If all goes as planned, Sami Al-Arian will soon leave behind his jail cell to be deported, ending a terrorism conspiracy case that began when federal agents began monitoring his phone calls in the early 1990s.
Al-Arian, 48, a former University of South Florida computer engineering professor, is expected to be sentenced Monday morning after pleading guilty April 14 to providing support to members of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a terrorist group responsible for hundreds of deaths in Israel and the Palestinian territories.
Al-Arian took the plea deal despite a jury failing to convict him of any of the 17 charges against him after a six-month trial last year. His family said he agreed to the deal to get out of jail and end their suffering.
It was not immediately clear where Al-Arian would be sent. Born in Kuwait to Palestinian refugee parents, he was reared mostly in Egypt before coming to the United States 30 years ago. He has been jailed since his arrest in February 2003.
As part of the plea agreement, Al-Arian admitted to being associated with the PIJ from the late 1980s and providing "services" for the group, which included filing for immigration benefits for key members of the PIJ, hiding the identities of those men and lying about his involvement.
Those men included Ramadan Shallah, a colleague at Al-Arian's Palestinian think tank in Tampa who later emerged as the head of the PIJ in the Middle East.
Al-Arian admitted to considerably less guilt than prosecutors tried to prove at trial. They described Al-Arian as the leader of a North American cell of the PIJ, raising money for suicide bombings and spreading the word in what was described as a "cycle of terror."
Al-Arian was acquitted in December of eight of the 17 federal charges against him while the jury deadlocked on the rest. He pleaded guilty to one count in the indictment that charges him with "conspiracy to make or receive contributions of funds, goods or services to or for the benefit of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad."
Throughout the trial last year, Al-Arian's attorneys argued that although he and his co-defendants were vocal advocates in the United States for the Palestinian cause, the government had no proof that they planned or knew about specific acts of violence. They said the money they raised and sent to the Palestinian territories was for legitimate charities.
Two of his co-defendants were acquitted of all charges, which were mostly based on hundreds of hours of intercepted phone calls and faxes. The other, Hatem Naji Fariz, was acquitted on 25 counts while the jury deadlocked on eight others. The case against him on the remaining counts is pending.
"We are continuing to negotiate and hope we can resolve the case without going to trial, but until it's done there's always that possibility," said Kevin Beck, one of Fariz's attorneys.
The failure to convict Al-Arian was a stinging rebuke for the federal government. His case was once hailed by authorities as a triumph of the anti-terrorism Patriot Act, which allowed secret wiretaps and other information gathered by intelligence agents to be used in criminal prosecutions.