Ismael Selim Elbarasse of Annandale, Va., long suspected by authorities of having financial ties to the Palestinian terrorist group, was taken into custody as a "material witness" in a Chicago terrorism case, according to Maryland's U.S. attorney's office.
Elbarasse made an initial appearance in Baltimore's federal courthouse yesterday before U.S. District Magistrate Judge Paul W. Grimm.
In the indictment by a federal grand jury in Chicago, unsealed and announced on Friday, Elbarasse is described as a "co-conspirator" in a 15-year racketeering conspiracy in the United States and abroad to illegally finance terrorist activities in Israel.
Elbarasse was not indicted, but 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.
Abu Marzook resides in Syria and is considered a fugitive from justice, according to the U.S. attorney's office in Chicago. The other two defendants charged in the indictment are Muhammad Hamid Khalil Salah of suburban Chicago and Abdelhaleem Hasan Abdelraziq Ashqar of Fairfax County, Va.
Elbarasse is not charged with any wrongdoing in Maryland, authorities said.
"He is being held only on the material witness charge," said Marcia Murphy, a spokeswoman for the Maryland U.S. attorney's office.
Elbarasse was taken into custody Friday afternoon, soon after he was spotted by two off-duty Baltimore County police officers on the Bay Bridge.
The officers, assigned to the department's marine unit, were returning from a training exercise in a marked car when they noticed a male occupant of a passing sport utility vehicle videotaping the bridge, authorities said.
The occupants of the SUV - a man, a woman and two children - appeared to be of Middle Eastern descent and were seen "hiding the camera," authorities said.
At the toll plaza, the Baltimore County officers reported what they had seen to Maryland Transportation Authority Police. Its officers stopped the SUV west of the bridge and confiscated the camera, authorities said. Authorities said the camera had recorded close-up images that seemed atypical for a tourist.
When questioned by police, the couple said they were returning "from the beach," but were not specific about which beach. In the car was little luggage and two beach chairs, authorities said.
Checking on the occupants, police learned that Elbarasse was wanted in connection with the Chicago case, and was on an FBI terrorist watch list, authorities said.
According to the Chicago indictment, Elbarasse worked as an assistant to Abu Marzook, helping transfer "substantial sums of money" to Hamas members.
For four years, from 1989 to 1993, he used bank accounts in places including Cleveland, Milwaukee, New York, Louisiana, Mississippi and Virginia to accept hundreds of thousands of dollars from countries such as Saudi Arabia and Switzerland.
In June 1992, Elbarasse transferred $350,000 to four domestic and overseas accounts and received transfers totaling $900,000 from another co-conspirator, according to federal officials.
Authorities have focused on Elbarasse before. In 1998, federal prosecutors tried to convince him to cooperate with a New York grand jury, offering him immunity if he would testify, according to the Chicago indictment. But Elbarasse, a United States citizen, refused to answer any questions about Hamas funding, and was jailed for eight months, according to newspaper accounts at the time.
His attorney then, Stanley L. Cohen of New York City, called Elbarasse a "freedom fighter without a gun." Attempts to reach Cohen last night were unsuccessful. In the 1990s, Elbarasse was a comptroller at the Islamic Saudi Academy, a Saudi-financed school in Alexandria, Va. Tax records show that he is the former director of the Islamic Association for Palestine, a group formerly based in Richardson, Texas, which has been labeled as a Hamas front by Israel.
Since Elbarasse's arrest in Maryland Friday, authorities have searched his Virginia house, federal officials said.
Murphy, of the Maryland U.S. Attorney's office, said she did not know what was found.
Elbarasse is expected to have a detention hearing in Baltimore on Friday and to be sent to Chicago afterward for questioning.
Officials at the U.S. Department of Justice heralded the Chicago indictment. "Today, terrorists have lost yet another source of financing and support for their bombs and bloodshed," U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft said last week when the indictments were announced in Chicago.
"Our record on terrorist financing is clear: We will hunt down the suppliers of terrorist blood money. We will shut down these sources, and we will ensure that both terrorists and their financiers meet the full justice of the United States of America," Ashcroft said.