2006-08-19 / Top News

Terrorist Connection to Bridge Is Dismissed; No Evidence

By Karen Gould

There is no evidence to suggest the Mackinac Bridge is in danger of a terrorist attack, police say, in response to downstate news reports suggesting that three Texas men arrested last weekend for buying hundreds of cellular telephones were terrorists and possessed photographs of the bridge. The Mackinac Bridge connection was debunked Monday, August 14, by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Mackinac Bridge Authority, and Michigan State Police.

"We have no credible or actionable intelligence to lead us to believe we were a target," said Bob Sweeney, executive secretary of the Mackinac Bridge Authority.

Daniel D. Roberts, the FBI special agent in charge of the investigation, agreed with Mr. Sweeney. In a statement released Monday, he said there is no imminent threat to the Mackinac Bridge, and there is no information to indicate that the arrested Texans had any direct connection to terrorism.

The three men were arrested in Caro Saturday, August 12, as they left a discount store after buying 80 cellular telephones. Photographs of the Mackinac Bridge found in their possession sparked concerns that there may be a plot targeting the structure.

In response, the U.S. Coast Guard increased both air and water patrols in the Straits area, but the security alert level on the Mackinac Bridge was not elevated.

"We're just maintaining the heightened security we always maintain on the bridge," noted Lieutenant Curt Robertson, commander of the Michigan State Police post in St. Ignace. "For people crossing the Mackinac Bridge, they should do so in confidence."

State Police Deputy Director Tim Yungfer also said Monday that state police, the Mackinac Bridge Authority, and other agencies will continue to protect the bridge.

"The Mackinac Bridge is a very important part of our infrastructure for the state," he said.

The incident received national media attention.

Police in Caro were alerted to the suspicious activity of buying multiple telephones by a store clerk, and that, Lt. Col. Youngfer said, shows the state's security system works.

Prepaid cellular telephones have been used to remotely detonate bombs, and Lt. Col. Youngfer said they also can have other sinister uses. Lithium batteries in the phones can be used in the manufacture of methamphetamine, and the cards inside the phones, when combined, can be used to place international calls at no additional expense than a domestic call made by the caller.

The men say they only planned to resell the telephones in Texas.

Photographs of the Mackinac Bridge found in a camera possessed by the men were examined by the FBI, Homeland Security, and State Police intelligence personal and were found to have no more value than those taken by a tourist, he said.

While no extra precautions are being taken on the bridge as a result of the arrests, Mr. Sweeney said, travelers should be alert and contact police if they see something suspicious. Drivers can also alert bridge toll takers.

"The MBA will continue to be vigilant and watch for any suspicious activities involving the bridge," Mr. Sweeney said. "The MBA has a very comprehensive security plan and we coordinate the plan procedures with the Michigan State Police and the U.S. Coast Guard."

He said bridge traffic totals did not drop Sunday following Saturday's new reports. Bridge traffic is down in general this year, however, he noted. July traffic dropped eight percent or about 50,000 vehicles from last year, and is down in August, too. He attributed the drop in traffic to increased gas prices.

"They definitely have had a major impact in traffic," he said.

The three Texas men, Maruan Awad Muhareb, 18, and Louai Abdelhamied Othman, 23, of Mesquite, and Adham Abdelhamid Othman, 21, of Dallas, were each charged with two terrorist acts, including collecting or providing material support and surveillance of a vulnerable target. Each charge carries a maximum penalty of a $20,000 fine and up to 20 years in prison, according to Mackinac County Prosecuting Attorney Clayton Graham.

Tuscola County Prosecutor Mark E. Reene would not comment on the matter Monday, except to issue a written statement that an investigation continues.

The defendants were arraigned August 12 in 71-B District Court, with bond set for each man at $750,000. Prepreliminary examinations have been scheduled for August 16 and a preliminary examination has been scheduled for August 24.

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