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Army veteran in love with a terrorist is accused of supporting al-Qaida affiliate in Syria

Screenshots of encrypted messages included in a criminal complaint against New Jersey woman Maria Bell, 53, show a conversation federal prosecutors say occurred between the U.S. Army veteran and a militant believed to be Abdullah Flayes. Bell tells him to make a list of his three favorite weapons so they can select one, the complaint says, and she indicated later that she would help pay for the firearm.

JUSTICE DEPARTMENT

By CHAD GARLAND | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 27, 2020

Holiday travel can be stressful, especially for a New Jersey woman arrested this week on charges she provided material support to a member of an al-Qaida affiliate in Syria whom she said she loved, but found too controlling.

FBI agents arrested 53-year-old Army veteran Maria Bell on Wednesday at her home in Hopatcong, N.J., federal prosecutors said. Bell had tickets to travel to Turkey via Egypt the same day, a criminal complaint said.

It’s the second time the FBI has interrupted Bell’s plans to travel to Turkey around Thanksgiving.

In 2018, she had plans to fly from New York City to Istanbul on Black Friday, but she was denied boarding after federal agents interviewed her at the airport.

On that trip, she had planned to meet up with a man who identified himself as a member of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, a designated terrorist group run by the founder of al-Nusra Front and made up of al-Qaida veterans, the complaint said, citing encrypted online messages between the two.

Bell sent the man $3,150 in 18 installments up to the day before Thanksgiving in 2018, using middlemen to conceal the intended recipient, the compliant said.

But just before Thanksgiving, the two appeared to have a falling out after the militant, believed to be a man named Abdullah Flayes, refused to let her meet his family, a government transcript of their online communiques showed.

“I love you very much but it is hard for me to accept how you direct my life,” Bell wrote. “I am an independent woman in America. If I was not the woman I am, I wouldn’t be able to support you.”

Authorities say Bell also provided advice to the man on operational security, communications and weapons, and ammunition purchases in thousands of messages on apps and social media since February 2017.

Bell often cited her military experience, prosecutors said. She served in the National Guard and on active duty in the Army from November 1984 to January 1986, but received an other-than-honorable discharge in lieu of court-martial, a criminal complaint stated.

Flayes is not named in the document, but is identified in online news videos cited in the court record, one of which in late 2016 showed him wearing a camouflage uniform and body armor, carrying a rifle and fighting Syrian regime forces in Aleppo.

In that video, he says he is a member of Ahrar al-Sham. At the time it had a military partnership with HTS, a group reportedly run by Abu Mohammad al-Jolani, a man believed to have had close ties to the former leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Jolani was arrested and held by U.S. forces at Camp Bucca in Iraq in 2008, and after his release worked alongside Islamic State founder Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

After several messages in which Flayes discussed his commitment to Jolani’s group with Bell, she told him to ensure the HTS leadership blocked American journalists from speaking to the militants, warning that author and terrorism researcher Charles Lister “is not a friend” and was gathering information to be used against them.

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

At one point, Flayes warned that if U.S. warplanes struck militant-controlled targets in support of the Syrian regime, “we will return to revenge within New York.”

“If there were ever an attack in New York, all Muslims and helpers like me will be arrested,” Bell responded later, prosecutors said.

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

garland.chad@stripes.com
Twitter: @chadgarland

A screenshot of an interview with Abdullah Flayes, a man the FBI says is a terrorist who was in contact with Maria Bell, 53, a U.S. Army veteran. Bell was arrested Nov. 25, 2020, on charges connected to providing material support to Flayes.
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