CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL
War on Terror
Aired February 20, 2003 - 12:16 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: We're going to go to the Justice Department now. You are looking at live pictures. The Attorney General John Ashcroft, joined by Michael Cherkov, his deputy, about to make an important announcement on the arrest of suspected terrorists.
(JOINED IN PROGRESS)
JOHN ASHCROFT, ATTY. GENERAL OF THE UNITED STATES: Thank you all for coming today.
Today the United States Department of Justice is announcing the indictment of Sami Al-Arian and seven co-conspirators. Among those charged are several individuals in the leadership of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
The Palestinian Islamic Jihad is a U.S. government-designated foreign terrorist organization committed to suicide bombings and violent jihad activities.
As the indictment details, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad is responsible for the murder of over 100 innocent people in Israel, in the occupied territories, including at least two young Americas, Alisa Flatow, age 20, and Shoshama Ben-Yishai, age 16.
FBI agents have arrested the four defendants who are located in the United States, including the North American leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Sami Al-Arian. Searches also are underway in six locations in the Tampa area and one location in Illinois.
The Palestinian Islamic Jihad is one of the most violent terrorist organizations in the world. Its goals are best described in the, quote, "Manifesto of the Islamic Jihad in Palestine," close quote, a document discovered in the course of this investigation. As explained in the indictment, the manifesto rejects, and I quote, it rejects "any peaceful solution to the Palestinian cause." It goes on and affirms, quote, "The jihad solution and the martyrdom style as the only choice for liberation."
ASHCROFT: Again, the indictment explains that the manifesto refers to the United States as, quote, "the great Satan America," close quote, and indicates that the only purpose of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad is to destroy Israel and to end all Western influence in the region.
The detailed, 50-count indictment charges the eight defendants with operating a racketeering enterprise from 1984 until the present that supported numerous violent terrorist activities associated with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
The terrorist activities of the defendants are detailed in part in now declassified national security wiretaps described in the indictment.
The indictment describes other Palestinian Islamic Jihad-assisted terrorist attacks and outlines what these defendants did here in the United States to both organize and fund the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
This indictment charges that these named individuals, defendants, were, quote, "material supporters of a foreign terrorist organization." They financed, extolled and assisted acts of terror.
Our message to them and to others like them is clear. We make no distinction between those who carry out terrorist attacks and those who knowingly finance, manage or supervise terrorist organizations. We will bring justice to the full network of terror.
Some acts of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad described in the indictment include an April 6, 1994, incident in Afula, Israel, in which Palestinian Islamic Jihad operatives detonated a car bomb next to a public bus, murdering nine people and injuring approximately 50 others.
A September 4, 1994, incident in which the Palestinian Islamic Jihad murdered one person and injured several others in a drive-by shooting near Mirage (ph) Junction in Gaza.
The November 11, 1994, suicide bombing in Nezarim (ph) Junction, Gaza, which murdered three and injured 11.
The January 25, 1995, murder of 22 people in a double-suicide bombing at Beit Lid (ph), Israel.
And the June 5, 2002, suicide bombing in Haifa, Israel, which murdered 20 and injured 50. Four of the eight Palestinian Islamic Jihad members charged have been arrested in Florida and Illinois today. They include Sami Amin Al-Arian, 45, born in Kuwait, a resident of Temple Terrace, Florida, and for a number of years a professor at the University of South Florida's College of Engineering. Al-Arian has lived in the United States since he came here as a college student over 25 years ago.
As the indictment alleges, Al-Arian is not only the leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad in North America, but he also served as the secretary of the, quote, "Shura (ph) Council," close quote, the worldwide governing group of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
The indictment states, and I quote, "In his capacity as a leader in the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, he directed the audit of all monies and property of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad throughout the world," close quote.
Al-Arian's U.S. associates and Palestinian Islamic Jihad members arrested today include Sameeh Hammoudeh, Hatim Naji Fariz and Ghassan Zayed Ballut. The other four individuals named in the indictment are charged as the top worldwide leaders of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. They are currently overseas. Ramadan Shallah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad's secretary, general currently in Damascus, Syria. Shallah formerly resided in Florida, where he served as executive director of the World Islam and Studies Enterprise -- WISE -- a think tank founded by Al-Arian.
ASHCROFT: The United States has named Shallah a designated terrorist.
Mohammed Tasir Hassan Al-Khatib, the treasurer of Palestinian Islamic Jihad and a member of the Shura (ph) Council.
