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Woman denies being an 'outside agitator' in Columbia University protests

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

New York City Mayor Eric Adams says he believes outside agitators infiltrated pro-Palestinian demonstrations at Columbia University. He told me Friday on this program that that's a key reason he agreed to the request by Columbia's leadership to have New York police begin clearing the tent camp set up to protest Israel's war in Gaza and arresting people there.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ERIC ADAMS: What really was a tipping point for me was when I learned that one of the outside agitators, professionals' husband was arrested for federal terrorism charges.

MARTIN: The person Adams seems to be referring to is Nahla al-Arian. She told the Associated Press that the mayor misstated her role in the protest and facts about her husband's arrest. We reached out to the mayor's office to follow up on this. As of right now, they haven't returned a request for comment. So we asked a reporter from the Associated Press who spoke with Al-Arian. That reporter is Jake Offenhartz, and he's with us now to tell us more about his reporting. Good morning.

JAKE OFFENHARTZ: Good morning.

MARTIN: So, Jake, first, tell us more about Nahla al-Arian. Who is she, and who is her husband?

OFFENHARTZ: So, as you mentioned, she's 63 years old. She taught fourth grade social studies and is now retired. She's married to Sami al-Arian. He's an academic who was arrested in 2003 on charges of supporting a Palestinian terrorist organization. It's a long and winding story, but the basics are that the jury declined to convict him on any of the 17 charges brought by the federal government after a six-month long trial, and he ultimately agreed to a plea deal on a lesser charge. Now, Nahla told me she visited the encampment on April 25 and stayed for less than an hour. This was days before the building occupation and the subsequent NYPD raid. Here's what she had to say to the mayor's claim.

NAHLA AL-ARIAN: How would a woman in her 60s try to influence these students? They are the ones who influenced me. They are the ones who gave me hope that at last the Palestinian people can get some justice. We really underestimate them.

OFFENHARTZ: And Nahla told me that dozens of her family members have been killed by Israel airstrikes. So she visited the encampment with her two daughters, who are both well-respected journalists, because she wanted to pay tribute to the students for standing up against the war in Gaza.

MARTIN: So, tell us more about what she says the mayor got wrong. And I do want to point out that Mayor Adams - he told us this on MORNING EDITION, but he also made those claims on a number of media appearances. So what does al-Arian say the mayor got wrong about her husband's arrest?

OFFENHARTZ: Well, right, so the mayor has kind of said over and over again, this claim that outside agitators are leading the protests at Columbia and elsewhere. And he's mentioned al-Arian as, you know, the tipping point. He's seeming to suggest that there's a nexus between student-led demonstrations and Islamic terror groups. But again, al-Arian - you know, she went for about an hour with her daughters. There's no evidence that she was training students or radicalizing them. She's not accused of committing any crime. Her daughter, Laila al-Arian, told me that the mayor isn't just spreading misinformation here, but is really actively stoking racist tropes against Muslims as dangerous outsiders all in order to discredit the protestors.

MARTIN: OK. And has the mayor responded to your additional reporting on this? 'Cause he hasn't responded to us.

OFFENHARTZ: He has not, no. We've asked him multiple times. We've asked the police department, who's made similar claims, and we have not gotten a response.

MARTIN: OK. Before we let you go, this claim about outside agitators has certainly been picked up by a number of media outlets, and certainly on the right-wing media. President Trump - former President Trump took it a step further and spoke of paid agitators. The mayor told us that about 40% of those arrested did not have a tie to the university. What does your reporting say about those claims?

OFFENHARTZ: Well, that number includes people who were arrested outside of the university's gates where we've seen protests for weeks by people that don't include students who are coming to show their support or in some cases, their opposition to these encampments. They include students from other universities. They apparently include faculty as well. Organizers have told us that they're not interested in turning people away from the movement. But I've spoken with dozens of students in recent weeks. Many have described the intense planning and strategizing that's gone into the protests. They say those efforts were led and continue to be led by students.

MARTIN: We have to leave it there. That Jake Offenhartz. He's a New York-based AP reporter. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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