Hatem Naji Fariz, center with bullhorn, leads a pro-Palestinian rally Oct. 25, 2023, in Tampa. [ LUIS SANTANA | Tampa Bay Times ]

He’s been a regular at pro-Palestinian protests around Tampa: the stocky man with a neatly trimmed and graying beard.

Over the past six months, he’s led chants demanding that the University of South Florida divest from Israeli-linked companies. He’s handed out homemade signs calling for the end of Israel’s war with Hamas. He’s led prayers for peace and freedom for the people of Gaza.

Hatem Naji Fariz, 51, is respected among other rally organizers. For local law enforcement, he’s considered a trusted member of Tampa’s Muslim community. But buried in decades-old court records, among the hundreds of pages of phone calls transcribed by federal law enforcement officials, is a far different version of Fariz.

More than 20 years ago — on Feb. 20, 2003 — federal agents raided Fariz’s Spring Hill home, arresting the then-30-year-old on charges that he provided financial support to Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a federally designated terrorist organization.

On phone calls recorded by federal agents, Fariz joked about a terrorist attack in Israel, explained how to obscure payments made to a terrorism-adjacent charity organization and bragged about beating a young man whom he suspected of collaborating with the Israelis, according to court records.

While Fariz was acquitted of most of the charges against him, he pleaded guilty to providing material support to a terrorist organization.

Fariz did not respond to multiple emails, phone calls and a letter left at his Tarpon Springs home. In an email to the Tampa Bay Times, Kevin Beck, Fariz’s former defense attorney, said “the government made frequent errors in describing the actions that led to the charges (against Fariz and his co-defendants).”

Beck did not address specific questions about the allegations or other court documents reviewed by the Times.

Hatem Naji Fariz, center, is seen during a pro-Palestinian rally May 1 in Tampa.
Hatem Naji Fariz, center, is seen during a pro-Palestinian rally May 1 in Tampa. [ LUIS SANTANA | Tampa Bay Times ]

For some community leaders who know of this long-ago case, Fariz has since proved himself to be a leader.

“Hatem has been a force for reason within the Muslim community,” said Temple Terrace police Chief Kenneth Albano. He said he’s known Fariz for more than a decade and has coordinated with him to ensure that recent demonstrations and events organized by Fariz were peaceful and respectful of the larger community.

Albano said he knew of Fariz’s prior conviction but added “you should look at the totality of everything if you’re trying to understand.”

When it comes to coordinating protests with Albano’s office, Fariz “shares information and listens to concerns,” Albano said. “He tries to speak reason into situations that could go differently.”

Palestinian Islamic Jihad

Fariz was born in Puerto Rico to parents of Palestinian descent and grew up in a Chicago suburb, Beck said. Every few years, his family would travel to Palestine to spend time in the occupied territories of Israel, Fariz told the Times in 2006.

By the early 1990s, Fariz had gained prominence in Chicago’s Islamic community as an activist and fundraiser for Palestinian causes. His knack for raising money eventually caught the attention of Sami Al-Arian, and the two began working closely to coordinate relief efforts.

It was around this time that FBI agents began monitoring Al-Arian’s conversations in connection to Palestinian Islamic Jihad, according to court documents.

Palestinian Islamic Jihad was founded in the late 1980s with the mandate to eliminate the Israeli state, according to the records. During the 1990s and early 2000s, the group conducteddozens of attacks and bombings in Israel, killing more than 60. The group participated in the Oct. 7, 2023, attack on Israel alongside Hamas, and claimed to have seized Israeli hostages, the BBC reported.

Among the nine men charged in 2003 with supporting the group was Al-Arian, a USF computer science professor whom federal prosecutors identified as the group’s leader.

In 2006, a jury acquitted Fariz on 25 of the 33 charges brought against him by federal prosecutors but couldn’t come to a unanimous verdict on the remaining eight.

After a 14-month trial, Fariz pleaded guilty to conspiracy to provide material support to a terrorist organization and agreed to a 37-month prison sentence. The remaining seven charges were dropped as part of Fariz’s plea agreement.

Hatem Naji Fariz, center, leads a march along Fowler Avenue in support of the Palestinian people on Oct. 25, 2023, in Tampa.
Hatem Naji Fariz, center, leads a march along Fowler Avenue in support of the Palestinian people on Oct. 25, 2023, in Tampa. [ LUIS SANTANA | Tampa Bay Times ]

The conviction came after an intensive federal investigation that showed over a two-year period Fariz wired more than $40,000 to charities in Gaza and the West Bank with direct ties to Palestinian Islamic Jihad, according to the indictment.

Al-Arian was the fiery face of the pro-Palestine movement in the U.S. and Fariz was his “worker bee,” said Beck.

