WASHINGTON, Feb. 20 (UPI) -- Four members of an alleged Palestinian terror group, including Florida professor Sami Amin Al Arian, were arrested by the FBI Thursday.
Attorney General John Ashcroft announced the arrests in Washington after an indictment was unsealed in Tampa, Fla.
Ashcroft said the four arrested and four more suspects overseas "play a central role in global terrorism. They are material supporters of foreign terrorist organizations."
The eight are charged with being members or leaders of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, identified in a 2001 State Department report as a terrorist organization.
PIJ was formed in the Gaza Strip during the 1970s, and is dedicated to the violent destruction of Israel and the formation of a Palestinian state, the report says.
The indictment said the organization has carried out bombings and shootings against civilians in Israel.
The suspects are also variously charged with conducting a racketeering enterprise since 1984, and conspiracy to kill and maim persons abroad and conspiracy to provide material support and resources to the PIJ, among other allegations.
The indictment said the suspects were careful not to draw attention to themselves and communicated in code, a system allegedly drawn up by Al Arian.
The suspects also allegedly engaged in extortion and money laundering, the indictment said.
The attorney general was accompanied in the announcement by Assistant Attorney General Michael Chertoff, head of the Justice Department's criminal division, and Paul Perez, U.S. attorney in Tampa.
Amin, an engineering professor at the University of South Florida, has been the target of federal interest for a number of years, but this was the first time charges have been brought against him.
His arrest was immediately criticized by the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic relations.
"We are very concerned that the government would bring charges after investigating an individual for many years without offering any evidence of criminal activity," said CAIR board chairman Omar Ahmad in a statement. "This action could leave the impression that Al Arian's arrest is based on political considerations, not legitimate national security concerns."
Al Arian, 45, is a native of Kuwait, but lives in Temple Terrace, Fla. He is accused of being the leader of PIJ in the United States, and being secretary of the "Shura Council," the worldwide governing body of the organization.
Besides Al Arian, three other persons were arrested by the FBI Thursday in this country.
Sameeh Hammoudeh, 42, was born in the West Bank, but is also a resident of Temple Terrace. An instructor and student at USF, he is also an administrator of the Islamic Academy of Florida. He is accused of being a member of PIJ.
Hatim Naji Fariz, 30, was born in Puerto Rico, but is a resident of Spring Hill, Fla., and manager of a medical clinic. The indictment says he is a member of PIJ.
And Ghassan Zayed Ballut, 41, born on the West Bank but living as a small business owner in Tinley Park, Ill. Ballut is charged with being a member of the PIJ in Chicago.
Four defendants named in the indictment are still overseas.
Ramadan Abdullah Shallah, 46, born in the Gaza Strip and now a resident of Damascus, is the alleged leader of the PIJ and a former Tampa resident.
Bashir Musa Mohammed Nafi, 50, was born in Egypt but is a resident of Oxfordshire, England, and a professor at Muslim College. He is allegedly a member and founder of the group, and a member of the Shura Council.
Mohammed Tasir Hassan Al Khatib, 46, was born in the Gaza Strip but now lives in Lebanon. He was allegedly a member of the PIJ in Tampa, and was the group's treasurer and a member of the council.
And Abd Al Aziz Awda, 52. He was born in Gabaly, Israel, but is now imam of the Al Qassam Mosque in the Gaza Strip. He is accused of being a founder and the spiritual leader of PIJ.