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Florida Lawsuit Reflects Trend to Sue Funders of Terrorist Groups

A lawsuit against an alleged Islamic Jihad paymaster based in central Florida is the latest in a series of civil cases that Americans fed up with bombings in Israel are bringing against the financiers of international terrorism.

The latest lawsuit seeks an injunction preventing U.S.-based charities from interacting with and financing global terrorists.

The lawsuit was filed recently by John Loftus, a former federal Nazi war crimes prosecutor who currently is president of the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg.

It alleges that a professor at Tampa’s University of South Florida, Sami Al-Arian, is the central figure in an operation targeting Israel and the United States with terrorist attacks.

Analysts say some U.S. citizens are turning to such lawsuits because of frustration with perceived government inaction against terrorist groups.

“The lawsuits are really being used to move against these organizations where the government has either been slow or reluctant,” said Matthew Epstein, deputy director of the Investigative Project, a think tank in Washington that tracks terrorism and works closely with federal authorities.

“There’s a lot of evidence that has come out, either through other trials or investigative work and media stories, that exposes a lot of these charities and networks in the United States that hatch terrorism,” Epstein said.

Loftus’ lawsuit alleges that millions of dollars in funding for the terrorist activities of Al-Qaida, Islamic Jihad and Hamas originates in Saudi Arabia, and is laundered through Swiss bank accounts and Islamic charities operating in Florida.

In his lawsuit, Loftus charges that Al-Arian used his status as a university professor to set up what Loftus claims were terrorist front groups, including the World and Islam Studies Enterprise, International Committee for Palestine, the Islamic Concern Project and other charities.

Al-Arian, who maintains that he is the victim of a government witch hunt, has been suspended from the university. The university president is to decide in the coming weeks if he will be reinstated.

The lawyer for Al-Arian, Robert McKee of Tampa, Fla., did not respond to calls seeking comment on the case.

However, in a local press interview in Florida he was dismissive of the complaint, calling it “frivolous.”

A spokesman for the Saudi information office in Washington also did not return calls.

FBI agents continue to pore over documents seized in a 1995 raid of Al-Arian’s home and offices. According to a New York Times report, they are trying to trace at least $650,000 that Al-Arian and associates sent overseas in the 1980s and 1990s, some of which, investigators suspect, went to Islamic Jihad.

“The money would come through Switzerland through the Al-Rashid Trust, as well as Saudi charities in Virginia,” Loftus said in an interview with JTA. “Then it would go to one of many charities, but usually it was the Islamic Concern Project, and from there they would send the money to Syria,” where Islamic Jihad is based.

The FBI began investigating Al-Arian in 1995 when Ramadan Abdullah Shallah, a professor whom Al-Arian brought to Tampa and put in charge of his university think tank, left and then resurfaced in Damascus as the head of Islamic Jihad.

According to the Times, investigators have information suggesting that Al-Arian also is part of Islamic Jihad’s leadership.

A recent case in the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago, Boim v. Quranic Literacy, was helpful to the Loftus case.

David Boim, an American, was killed in a Hamas attack in the West Bank in 1996. The case named an array of individuals and organizations allied with Hamas — such as Quranic Literacy and the Holy Land Foundation — in the United States.

The judge in the Boim case ruled that plaintiffs who have been wronged by terrorists have cause to file civil lawsuits, even against the charities that fund the terrorists.

“It’s very, very on point with my case,” Loftus said. “You can’t use a charitable group for terrorism.”

Another case that paved the way for Loftus was that of Alisa Flatow, who died in a 1995 terror attack in the Gaza Strip carried out by Islamic Jihad.

Flatow’s father sued the government of Iran, which helps finance Islamic Jihad. The court assessed damages of $247.5 million, though the government impeded collection, claiming it would harm U.S. interests.

Loftus says his case is based on violations of Florida’s Consumer Protection Act, the state’s Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act and infringement of a federal racketeering and corrupt organizations statute usually employed against drug kingpins and mafia dons.

The information that would prove his case is in CIA, FBI and National Security Agency files, said Loftus, who claims to have a memorandum, written to the former director of counterterrorism at the CIA, to that effect.

The information was gathered by intelligence agencies, Loftus said.

“Essentially, the Israelis had a super-mole at the headquarters of Islamic Jihad in Syria. This mole reported on all of their activities until he was tortured to death in 1995,” Loftus said.

Loftus said the mole even reported on a debate within the organization in which Al-Arian was considered for Islamic Jihad’s top world leadership, “but he lost the vote and became No. 2 in the world.”

Other evidence, including an FBI videotape, bolsters his claim that Al-Arian is a leader of Islamic Jihad, Loftus said.

“We have a handwritten letter where he talks about a recent killing in Israel which Islamic Jihad carried out, and how he needed more money to carry out more killings, and that talks on cooperation with Hamas were going along nicely,” Loftus said.

Loftus charges that millions of dollars raised by the charities — including funds from the Al-Rajhi family of Saudi Arabia — were used to support terrorist training, create safe houses, provide equipment and host “terrorist conventions” in the United States.

The front groups were created in Florida, Loftus believes, because laws overseeing charities there are somewhat lax.

“If you file as a religious charity here you don’t have to file anything with the IRS and you don’t have to file anything with the state,” he said. “There’s no paperwork.”

Al-Arian, a Palestinian, came to the University of South Florida in 1986 to teach engineering and computer science, according to Epstein of the Investigative Project.

In 1992 Al-Arian reached an agreement with the university for research and graduate student enrichment.

Loftus initiated the litigation against Al-Arian a few months ago, but the judge dismissed it on procedural grounds, asked him to refile the complaint and prove that he had the legal standing to sue for damages.

Loftus then donated money to the charities, whose marketing materials state that the funds are used for religious and educational purposes. Since Loftus alleges that the money is being used for other purposes, he claims that he was harmed under Florida’s consumer fraud and deceptive practices laws.

The case currently is moving into the discovery phase, where witnesses will be deposed and documents exchanged.

Rumors of Saudi funding for terrorism have circulated in the intelligence community for some time. Until the Sept. 11 attacks, however, U.S. administrations didn’t investigate the charges thoroughly, critics say.

Israeli officials refused to comment on Loftus’ case, but said that for some time they have been trying to focus attention on the funders of terrorism.

Epstein says the Loftus case shows that frustrated American supporters of Israel are trying to influence foreign policy.

“The feds are so slow to act on these things, and their investigations can take years, that these lawsuits are a tremendous weapon,” he says.

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