Al-Arian had already gained national attention after appearing on Bill O’Reilly’sFox News show in the weeks following the September 2001 terrorist attacks. During the interview, O’Reilly accused Al-Arian of espousing dangerous views and hinted at his suspected ties to terrorism.

USF was deluged with phone calls and threatening letters. Though administrators wanted him fired, Al-Arian’s tenure agreement granted broad protection for speech on and off campus.

Given what they knew at the time, the administration “totally overreacted,” said Robert Shibley, special counsel for campus advocacy for Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a free speech advocacy organization.

“Their reason was that (Al-Arian’s) presence on campus was causing a disruption,” Shibley said. “But he wasn’t the disruption, it was the people objecting to his presence, making threats.”

Compared to the aloof and prickly Al-Arian, Fariz had a friendly demeanor that made him a natural fit for fundraising, Beck said.

“Hatem was a people person and Sami (Al-Arian) took advantage of that ability,” he said.

Transcripts of taped phone calls reviewed by the Times reveal Fariz as a diligent and principled worker, organizing Ramadan care packages for families in Gaza and repeatedly insisting that he and his fellow organizers keep none of the funds they raised.

But on a June 2002 call recorded by federal agents, he and Al-Arian laughed about a bombing in Israel that killed 17 and wounded 45, according to the federal indictment.

On another call, Fariz bragged that, while living in the Middle East, he and a group of men assaulted a child who they believed was “cooperating with the Jews,” according to the indictment.

The tapes also indicate Fariz’s direct knowledge that the charities he raised money for were deemed terrorist organizations by the U.S.

On a November 2002 call, Fariz instructed a Gaza-based organizer to draw up documents obscuring the fact that funds raised in the U.S. were distributed to Elehssan Society, a Palestinian Islamic Jihad-associated charity, according to the indictment.

Afterfederal officials arrested Al-Arian and raided his campus office in February 2003, the school terminated his professorship without objection from the teachers union, said Dick Beard, the former chairperson of the school’s board of trustees.

Al-Arian pleaded guilty tosupporting a terrorist organization and was sentenced to 57 months in prison, including time served, according to court records. He was deported to Turkey in February 2015.

While the St. Petersburg Times and Tampa Tribune wrote dozens of stories aboutAl-Arian’s case during the three-year trial, only a handful of stories mentioned Fariz by name. Those that did characterized him as either the moneyman behind Al-Arian’s operation, or a family man caught up in attorney general John Ashcroft’s crackdown on an outspoken critic of U.S. foreign policy.

“Double jeopardy”

Lama Alhasan is an organizer with the criminal justice reform organization Bay Area Dream Defenders. She told the Times that she’s helped organize some of the events attended by Fariz. She said she’s familiar with Fariz as a member of Tampa’s Palestinian community and was aware of his prior conviction.

Alhasan objected to questions about Fariz’s history of support for Palestinian Islamic Jihad, adding that “our No. 1priority is educating the public and raising awareness of the genocide in Gaza. Everything else is a distraction.”

Beck, Fariz’s former lawyer, voiced similar concerns in response to questions from the Times.

“The Constitutional protection against double jeopardy precludes prosecution on those very charges again,” Beck wrote in an email to the Times. “It doesn’t protect Hatem and his family from undergoing the same kinds of vitriol and hatred that he and his family suffered nearly 25 years ago because he supported what was largely an unpopular and misunderstood cause.”

Gage Lacharite, an organizer with Freedom Road Socialist Organization, said he’s known Fariz through his community activism for about a decade and has spoken with Fariz at protests around Tampa.

He said the federal case against Fariz and Al-Arian was part of what he calls the U.S.government’s knee-jerk reaction to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“It was the stand-out case of that era, which was defined by political repression and rooted, in some part, in Islamophobia,” Lacharite said.

Hatem Fariz leaves the Sam M. Gibbons United States Courthouse in Tampa on Dec. 5, 2005. [ (Times 2005) ]
Hatem Fariz leaves the Sam M. Gibbons United States Courthouse in Tampa on Dec. 5, 2005. [ (Tampa Bay Times 2005) ]

After hisrelease from federal prison in May 2010, Fariz settled into Tampa’s Palestinian community. He manages the Islamic Community of Tampa, a nonprofit religious and educational organization run out of the Al-Qassam Mosque, just blocks from USF’s Tampa campus.

USF administrators were aware of Fariz’s presence on campus and his prior felony conviction, according to USF spokesperson Althea Johnson.

“We have reviewed options regarding his presence and found that the conditions of his release do not restrict his access to public land and he has no outstanding warrants for arrest,” Johnson wrote to the Times.

That’s the right call, according to Shibley, the free speech lawyer.

“If he’s expressing an unpopular opinion or one you disagree with, then that’s speech to be protected,” Shibley said.

Times staff photographer Luis Santana contributed to this story.

Education data reporter for The Tampa Bay Times in partnership with Open Campus.