Witness Is Silent in Terror Probe

Former University of South Florida professor Sami al-Arian in 2002 as he passed by reporters in Tampa with his wife, Nahla.
Former University of South Florida professor Sami al-Arian in 2002 as he passed by reporters in Tampa with his wife, Nahla. (By Chris O'meara -- Associated Press)
By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 14, 2006

A potentially key witness has refused to testify in the long-running investigation into whether Islamic charities in Northern Virginia were financing terrorist organizations, according to recently unsealed court documents.

Former Florida professor Sami al-Arian declined to answer questions before a federal grand jury in Alexandria last month, according to documents unsealed in federal court in Tampa. Arian, who was acquitted in one of the nation's highest-profile terrorism cases but then pleaded guilty to a single charge, believes his life would be in danger if he testified, his attorneys told a judge.

Prosecutors want Arian to reveal what they believe are his ties to the International Institute of Islamic Thought, or IIIT, a Herndon think tank that is one of the key organizations under investigation. The probe, which federal officials have called the nation's largest terrorism-financing investigation, is focused on a Herndon-based network of Muslim charities, businesses and think tanks. The Muslim charities deny any terrorist ties.

A federal jury in Tampa deadlocked last year on nine charges that Arian aided terrorists and acquitted him of eight other counts. He then pleaded guilty to one count of supporting Palestinian Islamic Jihad and was sentenced to 57 months in prison. With time already served, he was expected to be released from prison and deported next year.

But Arian is now likely to be held in contempt by a federal judge in Alexandria for refusing to testify before the grand jury, his lawyers said last week at a court hearing in Tampa, according to a transcript. That could add as much as 18 months to his prison term unless he relents and testifies. He is unlikely to do so, his attorneys said.

Prosecutors declined to comment yesterday, and two attorneys for Arian did not return telephone calls.

The investigation burst into public view more than four years ago when federal agents swarmed into homes and businesses in Herndon and elsewhere in Northern Virginia. They carted away 500 boxes of documents -- from some of the most established Islamic organizations in the United States -- that they believed contained evidence of an international terrorism financing network.

The March 2002 searches have led to the convictions of two people, including prominent Muslim activist Abdurahman Alamoudi, who admitted that he plotted with Libya to assassinate the Saudi ruler.

No charges have been filed against the principals of the Herndon-based cluster of companies and charities that are at the center of the investigation, and their attorneys and some Muslims have labeled the raids a fishing expedition.

Prosecutors in the U.S. attorney's office in Alexandria have strongly defended the raids, saying during a 2004 court hearing that they would file charges against some or all of the Herndon-based network, possibly under racketeering statutes once used to target the Mafia.

The investigation has spanned nearly half a decade, according to court documents and law enforcement officials, because it involves a complex trail of international transactions between corporations and related charitable entities.

The government believes Arian could help untangle the money trail, court documents indicate. In an affidavit filed in support of the search warrants and unsealed in 2003, Homeland Security agent David Kane laid out alleged ties between Arian and IIIT, writing that IIIT was once the largest contributor to what he called a Palestinian Islamic Jihad front group run by Arian.

Arian contends that he has no information that could help the investigation and that any ties between him and IIIT are more than a decade old, according to the documents unsealed in Florida. Arian refused to testify in Alexandria on Oct. 19, and his attorneys tried to quash the subpoena. They argued that it violated his plea agreement with Florida prosecutors because Arian made it clear to prosecutors before he agreed to plead guilty that he would not cooperate with the government. A federal judge in Florida rejected that argument last week.

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