American woman charged with hiding money transfers to Syria-based militants


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SULAIMANI — US federal prosecutors have charged a New Jersey woman with concealing multiple efforts to transfer money to Islamist militants in Syria connected to the Nusra Front, a onetime al Qaeda affiliate based in Syria’s Idlib province.

Maria Bell, 53, of Hopatcong, New Jersey, was accused in a criminal complaint of knowingly concealing her involvement in providing material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization, namely al-Nusra.

Bell appeared by video conference on Wednesday (November 25) before US Magistrate Judge Cathy Waldor in Newark, who declined to grant bail.

During the hearing, federal prosecutor Dean Sovolos told the judge that when they searched Bell’s residence, investigators found 136 pistols and rifles, 15 canisters of ammunition and an anti-tank rocket.

An affidavit signed by FBI agent Matthew Hohmann said that when offering the militant group assistance, Bell cited her own professional experience, including specialized firearms training she underwent while serving on active duty in the US Army and the Army National Guard.

Public defender Rahul Sharma, representing Bell, said the guns were “antique weapons” that belonged to Bell’s late husband, and argued she should be released on bail because she was at risk for COVID-19 and posed little threat to the community.

If convicted, Bell faces up to 10 years in prison and a fine of $250,000.

The US Attorney’s office in Newark alleged in court filings that starting around February 2017, Bell used mobile phone apps to advise, and to facilitate money transfers to, al-Nusra, also known as Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).

The FBI affidavit alleged that Bell regularly used encrypted apps to communicate with a Nusra member with whom she had an online relationship. It said she allegedly exchanged “thousands of encrypted communications” with the alleged Nusra member.

The FBI said she planned to meet him in Turkey and sent at least 18 payments totaling $3,150 to his associates via wire transfer.

(NRT Digital Media/Reuters)