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Va. Family Defends Video of Bay Bridge

Tape Led to Search, Man's Detention

By Jerry Markon and Eric Rich
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, August 26, 2004; Page B01

The videotape behind the detention of an Annandale man was a vacation video showing the scenery from the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and had nothing to do with terror surveillance, the man's daughter said yesterday.

Dua'a Elbarasse, 20, daughter of Ismael Selim Elbarasse, said her mother was trying to zoom in on boats in the bay. "We had taped our whole vacation, and we thought the bay looked really nice off the bridge," she said. "This has been completely blown out of proportion."

A view from a tower of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in 2002. Ismael Selim Elbarasse was detained after his home and car were searched. (Roberto Borea -- AP)

Her comments came as a Maryland Transportation Authority report on Friday's detention revealed that three minutes of the 27-minute videotape contains footage of or from the bridge. The first 24 minutes depict Elbarasse, his wife and three children packing up their vehicle and leaving Broadkill Beach, Del., where they had rented a beach house for several days. It also has footage taken from the Kent Narrows Bridge.

Elbarasse is being held on a material witness warrant in connection with a federal case in Chicago, where three men are charged with raising millions of dollars for Hamas. The U.S. government considers Hamas a terrorist group and says the organization has carried out attacks in Israel.

But, with the FBI saying that the family might have been scouting a potential terrorist target, the taping on the bridge has generated the most widespread attention. An affidavit in support of a search of Elbarasse's home and car says the video showed "the cables and upper supports of the main span" of the bridge. Dua'a Elbarasse said the cables simply got in the way as they were filming the scenery below the bridge.

Federal agents seized hundreds of items in the search, including bank records of a senior Hamas leader who maintained a joint account with Elbarasse.

A spokeswoman for the transportation authority, Catherine Leahan, said investigators were suspicious of the accounts that Elbarasse family members gave after their sport-utility vehicle was stopped near the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. "They were telling conflicting stories," she said. "They weren't clear as to which beach they were coming from."

Leahan also cited what authorities said were the efforts of Elbarasse's wife, Boushra, to hide the camera from officers as they passed the SUV and the presence of Elbarasse's name in a law enforcement database.

The database revealed that the FBI considered Elbarasse, 57, a "person of interest" because of his possible ties to terrorism. Elbarasse, an accountant from Gaza who remains in federal custody in Baltimore, has drawn law enforcement attention in the past.

The 20-year Northern Virginia resident and naturalized U.S. citizen was jailed for eight months in 1998 after he refused to testify in New York before a federal grand jury investigating terrorism. Court records show that Elbarasse read the grand jury a statement attacking the process as unjust and vowing not to testify "before this Grand Jury or any other, no matter what my punishment may be, no matter how long my sentence."

From jail, he filed affidavits seeking his release, including one from an imam saying that Elbarasse's refusal was justified by the Koran. In her affidavit, Elbarasse's wife wrote that her husband would not "testify against anyone. He would not be able to face his family much less his own people who consider his stand a noble and honorable one."

U.S. District Judge Michael B. Mukasey released Elbarasse but wrote that he had worked "closely and directly" with Mousa Mohammed Abu Marzook, a former Falls Church resident who is deputy chief of Hamas's political wing. The judge said Elbarasse had "achieved a level of trust sufficient to permit him to hold a joint account with Abu Marzook that was used to transfer substantial funds . . . used for terrorist activity abroad."

It was Marzook's bank records that agents found in Saturday's search of Elbarasse's house. The federal indictment unsealed Friday in Chicago charges Marzook in an alleged racketeering conspiracy that authorities said raised millions of dollars for Hamas. Also charged were former Howard University professor Abelhaleem Hasan Abdelraziq Ashqar, 46, of Fairfax County and Muhammad Hamid Khalil Salah, 51, of suburban Chicago. Salah and Ashqar were arrested Thursday. Marzook, expelled from the United States in 1997, is believed to be living in Syria.

The Chicago grand jury named Elbarasse as an unindicted co-conspirator. Elbarasse is being held at Maryland's Reception, Diagnostic and Classification Center, an intake facility, where he is under 24-hour surveillance. The warden has deemed him a "security risk,'' a spokeswoman said.

Federal agents are reviewing the seven tapes seized from Elbarasse's vehicle, including the tape showing the Chesapeake Bay Bridge cables and supports. Court records say officials consider the portions of the bridge taped to be "integral to the structural integrity of the bridge."

Elbarasse left the Middle East in his mid-twenties and eventually settled in Northern Virginia, in part because of the area's large Muslim community, said one of his attorneys, Stanley L. Cohen. From July 1984 to April 1998, he worked in the financial department of the Islamic Saudi Academy in Fairfax County, a private school financed by the Saudi government. He was terminated, in part because of his New York arrest.

Cohen described Elbarasse as "a very quiet and soft-spoken and extremely honest and considerate person." Of the videotaping, Cohen said: "It's completely innocuous. It's harmless. [The investigation] looks sexy, but it's trash. There is no case. Zero. Mark my words. He will be in Chicago. He will deal with the grand jury, and that will be the end of it."

Staff writer Mary Beth Sheridan contributed to this report.

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