The 1995 double suicide bombing at Beit Lid Junction, Israel, killed 21 Israelis and was one of the bloodiest attacks ever by Palestinian Islamic Jihad (P.I.J.)--which the U.S. soon after designated as a terrorist organization. A few weeks later, according to U.S. court documents, Sami al-Arian, a Palestinian computer-science professor at the University of South Florida (U.S.F.) in Tampa, wrote a letter to an associate in Kuwait bragging that the Beit Lid carnage was "an example of what P.I.J. could do" and soliciting funds for the bombers' families. A year earlier, the records show, al-Arian faxed to Islamic Jihad bosses in England and the Middle East a proposal that he run the group's finances. And in 1991, at Palestinian gatherings around the U.S., al-Arian exhorted audiences to "damn" the U.S. and Israel "until death" and said God considered Jews "monkeys and swine."
That evidence, presented in a 2003 federal indictment, may well be damning stuff in the U.S. court of public opinion. But a Tampa jury has made it joltingly clear to the Bush Administration that praising terrorist acts, raising money for terrorists' widows or making an unaccepted offer to manage a terrorist group's money does not make a man a terrorist in a U.S. court of law. Handing the Justice Department one of its most embarrassing post-9/11 defeats, the jurors last week acquitted al-Arian, 47, on eight counts--including charges that he was Islamic Jihad's North America boss and conspired in terrorist murders--and deadlocked on nine others. Three co-defendants were also acquitted of 64 counts after a six-month trial in which the defense called no witnesses. "We didn't have to," says al-Arian attorney William Moffitt, "because we were convinced this was a First Amendment case. This whole prosecution was simply an effort to silence Dr. al-Arian because his outspoken pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel views were a pain in the butt to the Bush Administration."
Prosecutors said they "stand by the evidence" they presented in court, which they insist showed that al-Arian gave illegal "material support" to a terrorist group. Despite his acquittal, al-Arian remained behind bars last week as prosecutors pondered whether to retry him on the charges the jurors deadlocked on. But even if he emerges from jail, the trial's revelations about his stealth involvement with Islamic Jihad--after he claimed for years that he rejected the group--have all but wrecked his standing as a spokesman for mainstream Palestinian causes.