IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Terrorism charges dominate Florida Senate race

The issue of the two former University of South Florida teachers who were indicted last year on charges of helping the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group kill civilians in Israel dominates the Florida Senate contest.
Vying for a Senate seat in Florida: Democrat Betty Castor and Republican Mel Martinez
Vying for a Senate seat in Florida: Democrat Betty Castor and Republican Mel Martinezimages: AP file
/ Source:

The names of Sami Al-Arian and Ramadan Abdullah Shallah will not be on the ballot in the Senate race in Florida on Nov. 2.

But the issue of the two former University of South Florida teachers who were indicted last year on charges of helping the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group kill civilians in Israel dominates the contest to succeed retiring Democratic Sen. Bob Graham.

The Republican candidate, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Mel Martinez, charges that his Democratic opponent, Betty Castor, erred by not ousting Al-Arian from the faculty when she served as president of the University of South Florida from 1994 to 1999.

Shallah, whom Al-Arian helped bring to the university as an adjunct professor, later turned up in Syria as chief of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group.

Al-Arian and Shallah are among eight people indicted in February 2003 on racketeering and conspiracy to murder, maim, or injure persons outside the United States, including Alisa Flatow, a 20-year old Brandeis University student from West Orange, N.J., who was killed in a bombing in Israel on April 9, 1995.

Using university as cover?
The indictment charges that Al-Arian, Shallah and others were able to “utilize the structure, facilities and academic environment of the University of South Florida to conceal the activities of the PIJ,” which included “paying compensation to the families of PIJ ‘martyrs’ (suicide bombers) and ‘detainees.’”

At a Nov. 5, 1995, rally in Beirut, Shallah joined others in celebrating the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. According to Reuters, Shallah “vowed that his militants would continue suicide bombings against Israeli targets.”

Asked about Shallah’s comments Sunday before she joined a Puerto Rican parade in Orlando, Fla., Castor called them “horrible” and added, “that’s when we said, ‘we’ve got to find out what’s happening.’”

But she said the indictment of Al-Arian and others “took seven years and only after the passage of the Patriot Act. The information that the FBI could share was very limited; they couldn’t share anything with me directly” in 1995 and 1996.

Castor said that in April 1996 she read an affidavit from the Immigration and Naturalization Service about Al-Arian and his associates. “The affidavit is something that is not factual, it is used to get information for a subpoena,” Castor told, explaining why she could not use the affidavit as the basis for firing Al-Arian.

“You can’t simply fire somebody without information, an indictment, of a serious nature,” she said.

In 1995, FBI agents raided Al-Arian’s office seeking evidence of connection to terror groups. “The first thing I did was talk with the FBI and ask for their help and cooperate fully with them,” Castor recalled Sunday. “The second thing we did was an internal investigation and an audit. I subsequently asked (Tampa attorney) William Reece Smith to do a review of the university’s reaction.”

Castor put Al-Arian on paid leave in May of 1996, but she reinstated him in 1998.

'We welcome discourse'
In May of 1996, after getting Smith’s report, Castor said, “I think the university should remain an open place where we welcome discourse, in spite of the fact that the discourse may be controversial.”

It was during last summer’s Democratic primary that one of Castor’s opponents, Rep. Peter Deutsch, first made the argument that the Al-Arian case was merely not a matter of academic “discourse.”

Deutsch aired an ad assailing Castor’s handling of the investigation. Why, he asked, didn’t Castor at least denounce Al-Arian in 1995, even if she couldn’t fire him outright? 

"I think Betty has got to answer the question," Deutsch said in August, arguing that that if she became the Democratic nominee, the Republicans would hammer her on Al-Arian.

Deutsch’s prediction turned out to be correct: Martinez is pounding Castor in TV markets from Miami to Tampa with an ad featuring Bill West, the Immigration and Naturalization Service agent who investigated Al-Arian in the mid-1990s.

Castor asserts in one of her ads, “I took action to remove a suspected terrorist from our campus.”

“Unfortunately, that’s wrong,” West tells TV viewers. “As university president, Betty Castor’s lack of strong leadership allowed a dangerous situation to get worse.”

The Bush connection
Democrats fire back, pointing out that Al-Arian shook George W. Bush’s hand and was photographed with him when Bush campaigned in Plant City, Fla., in March of 2000. The Bush/Al-Arian photo appears in the book “House of Bush, House of Saud” by Craig Unger. The Al-Arian meeting was part of the 2000 Bush campaign's overture to Muslim voters.

In June of 2001, Al-Arian was one of the Muslim leaders who met with Bush strategist Karl Rove in the Executive Office Building.

Castor’s campaign manager Dan McClaughlin told the Tampa Tribune last week that in 2000 Martinez had “allowed Mr. Al-Arian into the Bush campaign.”

In an interview with Saturday, Martinez scoffed at that charge, “That’s the most ludicrous thing in the world. I was one of seven co-chairs for the campaign.”

Martinez said of the Rove EOB meeting, “Someone missed it when it came to the Secret Service clearance that he had to have had.”

“I was at least trying to get rid of the guy; they were campaigning with him and inviting him to the executive office of the White House,” Castor said Sunday.

Despite the Bush/Al-Arian photo, Martinez presses his criticism of Castor on the Al-Arian affair at every opportunity.

In a pep talk to his campaign workers in Fort Lauderdale on Friday, Martinez said, “My opponent in this race is someone who flunked her leadership test at the University of South Florida. In the face of a terrorist problem at her university, she failed to act.”

On Saturday, at a press conference in Tampa with Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist who flew in for three fund-raisers for Martinez, the former HUD secretary said Al-Arian was “the pre-eminent issue” in the race.

Saturday evening at a fund-raiser at the Lakeland, Fla., home of Clayton Hollis, vice president of the Publix Super Markets chain, Martinez told, “In April of 1996, she was given an affidavit that detailed the activities in a fairly clear and concise way. Those activities were not limited to one person by the name of Sami Al-Arian. They included a whole host of people working in concert as part of this cell.”

Clash over abortion
Martinez and Castor have differences on other issues as well, especially on abortion.

Martinez thinks Roe vs. Wade was wrongly decided; Castor staunchly supports it.

Castor said if a nominee to the Supreme Court was on the record doubting that Roe was correctly decided, “that would concern me” and added that a Senate filibuster was sometimes necessary when a nominee “might have something you think is so overwhelmingly important.”

If elected, Martinez would be the first Cuban-American senator. He came to the United States, able to speak no English, at age 15 in 1962, eight months before the Cuban Missile Crisis. His parents remained in Cuba for four years, so Martinez was raised by foster parents until reunited with his parents in 1966.

“I remember vividly watching the U.N. debate (over the Cuban missile crisis), watching (U.S. ambassador) Adlai Stevenson. I was particularly struck by one of the missile sites which I identified as being real close to my hometown. President Kennedy spoke to the nation on Oct. 22; on Oct. 23, I turned 16.”

“I had great faith in this country,” he recalled. “I thought that it would all turn out OK — because the alternative was so unthinkable.”

Asked for a defining moment in her past, Castor also hearkened back to the Kennedy era when she was teaching in east Africa.

“I was there when Kennedy was assassinated, and I saw the high regard people had for this country and that president. I think we’ve lost some of that high ground; I hope we can get it back.”

Asked whether in her view America had lost its international “high regard” because of President Bush, Castor did not answer directly, saying only that “we’ve lost some of it and we need to regain that high moral ground.”