updated 8/24/2004 1:06:36 PM ET 2004-08-24T17:06:36

A man described as a high-ranking Hamas operative was arrested last week as he videotaped the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, and he then was held as a material witness in an unrelated case, authorities said Tuesday.

Ismael Selim Elbarasse of Annandale, Va., long suspected by authorities of having financial ties to the Palestinian extremist group, was taken into custody Friday, the U.S. attorney’s office in Maryland said. He was held as a material witness in a Chicago terrorism case.

Gov. Robert Ehrlich said the arrest has prompted the state to place more police around the bridge, but said “it shouldn’t be a generator of fear. It should serve as a reminder that there is a war going on around the world.”

The terror level remains “yellow” — the third highest.

Terror financing charges
Elbarasse made an initial appearance in Baltimore’s federal courthouse Monday before U.S. District Magistrate Judge Paul W. Grimm.

A federal grand jury in Chicago, in an indictment unsealed Friday, described Elbarasse as an unindicted co-conspirator in a 15-year racketeering conspiracy in the United States and abroad to illegally finance terrorist activities in Israel.

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.

“He is being held only on the material witness charge,” said Marcia Murphy, a spokeswoman for the Maryland U.S. attorney’s office.

His court-appointed attorney, Franklin W. Draper, did not immediately return a call Tuesday seeking comment.

A woman who identified herself as Elbarasse’s wife, reached at the couple’s home in Annandale, said she would not immediately comment.

Close-up images scrutinized
Elbarasse was spotted Friday — the same day the Chicago indictment was made public — by two police officers on the Bay Bridge, authorities said. The officers noticed a man in an SUV who appeared to be of Middle Eastern descent videotaping the bridge, authorities said.

Authorities said the man, who was with a woman and two children, said they had gone to the beach but could not specify what beach they had visited. They also said the camera had recorded close-up images that seemed atypical for a tourist.

Police learned that Elbarasse was wanted as a material witness in connection with the Chicago case, and was on an FBI terrorist watch list, authorities said. But he was not charged with any wrongdoing in connection with the videotaping.

Since Elbarasse’s arrest Friday, authorities have searched his Virginia house, federal officials said. Murphy said she did not know what was found.

Also Monday, a Pakistani man who was spotted a month ago videotaping the skyline of Charlotte, N.C., was indicted on charges of lying to the police and an immigration violation. Kamran Akhtar, 35, of New York City, was charged with six counts in the indictment, but none of them involved terrorism.

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