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


WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. 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 was scheduled to appear by video conference on Wednesday afternoon before a U.S. Magistrate Judge in Newark. Rahul Sharma, a public defender expected to represent her, declined to comment.

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

An affidavit signed by FBI agent Matthew Hohmann says Bell also used encrypted apps to provide information to al-Nusra which could "support acts of terrorism." This included advice on operational security, communications and gun purchases.

When offering the militant group assistance, Hohmann alleged, Bell cited her own professional experience, including specialized firearms training she underwent while serving on active duty in the U.S. Army and the Army National Guard.

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

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

(Reporting by Mark Hosenball; Editing by Howard Goller)

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