Abd Al Aziz Awda, a Palestinian Islamic Jihad founder and spiritual leader. The United States named Awda as a designated terrorist.
Bashir Nafi, another Palestinian Islamic Jihad founder and leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad in the United Kingdom. Nafi currently lives in Great Britain.
Charges in the indictment include the following:
Operating a racketeering enterprise that engaged in a number of violent activities, including murder, extortion, money laundering and providing material support to terrorism.
Conspiring within the United States to kill and maim persons abroad.
Conspiring to provide material support or resources to Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
Conspiring to violate emergency economic sanctions.
And engaging in various acts of interstate extortion, perjury, obstruction and immigration fraud.
All of the defendants, if convicted, face the potential of life sentences.
The Department of Justice has pledged to use all of its means, within the law, to identify, disrupt and dismantle terrorist networks. This indictment is the most recent of the department's efforts to choke off terrorist resources and financing.
The department's achievements include: 70-plus terrorist financing or material support investigations into terrorism financing; 23 convictions to date; 36 entities designated as terrorist organizations; $113 million frozen in financial assets of 62 organizations that support terrorism.
In Illinois, Inam Arno (ph), the executive director of the Benevolence International Foundation, pleaded guilty and admitted fraudulently obtaining charitable donations and using them to provide financial assistance to individuals engaged in violence.
And of course the list goes on.
I believe you are being provided today with a more thorough list to keep you up to date on the successful efforts of the department to break up, disrupt terrorist financing.
Our record on terrorism support networks is clear: We will hunt down the suppliers of terrorist money, we will shut down their sources and we will ensure that both terrorists and their financiers meet the same swift, certain justice of the United States of America.
I especially want to thank and commend FBI Director Bob Mueller for his outstanding leadership. Here today from the FBI is Pat D'Amuro (ph), and I want to thank Pat for the outstanding work he's done as the executive assistant director for counterintelligence and counterterrorism. I also thank Paul Perez, the United States attorney for the middle district of Florida.
Paul, thank you very much.
And Terry Zitek (ph) for his involvement as the executive assistant in the middle district of Florida in the U.S. attorney's office.
Also to be mentioned is special agent in charge of the effort for the FBI in Tampa, Jim Jarbo (ph), for his tireless work in bringing these defendants to a place of justice.
I want to recognize Assistant Attorney General Michael Chertoff and Deputy Assistant Attorney General Alice Fischer (ph), as well as the many prosecutors in the Terrorist Financing Task Force for their relentless, dedicated efforts in our mission to prevent terrorism.
I thank all of you and appreciate the work of sacrifice and service that you have rendered for the United States of America and for free people everywhere.
I'd be pleased to respond to your questions.
QUESTION: Is there something special about USF or are universities across the country vulnerable to this type of (inaudible) the type of penetration that you all have alleged took place here?
ASHCROFT: Really, I don't know of any special situation that would regard any university. I think one of the things we've asked is that all Americans be alert to the potentials that exist, and I think we would leave it there.
QUESTION: The allegations date back to at least 1995 in this case. Why has it taken so long to bring charges (OFF-MIKE)?
ASHCROFT: One of the very valuable benefits of lowering the barrier between the intelligence community and the law enforcement community, as provided by the Congress in the Patriot Act, has been the ability to begin using the kind of resources that have been available in the intelligence -- and information that became available in the intelligence sector, in the law enforcement sector. And very frankly, if you don't mind, I'd just like to make a comment on that. A very substantial and important aspect of this case is the facilitation that comes between the intelligence effort and the law enforcement effort which previously had been forbidden and which was previously something we simply didn't get done and couldn't get done because we had those impairments, and this is a step forward in that direction.
QUESTION: With these arrests, (OFF-MIKE) any operations that may have been ongoing by these men, any terrorism activities? And if so, could you comment about anything like that?
ASHCROFT: Really, these arrests focus on the items outlined in the indictment, and I'm not able to comment outside the indictment in this matter which is now pending before the courts.
QUESTION: What's your understanding of the whereabouts of the foreign men who were charged? Do you have any of them in custody and...
ASHCROFT: We do not have them in custody. We, obviously, as I indicated in my statement, know of the whereabouts of several of them in terms of the countries in which we believe they exist.
Obviously, these individuals are subject to an indictment which charges serious violations of the laws of the United States, and our ability to bring them to justice will depend on our ability both to have them located and have them brought back to the United States.
