Kind of company he keeps kept Va. man under scrutiny

Elbarasse: Looming larger than the Bay Bridge arrest is the Chicago money case for which he is being held as a material witness.

August 26, 2004|By Dan Fesperman and Alec MacGillis | Dan Fesperman and Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

For six years, Ismail Selim Elbarasse stayed mostly out of the public eye, even if he never disappeared from the radar screen of federal investigators tracking the flow of money to militant Islamic groups in the Middle East.

As a naturalized U.S. citizen who remained proudly supportive of his Palestinian homeland, Elbarasse, 57, lived a comfortable life in Northern Virginia. He did some accounting work while his six children advanced through colleges and public schools, earning academic honors along the way.

"We are part of this country, we have been part of it for a long time, and we wouldn't think of hurting this community," American-born daughter Dua'a Elbarasse, 20, said yesterday.

Yet, in a bizarre confluence of events on Friday, Elbarasse became a suspect in an alleged terrorist reconnaissance of the Bay Bridge only hours after a federal indictment was unsealed in Chicago, naming him in an alleged conspiracy to launder money on behalf of the militant group Hamas.

For his family, the arrest at the bridge was a humiliating end to a beach vacation -- a seven-hour ordeal of searches and questions that ended with federal investigators hinting in affidavits that the family's video footage of the bridge might have been an errand for al-Qaida.

But by yesterday, investigative focus was shifting to the less sensational but far more complicated case in Chicago, which harks back to Elbarasse's money-handling activities in the early 1990s, before Hamas had been designated by the U.S. government as a terrorist organization.

Federal officials "have told me they're not worried about the bridge at all," Elbarasse's attorney, Stanley L. Cohen, said yesterday. "This was just local nonsense."

Nonsense or not, the bridge arrest may ultimately leave the darkest stain on Elbarasse's reputation, even though he has not been charged. Looming larger in the courtroom is the money case for which Elbarasse is being held as a material witness.

He has long kept the sort of company that tends to attract the attention of federal authorities, especially in the more jittery post-9/11 atmosphere. He was born in 1947 in Gaza, the strip of land which Israel captured in the Six-Day War of 1967. Only in the past decade has the country relinquished partial control to the Palestinian Authority.

From that turbulent backdrop, Elbarasse left home to attend college in Egypt, where he made friends with one of the fellow Palestinians who would become the focus of so much attention by U.S. law enforcement, according to Sheik Mohamad Al-Hanooti, an imam at the Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Center in Falls Church, Va.

Al-Hanooti said Elbarasse was a college roommate of Mousa Mohammed Abu Marzook, who is now political director of Hamas, the resistance organization founded in 1988, and perhaps best known for financing and equipping suicide bombers in Israel and the occupied territories.

Elbarasse married, and he and his wife, Boushna, lived in the United Arab Emirates for a few years before moving to the United States about 1980, around the time that they began raising a family. For a few years they lived in the Southwest. Then they moved to Northern Virginia, where he was one of the founding members of the Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Center.

In 1994, he became a U.S. citizen, but by then he was already attracting the attention of federal investigators, mostly because he had never stopped speaking out and working behind the scenes on behalf of his occupied homeland, for groups such as Hamas.

Joining him in the cause was Marzook, who by then was also in the United States. Federal authorities say they worked to raise money and support on behalf of Hamas, which in those days had been declared a terrorist organization by Israel but not by the United States. Marzook and Elbarasse set up a joint banking account, and according to federal authorities, they and others began helping to move around hundreds of thousands of dollars to funnel money from Muslim charities to Hamas. Those activities, then and later, are at the heart of the indictment unsealed Friday in Chicago.

A November 2001 memo from Dale L. Watson, the FBI's assistant director of counterterrorism, described a 1993 meeting in Philadelphia, covertly watched by federal agents, in which Elbarasse met with five other Hamas leaders and activists.

"The overall goal of the meeting was to develop a strategy to defeat the Israeli/Palestinian peace accord," the memo said, "and to continue and improve their fund-raising and political activities in the United States. ... It was mentioned that the United States provided them with a secure, legal base from which to operate. ... Holy War efforts [in Israel and the territories] should be supported by increasing spending on the injured, the prisoners and their families, and the martyrs and their families."

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