those allegedly slain by the terrorist group were two U.S. citizens: Alisa Flatow, 20, and Shoshama Ben-Yishai, 16. The killings included suicide bombings, car bombs and drive-by shootings in and around Israel, most recently a June 5 suicide attack in Haifa that killed 20 and injured 50.
"This demonstrates the old saw about the wheels of justice -- they grind slow, but they grind exceedingly fine," Flatow's father, Stephen Flatow of West Orange, N.J., said Thursday.
Ben-Yishai's father, Yitzhak Ben-Yishai, said the arrests sent an important message.
"This shows that there is justice and that terrorists cannot go on and continue," he said. "This is going to stop them, to stop the money, the support."
Al-Arian, 45, was placed on forced leave and banned from campus shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and his subsequent appearance on Fox News Channel. During the interview, he was quizzed about links to known terrorists, and asked about tapes from the late 1980s and early 1990s in which he said "Death to Israel" in Arabic.
A Palestinian who was born in Kuwait, Al-Arian has said he has never advocated violence against others and that his words were a statement against Israeli occupation.
Those arrested in the United States were described as setting up a terrorist cell. They are: Al-Arian; Sameeh Hammoudeh, 42, born in the West Bank, now a resident of Temple Terrace and a USF instructor; Hatim Naji Fariz, 30, born in Puerto Rico and now living in Spring Hill; Ghassan Zayed Ballut, 41, a West Bank native now living in Tinley Park, Ill.
The government gave no evidence that the men carried out any attacks.
Four men who live abroad were also charged. They are: Ramadan Abdullah Shallah, 45, of Damascas, Syria, who is described as the worldwide leader of Palestinian Islamic Jihad and is a former USF instructor; Bashir Musa Mohammed Nafi, 50, originally from Egypt and now living in Oxfordshire, England; Mohammed Tasir Hassan Al-Khatib, 46, originally from the Gaza Strip and now living in Beirut; Abd AL Aziz Awda, 52, born in Israel and now imam of the Al Qassam Mosque in the Gaza Strip. The indictment calls him the founder and "spiritual leader" of the group.
Al-Arian, with brother-in-law Mazen Al-Najjar, founded the World and Islam Studies Enterprises, a now-defunct Islamic think tank at the University of South Florida raided by the FBI in 1995. Al-Najjar, who was held for several years on secret evidence linking him to terrorists, was deported last August.
Arthur Lowrie, a longtime friend of Al-Arian and a former adjunct professor at the university, said he wants to see the evidence.
"The grand jury has only heard one side of the story," he said. "It's been thoroughly investigated since 1995 -- that's 7 1/2 years. I'm surprised it took so long if there's all this evidence."