(CROSSTALK) QUESTION: ... if I may, about the threat level? When you were here recently with Secretary Ridge, you raised the threat level (inaudible) some confusion and in some places even panic that resulted. There's been some discussion now that perhaps the time has come to lower that. I wonder if you could tell us where that stands and if you have any misgivings about the recent decision to raise that level.
ASHCROFT: The designation of a threat level is designed to help the American people avoid injury and difficulty that would come from a terrorist threat. It's based upon information about the potential of threats and is information-driven.
On a continuous basis, the information available to law enforcement and intelligence communities is evaluated with a view towards sharing with the people the real circumstances regarding threats. It is with that in mind that we continue on a regular basis, as we have in the past, to evaluate our circumstances. And the threat level, obviously, will be reduced when there is a basis in information that suggests to us that it would be appropriate for it to be reduced.
QUESTION: Can you elaborate, beyond what's alleged in the indictment, on the allegations of interstate extortion and obstruction of justice charges?
ASHCROFT: No, it's inappropriate for me to go outside the indictment in these kinds of circumstances regarding individuals who are indicted. And so, we'll just live within the indictment there.
QUESTION: Given how high a profile this case has been in the Tampa Bay area, if there is a request for a change of venue, what would the Justice Department's response be?
ASHCROFT: I'm going to leave that to the litigating attorneys who will be handling the case. Those kinds of trial decisions, I think, are the kinds of things that require the on-site presence and wisdom of people who are immersed in the prosecution rather than the intermeddling by the attorney general.
QUESTION: Were these wiretaps, because of the limitations you cited earlier, not known to the criminal investigators who were working on the Sami Al-Arian case all those years and only recently became known, or was that information shared earlier?
ASHCROFT: It's not clear to me that I should -- let me just -- there are some things I can say and then I'm not sure whether it'll totally answer your question.
There were prohibitions about exchanging information between the criminal side of our efforts and the intelligence sides of our efforts. And those have been clarified both in the Patriot Act and in the subsequent litigation to the Patriot Act, which clarified how we could use information within the law.
That has been a very important step forward. I can't tell you what people knew and didn't know. I can tell you what the structure of the law was and what the structure of the law now is, and it's that facilitation that has really become important to us in settings like this.
QUESTION: Can you just tell me, as you start -- continue to disrupt these terrorist networks and their elements and support, how concerned are you that they could turn to violence as they see this being chipped away?
ASHCROFT: Well, these are violent organizations. This organization, according to the indictment that we rendered today, is responsible for the murders of dozens and dozens and dozens and dozens of people, and the injuries of far more people than I might have mentioned.
These are violent organizations. To suggest that what we do might turn them to violence is to be a little bit late in our analysis. Frankly, these are organizations which have already turned to violence.
I would cite to you, as well, to the information that I -- to part of my statement which indicated that they have abandoned any idea of peace. That's part and parcel of their own dogma, it's recited in the indictment, and it's their indication that they believe only in violence, is, frankly, I think, a suggestion that's rather difficult to refute, that we wouldn't be turning them to violence, these are violent organizations.
QUESTION: Follow-up. Will they feel further pressure to act and immediately take action?
ASHCROFT: I think they'll have far -- will have substantially more difficulty in acting, and to the extent they rely on these individuals who are now being brought to justice.
I should indicate that the Palestinian Islamic Jihad is not just an organization which had its operation in the United States. It's an international organization, and this does not -- this set of charges will not impair the vast majority of individuals in the organization, but it will have a very serious effect on those that are charged.
QUESTION: Just to follow up there, sir. The violent acts that have been done in the past were concentrated in Israel. Are you worried that this might set off retribution in the United States?
ASHCROFT: Well, we had U.S. citizens killed, we had U.S. citizens injured. This kind of violent activity was impairing the capacity of Americans to be free and to exist, so we believe these individuals are appropriately detained and charged, and we think that to the extent we can erode and undermine both the financing and structure of the terrorist community, we secure America.
QUESTION: Do you believe there is any link between the defendants here and Al Qaida? And also could you say how many groups do you think there are operating like this within the United States that are providing material support to terrorist groups?
ASHCROFT: Well, first of all, I won't speak about any associations. I'm going to stay within the indictment.
About are there groups supporting terrorism in the United States.
ASHCROFT: Well, I can't do that. I can tell you about those that we have charged. And I gave a little litany earlier, and I believe you have a handout that talks about people we've charged, both of financial support and other kinds of support. I believe there are charges pending in Buffalo, charges pending in Portland, charges pending in several other communities. So that I don't think it would be fair to conclude that this is the only place where these kinds of circumstances have developed.
