Great Britain

Army veteran ‘supported and sent money to al Qaeda-linked group in Syria after falling in love with terrorist’

AN ARMY veteran was arrested this week after she allegedly sent money to a member of a Syrian terrorist organization with whom she was in love.

Maria Bell, 53, was arrested by agents with the FBI at her New Jersey home on Wednesday, federal prosecutors said in a news release.

She has been charged with one count of knowingly concealing the provision of material support or resources to a designated foreign terrorist organization.

Officials allege that Bell provided money and sent thousands of messages with advice about weapons and ammunition to a man the FBI believes to be Abdullah Flayes, a member of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, Stars and Stripes reported.

Flayes is not named in the complaint but was reportedly identified by Stars and Stripes through online news videos cited in the court record.

The FBI declined to confirm to The Sun that the alleged terrorist is Abdullah Flayes.

One of the videos referenced from late 2016 shows Flayes wearing a camouflage uniform while carrying a rifle and fighting Syrian regime forces in Aleppo, according to Stars and Stripes.

HTS is reportedly run by Abu Mohammad al-Jolani -- the founder of al-Nusra Front and, believed to be a close associate of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi – and is made up of al-Qaeda militants, though the group claims to be independent of al-Qaeda.

In 2008, U.S. forces arrested and later released al-Jolani, who then worked with Islamic State founder Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

The man, in his messages to Bell, clearly expressed his reverence for the organization, writing in one message: “I love HTS," according to the complaint.

Bell allegedly advised the man to ensure the terror group’s leaders blocked American journalists from interviewing their fighters, according to the complaint.

“It is important in protecting Jolani that trust is kept,” she allegedly wrote.

In another message, the man said the terrorist group would attack New York if the United States were to help the Syrian regime, which HTS and other groups were fighting at the time.

“If you want to hit the Syrian airports, we will return to revenge within New York,” the man wrote.

Bell, in the same conversation, asked the man if he remembered “the big attack in New York,” assumed to mean 9/11, the complaint states.

“It was sad, but Americans have little idea of consequences,” she allegedly said.

Bell allegedly asked the man in one message if he was ready to fight “on the front line,” adding that he was “no longer a young child.," according to the complaint.

“It will be frightening. But I am with you,” she allegedly wrote.

Bell also had tickets to travel to Turkey through Egypt on the same day of her arrest, according to a criminal complaint.

Prosecutors said Bell started using encrypted applications to communicate with and provide aid to the group starting in February 2017.

Bell allegedly used Western Union to wire at least 18 payments totaling around $3,150 to accounts used by the man and his associates, the complaint reads.

“I am happy to send you money but I do not like feeling anxious all the time,” Bell allegedly said, according to the complaint.

“I love you so I am unhappy about this all.”

In another message, Bell allegedly expressed concern that her transfers could be tracked by law enforcement.

She allegedly wrote: “Each time I withdraw money, it is noted because Western Union is trying to track fraud and terrorists for the government.”

The FBI previously interrupted Bell’s travel to Turkey around Thanksgiving in 2018, when she had allegedly arranged to meet with the man using encrypted messages.

The former soldier was denied boarding before her flight from New York City to Istanbul.

Just days before she was denied boarding, Bell and the man had a quarrel when he refused to let her meet his family, according to a government transcript of their online communication.

“This trip is exhausting enough. I love you very much but it is hard for me to accept how you direct my life. I am an independent woman in America,” Bell wrote.

“If I was not the woman I am, I wouldn't be able to support you.”

Bell served in the Army National Guard from November 1984 through June 1985 and went on Active Duty from through January 1986, when she received an other-than-honorable discharge, according to the complaint.

If convicted, she faces a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a fine of $250,000.

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Bell appeared in a New Jersey federal court on Wednesday, and was described by assistant U.S. Attorney Dean Sovolos as a danger to the community and a flight risk, NJ.com reported.

Sovolos told the court that FBI agents found 136 operable handguns and rifles, 15 canisters of ammunition and a short-range rocket launcher inside her two-bedroom home, the outlet reported

Her attorney Rahul Sharma said Bell's late husband worked at an armory and she received them when he died.

Bell works as an analyst with Atlantic Health Systems, but has been suspended from her job since the charges were announced, a company spokesman told the outlet.

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