Terrorist leader is man with USF ties

Published Nov. 1, 1995|Updated Oct. 4, 2005

A man who taught Middle Eastern politics to University of South Florida students as recently as last spring made his first public appearance Tuesday as the new leader of a feared terrorist group.

His appearance at the Damascus, Syria, airport confirmed speculation that Ramadan Abdullah Shallah, a former part-time professor at USF, had indeed been elected leader of Islamic Jihad. The organization is one of two Palestinian groups that have taken credit for killing civilians in an effort to derail the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.

"There's not much doubt about it," said Arthur Lowrie, another USF adjunct professor who had previously defended Shallah and the controversial Tampa think tank he led against accusations it had connections with terrorists. "I'm in shock."

But if seeing Shallah on television clinched his identity, the news also raised fresh questions about how USF officials handled the controversy surrounding the think tank, which had collaborated with a committee of USF professors until last summer.

"What it does is validate everything Steven Emerson said," said Carnot Nelson, a USF psychology professor and Jewish synagogue president who has been critical of USF's response. Nelson was referring to a journalist whose PBS documentary, Jihad in America, last fall first accused another USF professor connected with the think tank of helping to support terrorists.

USF suspended its affiliation with the think tank, known as the World and Islam Studies Enterprise, last summer after discovering two procedural violations in its dealings with WISE. But President Betty Castor and others have steadfastly defended the academic mission of the professors who worked with WISE on a series of scholarly conferences and other academic projects.

Nelson disagrees. "They really need to question people's judgment who got us involved in the first place," he said. "I really question the judgment of some of those people."

Mark Orr, a longtime professor of international studies and chairman of USF's Committee for Middle Eastern Studies, was at a conference in New York on Tuesday and not available for comment.

But Lowrie, another committee member, acknowledged that Shallah's identity as leader of a terrorist group will discredit WISE. "If Ramadan has all of a sudden become head of Islamic Jihad, you'd have to be pretty naive to believe that he didn't have a long previous relationship" with the group.

Indeed, reports from the Middle East said Shallah helped establish the Palestinian branch of Islamic Jihad in the early 1980s along with Fathi Shikaki, whose assassination last week, reportedly by Israeli agents, led to Shallah's election as the new leader. Shallah was at the Syrian airport with other militant leaders to pay respects to Shikaki, whose body was flown in from Malta for a funeral today.

"All I can say is there was nothing in the work of WISE that I was aware of in all the relationship with us that was the least bit suspicious," said Lowrie, a retired Foreign Service officer who once served as a Mideast adviser for the U.S. Central Command at Tampa's MacDill Air Force Base.

"Everything was just scholarly and objective," he said. "That's why I think everyone associated with this is very surprised . . . The university got a lot out of its relationship with WISE, and a lot of scholars around the country would attest to that."

On Tuesday, USF and WISE quickly distanced themselves from Shallah, who often used only his first two names, Ramadan Abdullah, when he was in Tampa.

USF spokesman Harry Battson said USF officials had "no indication of any kind of wrongdoing or activity (on the part of WISE) that would contribute to a terrorist organization.

"This individual . . . presented himself as a moderate here to the faculty. For the two classes that he taught in Middle East studies, the student evaluations were overwhelmingly positive according to the faculty members who reviewed them. And that's why he was invited back to a second year to teach the class." Shallah taught at USF for the 1994 and spring 1995 semesters.

Battson quoted international studies chairman Mike Gibbons as saying the university never would have hired Shallah "if we had known (he) had those kind of relationships. . . . He never conducted himself or seemed supportive of terrorist activity. The university would not in any way knowledgeably contribute to a terrorist organization."

In a written statement, WISE officials also disavowed "any knowledge of Dr. Abdullah's association or affiliation with any political group or agency in the Middle East.

"WISE is an independent institution dedicated to open intellectual activities," the statement said. "WISE has never served nor does it lend itself to serve as a political advocacy group." The statement went on to describe Abdullah, or Shallah, as "a recognized scholar on Islamic history and economics" who did nothing but editing and academic research for the group. Shallah directed the group between 1992 and 1994.

Howard Broer, leader of the Tampa Jewish Federation, said he remains disturbed that USF did not do enough to ferret out Shallah's background, especially after questions were raised by Steven Emerson and in a subsequent series of articles in the Tampa Tribune.

Broer conceded that most of the accusations had been directed at another USF professor, Sami Al-Arian, but said university officials should have delved more deeply into all the professors associated with WISE.

"I think that's fine that he might have been an excellent teacher," Broer said. "He might not have done anything offensive in the classroom, but the fact that he now holds this position and people in the community made this connection should have indicated to the university that a connection might exist. It's not like they can wake up and say, "My God, we never heard a thing about this.'

"The fact is," Broer added, "he did have a direct connection, even more so than we thought."

Castor was also traveling Tuesday and could not be reached for comment. But she and other USF officials have said they checked with appropriate law enforcement authorities to see if any USF employees were involved in illegal activities or if anyone's safety at USF was in jeopardy. After turning up nothing, they decided that it would be wrong to make any further judgments about any professors' political views or activities.

"Nobody ever disputed the necessity of academic freedom," Broer said. "The issue was check these connections. And if they prove to be untrue, that's great. But at least check them."

Broer said he is not sure whether federal intelligence officials would have told USF officials everything they know. "But I cannot imagine that a university as large and as well known as USF could not have gotten that information."

And, "if our intelligence agencies did not know who this person was, then we're in more trouble than I think we're in."

A spokesman for the FBI in Tampa said he couldn't "confirm or deny that we've had a case that we're looking into concerning that individual or that group. The rules that we play by come out of the Attorney General's Office, and unless there are charges filed or a search warrant obtained that creates a public record, we can't confirm or deny an investigation."

An engineering professor and Islamic activist who was the focus of most local suspicions before Tuesday, said he, too, was surprised by news of Shallah's terrorist background. Like many others, he said, he knew Shallah as a working scholar with a doctorate in economics from a British university. When Shallah left Tampa and WISE last June, Al-Arian understood that it was to take care of an ill father and to research a book on Islamic banking.

Al-Arian said he expects this week's news to put more pressure on Islamist and Palestinian advocates like him. But despite Shallah's identity, people should not assume that every activist and scholar is tainted, he said.

"This person has a lot of friends in the scholarly community. Does that mean they are all guilty because they were friends with him?

"People should recognize that if we knew (his background) we would never have put ourselves in this situation," Al-Arian said. "If this guy was really high enough to be elected the leader of Islamic Jihad, we wouldn't be fool enough to put him in as director of anything."

_ Information from Times staff writer Shelby Oppel and Times wires was used in this report.