A former U.S. Army and National Guard soldier was allegedly communicating with and providing material and monetary support to a terrorist group operating in Syria, government prosecutors say.
Maria Bell, 53, of Hopatcong, NJ was arrested at her home by FBI agents. She was due to make her initial court appearance via video conference on Wednesday afternoon.
Bell is accused of providing material support to the al-Nusra Front, which is also known as al-Qaeda in Syria or al-Qaeda in the Levant. The al-Nusra Front is a Salafist jihadist organization fighting against Syrian government forces in the Syrian civil war. Its aim was to force President Bashar Assad from power and establish an Islamic state in the country.
Al-Nusra Front was formed in November 2012 and a month later the United States Department of State designated it a foreign terrorist organization. In April 2013, it became the official Syrian branch of al-Qaeda.
The group also goes by Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and now claims to be independent and not part of al-Qaeda.
On Wednesday, Bell, a hospital analyst and political activist, was planning on flying to Egypt and then on to Istanbul, according to an FBI affidavit filed on Tuesday. That’s when authorities decided to arrest her. She had previously been stopped by the FBI from traveling to Turkey.
Prosecutors said Bell began using encrypted applications to communicate with and provide advice to the group starting in February 2017.
In communicating with al-Nusra Front members, Bell cited her professional experience in specialized weapons training while on active duty in the U.S. Army and Army National Guard, prosecutors said. She also offered to provide guidance concerning operational security issues, weapons purchases, and general military knowledge. However, her official record shows just eight months of Army service back in the 1980s, according to a report by NBC News.
“Have no doubt, we believe she was a threat to New Jersey and certainly our country,” New Jersey Homeland Security Director Jared Maples said.
“No matter what anyone looks like, no matter what religion they practice, that’s not what factors into this. The behaviors factor into this and I think this case is one of the clearest examples of that,” Maples added. “You don’t get to pick who you dislike, that they dislike. They all hate us. They hate our way of life. They certainly are espousing ideologies to attack Americans and certainly something that we are on point and worried about.”
Authorities said Bell communicated thousands of times with a terrorist, identified as User 1, about operational planning. She provided details on how to concealing payments via Western Union, by using an intermediary to hide the funds’ source. She also told User 1 she is connected “to many revolutionaries.” User 1, who clearly identified himself as an HTS fighter, was not named.
In one email exchange, Bell and User 1 discussed User 1’s pledge to HTS and the ongoing Syrian conflict. Bell stated: “If Assad wins, mujahideen will be persecuted again,” and “if Assad wins, I cannot get a visa into Syria. I cannot come to you.”
In the same communication, the defendant later asked User 1 if he was ready to fight:
“Are you ready to fight in the front line with other fighters? You are no longer a young child like you used to be. It will be frightening. But I am with you.”
In another exchange User 1 stated: “If you want to hit the Syrian airports, we will return to revenge within New York.” Bell replied that “If there were ever an attack in New York, all Muslims and helpers like me will be arrested…”
Bell provided advice to User 1 regarding the purchase of a firearm and ammunition. They discussed the cost and type of weapons that would be good for User 1, in addition to various types of ammunition.
Bell also wired money, often at the direction of User 1, to individuals in Turkey and Syria who are supporters of HTS, knowing that the funds would support acts of terrorism by HTS. The defendant concealed the nature, location, and ownership of payments, sending at least 18 payments totaling $3,150 to several accounts used by User-1’s associates. In one communication, she expressed concern that her transfers could be tracked by U.S. law enforcement:
“But I will not have my account watched more closely than it is already.”
“Each time I withdraw money, it is noted because Western Union is trying to track fraud and terrorists for the government.”
The charge of concealment of terrorist financing to a designated foreign terrorist organization carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a fine of $250,000.
U.S. Attorney Craig Carpenito stated that special agents of the FBI and task force officers of the Joint Terrorism Task Force, under the direction of Special Agent in Charge George M. Crouch Jr., and special agents of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Homeland Security Investigations, under the direction of Special Agent in Charge Jason J. Molina in Newark, were the driving force in the investigation leading to the charges against Bell.
Atlantic Health System, Bell’s employer, has suspended her. Bell was also the chair of the New Jersey Libertarian Party’s northern New Jersey branch. The party, in a statement, said its board removed her from her position and canceled her membership.