Bridge tape called reconnaissance

Investigators tell court targets being recorded

Authorities search Va. home

August 25, 2004|By Stephanie Hanes, Julie Bykowicz and Alec MacGillis | Stephanie Hanes, Julie Bykowicz and Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

Federal investigators say they believe that footage of the Bay Bridge shot Friday by the wife of a one-time fund-raiser for the militant group Hamas was "reconnaissance and surveillance" for a possible terrorist attack.

Police stopped Ismail Selim Elbarasse and his family near the bridge after three off-duty Baltimore County officers spotted his wife videotaping from their car.

Authorities said in court papers that the images included close-ups of cables and support features "integral to the structural integrity of the bridge."

Investigators said they believe six other videotapes discovered in his car contain footage or images of the Bay Bridge and other structures or potential targets, according to an affidavit filed in federal court in Baltimore in support of a search warrant executed at the couple's house in Annandale, Va.

Neither Elbarasse, a U.S. citizen, nor his wife has been charged in connection with the videotaping, and yesterday his lawyer termed the terrorism allegations "outrageous" and "racist."

Elbarasse, however, is being held in a Baltimore prison as a material witness in a Chicago terrorism case.

In an indictment announced Friday, Elbarasse is described as a "co-conspirator" in a 15-year conspiracy in the United States and abroad to illegally finance terrorist activities in Israel. Although he was not indicted, court documents allege that he and defendant Mousa Mohammed Abu Marzook - considered one of the highest-ranking Hamas leaders internationally - shared a Virginia bank account that was used to launder hundreds of thousands of dollars for Hamas.

In a hearing Monday before U.S. Magistrate Judge Paul W. Grimm, Assistant U.S. Attorney Harvey E. Eisenberg said Elbarasse should be detained and transported to Chicago to assist in the terrorism case there.

He is scheduled to appear in Baltimore's federal court Friday for a hearing to determine whether he should continue to be held.

Elbarasse is being held without bail at Maryland's Reception, Diagnostic and Classification Center, a state prison in Baltimore that regularly holds federal detainees.

Elbarasse's longtime New York attorney, Stanley L. Cohen, said authorities didn't have to detain him as a witness. "They have this wonderful document called a subpoena," he said. "If they had given him one, he'd have gone to Chicago.

"Someone has to explain why he had to be arrested."

Cohen said the couple was unfairly targeted for videotaping the bridge. They were merely on a beach vacation, he said.

According to court papers, Elbarasse's wife told officers that she was "taping scenery."

"Is it a crime to videotape a bridge?" she asked.

Federal authorities acknowledged that the footage included scenes of the family packing for vacation, the vacation itself and a view of the bay from the Kent Narrows bridge.

"They ought to indict his wife for taking videos of the Grand Canyon, too," said Cohen. "If [she] were blond and blue-eyed and her name was Gigi, no one would have made a big deal out if it. It's nuts."

Elbarasse's wife has not been detained and would not comment yesterday when a reporter visited her Fairfax County home. One of the couple's daughters, who opened the door at the 1970s two-story, cul-de-sac house, said only, "We're doing good."

More details emerged yesterday about how Elbarasse was arrested Friday.

Baltimore County Police spokesman Bill Toohey said three county officers with the department's marine unit - Barry Franklin Sweitzer, 42; William S. Kontz, 32; and Sgt. Wayne T. Lloyd, 50 - were driving west across the bridge about 1:30 p.m., returning from the Maryland Natural Resources Police boat maintenance facility on the Eastern Shore.

As their marked Suburban pulled alongside Elbarasse's Infinity sport utility vehicle, the officers noticed that a woman - Elbarasse's wife - was videotaping the bridge.

Police said the woman put away the camera when she saw the officers and Elbarasse's car slowed. The off-duty officers notified Maryland Transportation Authority Police, who stopped the SUV west of the bridge. Those officers then contacted the Maryland Coordination and Analysis Center, a homeland security tip center, which told them Elbarasse was on a watch list.

Officers with the federal Joint Terrorism Task Force, including FBI agents, arrived to interview Elbarasse. He was then held as a material witness.

A material witness is someone authorities believe has information relevant to an open case, but who cannot be trusted to show up to testify. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, dozens of material witnesses have been detained in terrorism cases - a trend many civil rights activists have criticized.

As a material witness, Elbarasse will have fewer rights than he would if he were a criminal defendant. Because his case is considered part of a grand jury proceeding, much of what is happening to him in court is sealed.

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