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A young New York woman pleaded guilty Monday to supporting the Islamic terror group ISIS with a scam involving bank fraud, bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, and money laundering authorities said.
Zoobia Shahnaz, a 27-year-old resident of Brentwood, Long Island, admitted to wiring more than $150,000 to individuals and shell entities that were fronts for ISIS in Pakistan, China and Turkey in 2017, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of New York.
During the same year, she was intercepted trying to leave the United States with the goal of traveling to Syria, which has been a hotbed of ISIS activity.
Shahnaz, who has been in custody since her arrest last December, faces up to 20 years in prison when she is sentenced on a charge of providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization.
Her lawyer, Steve Zissou, did not immediately return a request for comment from CNBC.
Court documents say that Shahnaz — who before June 2017 had worked as a lab technician in Manhattan for about $71,000 per year — traveled to Jordan in January 2016 to volunteer with the Syrian American Medical Society.
"For two weeks, she assisted in providing medical aid to Syrian refugees in Amman [Jordan] and in the Zataari Refugee camp, where ISIS exercises significant influence," prosecutors wrote in a court filing last year.
But even months before that, the filing said, Shahnaz had "conducted extensive internet research" on traveling to Syria and "joining the ISIS," or Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham.
Starting in March 2017, Shahnaz engaged in a scheme to scam Chase Bank, TD Bank, American Express and Discover by fraudulently obtaining six credit cards, according to another court filing.
She then used those cards, along with at least 10 more in her name, to buy more than $62,703 in bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies from internet-based exchanges.
"Most of these cryptocurrencies that [Shahnaz] purchased were then converted to U.S. dollars and transferred into a checking account in the defendant's name," prosecutors wrote in a court document.
In June 2017, Shahnaz applied for and fraudulently obtained a loan of about $22,500 from a bank in Manhattan, prosecutors said.
After getting the money, Shahnaz made several wire transactions overseas that were designed to avoid financial reporting requirements and conceal the source and destinations of the illegally obtained cash, according to authorities.
Shahnaz then prepared to travel to Syria, obtaining a Pakistani passport and quitting her job, all without her family's knowledge, a court filing said.
She also conducted internet research on ISIS, searching for recruiters, financiers and fighters associated with the terror group, including "those who have encouraged lone-wolf attacks against American targets," that court filing said.
And she accessed maps for locations along the Turkey-Syria border and cities inside terrority controlled by ISIS, the filing said.
On July 31, 2017, when her family believed Shahnaz was headed for work, she traveled to JFK Airport in New York to board a flight bound for Pakistan, with an final destination in Istanbul, Turkey, authorties. Istanbul is a common jumping-ff point for people traveling from Western countries to join ISIS by crossing into nearby Syria.
Law enforcement agents, who were aware of her wire transfers abroard, intercepted Shahaz at an airline gate at JFK, prosecutors said. She told them that she planned to visit various mosques and tourist sites in Istanbul.
But when she was asked about some of the wire transfers, "she provided false and conflicting explanations" about the reason for them, prosecutors said. Shahnaz also was carrying $9,500 in cash, $500 less than the amount that triggers a requirement for travelers to disclose the amount of currency in their possession when flying outside of the United States.
A federal grand jury indicted Shahnaz months later, in December 2017, and she was detained without bail after her arrest.