Federal authorities arrested a Sussex County woman at her home Wednesday on charges she sent money to a foreign terrorist organization in Syria, the U.S. Attorney’s Office announced.
Maria Bell, also known as “Maria Sue Bell,” 53, of Hopatcong, was charged with one count of knowingly concealing the provision of material support or resources to a designated foreign terrorist organization after authorities discovered she allegedly sent money to a member of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a Syrian terrorist organization fighting the Assad regime. Bell also provided advice on weapons and ammunition, according to the criminal complaint.
Authorities said Bell previously served in the U.S. Army and Army National Guard, and used her expertise in specialized weapons training, “to provide guidance concerning operational security issues, firearms purchases, and military knowledge.”
Bell began communicating with one member of HTS, who is not identified in the complaint, in February 2017 and sent thousands of encrypted communications to the person, according to the complaint.
“Are you ready to fight in front line with other fighters?” Bell allegedly asked the person. “You are no longer young child like you used to be. It will be frightening. But I am with you.”
Bell allegedly wired at least 18 payments totaling $3,150 to individuals in Turkey and Syria who are supporters of HTS, “knowing that the funds would support acts of terrorism by HTS,” authorities said.
In May 2018, HTS was added to the State Department’s database as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO), according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The charge of concealment of terrorist financing to a designated foreign terrorist organization carries a maximum penalty of 10 years.
During her first appearance in federal court Wednesday, Bell was described by assistant U.S. Attorney Dean Sovolos as a danger to the community and a flight risk. He said when FBI agents arrested Bell on Wednesday, they recovered 136 operable handguns and rifles, 15 canisters of ammunition and a short-range rocket launcher inside her two-bedroom home.
Rahul Sharma, Bell’s attorney, said many of the recovered firearms were antiques and she received them upon the death of her husband, who worked at an armory.
Sovolos said Bell has previously expressed a desire to leave the United States as another reason why she should be detained. He said she was stopped by authorities at a New York City airport as she attempted to fly to Turkey in 2018.
“She has shown a committed, sustained, sophisticated and comprehensive way of supporting a terrorist organization,” Sovolos said.
Sharma argued the allegations made by prosecutors in the complaint occurred in 2017 and 2018 and no evidence has been presented of Bell’s alleged activities over the past two years. He said if the 53-year-old was a grave threat to the community, she would have been arrested earlier.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Cathy L. Waldor ordered Bell to be detained Wednesday. The judge said she was willing to reconsider the ruling once more information becomes available.
Bell did not address the allegations during the videoconference hearing.
She has been suspended from her job as an analyst with Atlantic Health Systems after the charges were announced Wednesday, a company spokesman told NJ Advance Media.
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