Weekly Planet: Al-Arian and bin Laden?

Al-Arian and bin Laden?
The "inflammatory" testimony that didn't get heard.
Published June 29, 2005

Here is what the jurors in the third week of the trial of former University of South Florida professor Sami Al-Arian and three other Palestinians accused of terrorism-related crimes did not hear:

An expert on Middle East terrorism was prepared to testify about links between Al-Arian, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network.

But jurors did not hear that. And daily newspapers didn't write about it. Only Channel 28's Don Germaise reported the potential testimony of former FBI agent Matthew Levitt. Everyone else reported only what he was allowed to testify about: "Expert tries to explain PIJ link" was the title of the St. Petersburg Times account, which emphasized Levitt's failure to draw a direct connection between the defendants and terrorist killings. The Tampa Tribune's "Prosecutors Of Al-Arian Portray Economic Jihad'" also made no mention of the bin Laden link.

Channel 28's website text of the report touted that "Action News has obtained government documents on Levitt's testimony." Well, you can "obtain" it, too, by downloading a summary of what he was prepared to testify about filed online in the case at www.flmd.uscourts.gov/Al-Arian/8-03-cr-00077-JSM-TBM/docs/2184705/1.pdf.

Levitt is a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and has spent graduate research time at Harvard Law School. He is the author of Exposing Hamas: Funding Terror Under the Cover of Charity set for publication next year.

Levitt's proposed testimony twice invoked al-Qaida. First, he wrote how the management structure of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad was identical to that of al-Qaida. Both use a leadership structure called Majlis al-Shura, or governing council.

He would have drawn a more direct link with his second point, regarding Al-Arian's close association with Fawaz Damrah, a speaker at conferences in the 1990s sponsored by Al-Arian's Islamic Committee for Palestine. It is Damrah who says on a tape of that organization's 1991 conference, "A brief note about the Islamic Committee for Palestine: It is the active arm of the Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine. We preferred to call it the Islamic Committee for Palestine' for security reasons."

Then Levitt could have gone on to detail how Damrah served as an officer in the Afghan Services Bureau, "a non-profit organization based in Brooklyn, New York, founded by Osama bin Laden and the radical Palestinian sheikh Abdullah Azam that later served as a critical part of the global jihadist network now known as al-Qaida."

Al-Arian and co-defendant Ghassan Ballut, among others, "maintained intimate contacts" with Damrah, according to the outline of Levitt's proposed testimony.

From Al-Arian to Damrah to bin Laden.

That could have been powerful testimony - or inflammatory and prejudicial, given your belief in the defendants' guilt or innocence. The prosecution has agreed that the defendants did not directly plan terrorist killings, but linking Al-Arian even obliquely to the architect of the 9/11 attacks (which Al-Arian and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, by all accounts, had nothing to do with) would have stoked jurors' emotions.

After hearing objections from defense attorneys who sought to block the testimony for just those reasons, Judge James S. Moody ruled against any mention of bin Laden or his organization.

Weekly Planet


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