BLITZER: The Attorney General John Ashcroft, formally announcing and answering reporters' questions on the 50-count indictment against eight individuals suspected of supporting financing, plotting terrorist operations. Eight defendants, four of them arrested today, including professor Sami Al-Arian, 45 year old professor of engineering at the University of South Florida. Professor Al-Aryan arrested in connection with organizing and supporting the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a group the State Department has branded a foreign terrorist organization. Let's bring in our CNN law enforcement correspondent Mike Brooks, who's been covering, he's been reporting about this particular story.
Mike, we know that Sami Al-Arian has been under investigation for years, going back to 1995 when he was still a professor at the University of South Florida. What's taken so long?
MIKE BROOKS, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT CORRESPONDENT: Well, let me put on my investigator hat here, too, here, Wolf. As you know, I spent six years on the joint terrorism tax force, from '93 to '99. And I can tell you, during investigations like this, when you first -- when someone like Al-Arian first comes under the microscope of the FBI and other intelligence agencies, they can't just go in and start looking into his information. There has to be some kind of criminality involved for the FBI to even open up an investigation, what the FBI calls a PI, preliminary investigation, preliminary inquiry.
And from there, they look into -- they use unobtrusive ways to find out about him, source information, those kinds of things, and then find out if there is any criminality involved. And then when they find out there is some criminality, such as what the attorney general is talking today, these racketeering charges, trying to cut off resources in financing the terrorism, then they can expand their investigation.
As the attorney general spoke about some of the things that had been secret up until now, as part of the investigation, some of those are done through a FISA court. There were certain wiretaps, certain exploitation of documents, those kind of things. But it takes a long time to develop this case. And especially when you are talking about a case dealing in a 50-count indictment against all of these people, some here in the United States, some indicted and some who remain at large overseas -- Wolf.
BLITZER: And we did hear the attorney general speak about declassifying these national security wiretaps, what you are referring to, FISA, the Financial Intelligence Security Act. The fact that Patriot Act, which expands significantly the law enforcement capabilities in the aftermath of 9/11 is now the law of the land, that certainly helps in these kinds of investigations, doesn't it?
BROOKS: Very much so. Prior to the Patriot Act, the FBI and other federal agencies felt they had been handcuffed, and me, as an investigator, also felt that way when we were trying to conduct terrorism investigations, because they are under a strict or -- and were under a strict set of guidelines called the attorney general guidelines, and this is exactly what he was talking about. They have kind of revamped some of those and with the Patriot Act in place, it enables investigators to do some more investigative -- more in-depth looks at wiretaps and those kinds of things -- Wolf.
BLITZER: In talking about these eight defendants, four of them arrested today in the United States, and Florida, and Illinois, four others still at large, one in Syria, one in Britain, two elsewhere. The attorney general spoke about what he called the material support for foreign terrorist organizations, also saying we make no distinction between those who carry out the actual acts of terror and those who organize or finance these acts. In this case, Sami Al-Arian is accused of being the leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad here in the United States, and that he, in effect, organized the fund- raising activities for this kind of operation. The terrorist operation that resulted in the deaths of a lot of Israelis, including two U.S. citizens, these two young girls, who were killed in various terrorist acts.
But going to this whole issue of racketeering, that's a significant element in trying to arrest and make this arrest stick, as far as professor Al-Arian is concerned.
BROOKS: You look at racketeering, Wolf, and you go back, and most people think of racketeering when you talk about La Costra Nostra, up in New York, you know, the underworld.
But you look at terrorism, it's the same kind of structure some of these organizations have. And as the attorney general said, even if you are not out there planting a bomb, if you are out there and supporting terrorists by money, by moving people around, putting people up in your house, this is all part of this RICO violation, if you will, of organized crime, and this is an organized group.
We look back at Al-Arian in 1995, when he started up a think tank at the University of South Florida, a thinktank called WISE, the World Islamic Studies Enterprise. That was apparently the beginning of his enterprise on trying to raise money here in the United States. And there was an associate of his that came to the United States back in 1994, Abdullah, or some people call him Ramadan Sale (ph).
Now he was here until 1995, Wolf, and he left, as FBI sources say, to Damascus, and they believe he is still in Damascus at this time, and that he also played a role in the suicide bombing of Alissa Flido (ph). So there is a lot of links to terrorists, both here and abroad for right now, Wolf, and this is just the beginning of this whole case.
All right. Mike Brooks, our law enforcement correspondent, former member of the joint terrorism task force, thanks very much for that insight.
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