Tampa Palestinian Islamic Jihad School Gala

City and county officials happily used as props for terror-linked American Youth Academy event.

Joe Kaufman is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center and the Chairman of the Joe Kaufman Security Initiative. He was the 2014, 2016 and 2018 Republican Nominee for U.S. House of Representatives (Florida-CD23).

It has been a long and convoluted journey for the American Youth Academy (AYA), from its jihadist beginnings, as an alleged fundraising site for a brutal Palestinian terrorist group, to today with its brand new building and facilities. Given AYA’s radical history, it is amazing that it continues to exist and with impunity. Yet, earlier this month – 20 years later – the school has celebrated in style, along with a number of government and law enforcement officials to help give it the veneer of normalcy and legitimacy. The celebrants have seemingly ignored the school’s violent legacy.

AYA was incorporated under the name Islamic Academy of Florida (IAF), in August 1992. The school was the brainchild of Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) co-founder and then-North American leader Sami Amin al-Arian. Al-Arian had used Temple Terrace, Florida, a suburb of Tampa Bay, to create a PIJ network, consisting of the school, a mosque (which is adjacent to AYA), a charity, the Islamic Concern Project (ICP), and a think tank, the World and Islam Studies Enterprise (WISE).

The mosque, the Islamic Community of Tampa (ICT), also goes by the name Masjid al-Qassam, named for one of the main inspirations for PIJ, Palestinian militant icon Izz ad-Din al-Qassam. The mosque property is owned by the North American Islamic Trust (NAIT), a group that was named by the US Justice Department, in 2007 and 2008, a co-conspirator in the financing of millions of dollars to Hamas. NAIT currently uses the school as its mailing address.

On the morning of February 20, 2003, al-Arian, Hatem Naji Fariz, Sameeh Taha Hammoudeh and Ghassan Zayed Ballut were arrested and charged by the FBI with racketeering, conspiracy to kill and maim persons abroad, and conspiracy to provide material support and resources to terrorists, amongst other things.

IAF was cited in the indictment, according to which, “The members of the conspiracy would and did use the WISE, ICP, and IAF offices as the North American base of support for the PIJ and to raise funds and provide support for the PIJ and their operatives in the Middle East, in order to assist its engagement in, and promotion of, violent attacks designed to thwart the Middle East Peace Process.”

Florida legislators voiced concern that IAF had been named by the US government as part of a terrorist enterprise, and in July 2003, IAF was dropped from Florida’s state voucher program, a taxpayer funded plan that pays portions of eligible private school tuitions. The school lost roughly $350,000 in vouchers. As a result, the Islamic Academy of Florida changed its name, the following year, to the American Youth Academy – a patriotic-sounding title – using an eagle as a mascot.

On April 1, 2022, AYA held a gala to raise money for and commemorate the new AYA building, the result of AYA’s recent expansion project. The event was no April Fool’s joke, as it raised over $4 million for the school.

The gala began with a ribbon-cutting ceremony, during which city and county officials became props for a video. At the lead of ICT Imam Ahmad Sharaf, the officials raised their hands in dua (invocation) and then cheered when the ribbon was cut. They included: Hillsborough County Commissioner Kimberly Overman, Hillsborough County School Board members Karen Perez and Jessica Vaughn, and Temple Terrace City Council members James Chambers, who donated to the event, and Cheri Donohue. Also attending were Florida State Representatives Dianne Hart and Michele Rayner and Temple Terrace Police Department Captain Rob Staley.

The emcee for the gala was AYA Dean of Students Nabil Saleh. Prior to working for AYA, Saleh served as the Community Outreach & Event Coordinator and Government Affairs Coordinator for the Florida chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), an organization that has foundational and financial ties to Hamas.

At the Gala, AYA Board Chairman Basem Ali discussed the beginnings of AYA, while praising its founders. He stated, “American Youth Academy started with a group of visionary leaders… Back in 1992, a group of young, energized leaders in the community decided that they want to open an Islamic school in Tampa… [O]ne of the board members, at the time, heard of a great NBA basketball player… playing in Houston for an NBA team, the Houston Rockets. So here this gentleman with a group of members of the community go to Houston… and they came up with a check for $250,000. They came back, and they started the new building.”

The founders of AYA, which Ali described as “visionary,” included alleged members of PIJ. The NBA player that Ali mentioned was Hakeem Olajuwon. This was not the only terror-related group Olajuwon was involved with. He also participated in functions with the Hamas financing charity, the Holy Land Foundation (HLF), and the mosque that he founded and financed, the Houston-based Islamic Da'wah Center (IDC), donated thousands of dollars to HLF as well as the al-Qaeda-related Islamic African Relief Agency (IARA), amongst other extremist groups.

Also speaking at the gala was AYA Head of School Samah Bkhaitan, who previously served as Principal of the Arizona Cultural Academy (ACA) Islamic school. This past May, Bkhaitan posted on her social media a graphic of the entire state of Israel draped in a Palestinian keffiyeh (scarf). In July 2014, while Israel was in the middle of a war with Hamas in Gaza, Bkhaitan wrote on Facebook, “My name is Samah Bkhaitan. I live in Phoenix Arizona, and I support Gaza.”

The final half of the speaking portion of the gala was taken up by former CAIR-Florida Executive Director Hassan Shibly, who took on the role of fundraiser for the gala and whose three children attend AYA. Shibly recently resigned his position from CAIR, following his then-wife’s public accusations against him of emotional and physical violence. Furthermore, Shibly has strong feelings against Israel and Jews. This past May, he wrote, “Israeli Apartheid Government is the Empire. Palestinians are the Rebellion. Long live the resistance!” The same month, he posted a grossly anti-Semitic video calling on Israeli Jews to “go back to Europe.”

Helping Shibly conduct the fundraising was ICT Managing Director Hatem Fariz. In July 2006, Fariz received a 37-month prison sentence after he pled guilty to providing material support to PIJ. He obtained his job with ICT, shortly following his release from jail.

During the fundraising, Shibly announced that a Zuhair Rifaie had donated $50,000 to the school. Zuhair Rifaie was the Vice President of AYA/IAF, in September 2000, under then-IAF President and PIJ leader Sami al-Arian.

Fariz and Rifaie’s involvement with AYA is proof that the school is still deeply connected to its terror-tied past. The fact that so many local officials – including a police captain – are giving this radical institution their blessings (both literally and figuratively) and allowing themselves to be duped by Islamists is both alarming and disturbing and begs the question: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (Who is guarding the guardians?)

By honoring the opening of a Muslim school with past and present terrorist associations, the public servants and officials who are obligated to protect the public have, instead, made themselves complicit in an enterprise which is ideologically aligned with enemies of the American way of life and democracy.

The Islamic Academy of Florida may have changed its name to the patriotic-sounding American Youth Academy, but its founders and administrators’ mission of spreading jihad and terror remains the same.

Beila Rabinowitz, Director of Militant Islam Monitor, contributed to this report.

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