Hopatcong, NJ – A New Jersey woman who served in the U.S. Army and the Army National Guard was arrested on Wednesday for providing financial support and acting as a de facto consultant to an al-Quaeda group in Syria.
New Jersey U.S. Attorney Craig Carpenito announced the charges against 53-year-old Maria Bell in a press release on Nov. 25.
Carpenito said Bell used encrypted applications to communicate with and provide guidance to Syria-based fighters battling the Assad regime who were members of the al-Nusra Front (ANF), also known as Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), an al-Quaeda group in Syria.
According to the charging documents, investigators said Bell had communicated with and provided money to an HTS member in Syria via Western Union.
In court documents, the HTS member was referred to as User 1.
Prosecutors alleged Bell used an intermediary to hide the source of the funds and also gave her terrorist friend advice on how to buy weapons and ammunition, the press release said.
“In communications with HTS fighters, Bell cited her professional experience – including her specialized weapons training while on active duty in the U.S. Army and Army National Guard – to provide guidance concerning operational security issues, firearms purchases, and military knowledge,” prosecutors alleged in court documents. “She had thousands of encrypted communications with User 1 about operational planning and provided details with regard to concealing payments sent to User 1.”
Court records showed Bell served in the U.S. Army and Army National Guard for a total of 14 months between 1984 and 1986 and received an “other than honorable discharge” in lieu of a court martial, WNBC reported.
Carpenito said the Syrian fighter made his status as an HTS member very clear to Bell.
Court documents showed that Bell and User 1 discussed User 1’s pledge to HTS and the ongoing Syrian conflict, according to the U.S. attorney’s press release.
“If Assad wins, mujahideen will be persecuted again,” Bell warned User 1.
She also said “If Assad wins, I cannot get a visa into Syria. I cannot come to you.”
Later in the same message, prosecutors said Bell asked User 1 if he was ready to fight.
“Are you ready to fight in front line with other fighters?” she asked. “You are no longer young child like you used to be.”
“It will be frightening. But I am with you,” she added, according to court documents.
They also discussed U.S. support for the Syrian regime that HTS was fighting, the press release said.
“If you want to hit the Syrian airports, we will return to revenge within New York,” Bell wrote.
“If there were ever an attack in New York, all Muslims and helpers like me will be arrested….” she wrote later, according to Carpenito.
Charging documents said Bell discussed with her terrorist friend what weapons would be best for him and gave him advice about how to buy the firearms and ammunition.
A Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) affidavit filed on Tuesday said Bell was planning to fly to Egypt on Wednesday and then go on to Istanbul, Turkey, WNBC reported.
The FBI had previously stopped Bell from traveling to Turkey.
“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,” Carpenito’s press release said.
Prosecutors have alleged that Bell hid the nature, location, and ownership of payments, and sent at least 18 payments totaling $3,150 to multiple accounts used by associates of her HTS terrorist friend.
She worried that her money transfer would be noticed and tracked by the authorities.
“But I will not have my account watched more closely than it is already,” she said, according to the press release. “Each time I withdraw money, it is noted because Western Union is trying to track fraud and terrorists for the government.”
Authorities arrested Bell at her home in Hopatcong and charged her with one count of knowingly concealing the provision of material support or resources to a designated foreign terrorist organization.
A search of her home turned up a large cache of weapons, WNBC reported.
Carpenito said Bell was scheduled to appear virtually before U.S. Magistrate Judge Cathy L. Waldor later on Wednesday.
If convicted, the charge carries a possible maximum penalty of 10 years behind bars and a $250,000 fine, according to the press release.
According to Bell’s LinkedIn page, she has been employed by Atlantic Health System in Morristown for just over nine years.
Atlantic Health System said that Bell has been suspended, WNBC reported.
Bell’s LinkedIn profile also showed that she volunteered for the Syria American Medical Society and Islamic Relief USA and currently serves as North Regional chairperson of the New Jersey Libertarian Party.