Zoobia Shahnaz, a 27-year-old resident of Brentwood on Long Island, was charged with bank fraud and money laundering in a grand jury indictment unsealed on Thursday.
She was arrested at John F. Kennedy International Airport on July 31, allegedly in the process of fleeing to Syria after using the Bitcoin digital currency to send thousands of dollars to Islamic State fighters overseas.
“Shahnaz – a former lab tech at a Manhattan hospital – allegedly obtained her ill-gotten lucre by fooling banks into giving her a $22,500 loan and more than a dozen credit cards, which she used to purchase approximately $62,000 in cryptocurrencies online,” the New York Post reports. “She then wired the digital dollars to individuals and shell entities in Pakistan, China and Turkey that were ultimately destined for the terrorist organization.“
The grand jury indictment specifies American Express Bank, Chase Bank, Discover Bank, and TD Bank as the financial institutions she sought to defraud. The indictment also states other people were involved in the conspiracy to provide material support to the Islamic State.
According to court documents, Shahnaz spent time in Jordan last year volunteering with the Syrian American Medical Society, which brought her to Syrian refugee camps where the Islamic State “exercises significant influence.” She also ingested a great deal of ISIS propaganda online and studied female jihadis who volunteered to fight for the Islamic State.
NBC News in New York quotes defense lawyer Steve Zissou claiming Shahnaz was “not helping ISIS, but was instead collecting money for humanitarian means.”
Various news reports describe Shahnaz as a U.S. citizen with no criminal record who was born in Pakistan. According to the New York Daily News, she was intercepted at JFK with $9,500 in cash on her person and a travel itinerary to Islamabad, Pakistan, with a layover in Turkey – a common flight plan for people attempting to enter Syria from Turkey to link up with ISIS forces. Shahnaz’s family is said to have been unaware of her travel plans at the time of her arrest; Time magazine reports they were also unaware she had quit her job.
Acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York Bridget M. Rohde said in a statement released by the Justice Department:
As alleged, the defendant Zoobia Shahnaz engaged in a bank fraud scheme, purchased Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies and laundered money overseas, intending to put thousands of dollars into the coffers of terrorists. The indictment reflects the resolve of this Office, together with our law enforcement partners, to investigate and prosecute anyone who would seek to support terrorists, including those who would perpetrate financial crimes to do so.
FBI Assistant Director-in-Charge William F. Sweeney Jr. of the New York Field Office added:
Syria is a perilous and violent war-torn country, but the subject in this investigation was allegedly so determined to assist ISIS that she planned a covert, illegal entry into Syria. On top of which, she allegedly tried to launder virtual currency to bolster terrorists’ dwindling financial support. The FBI New York Joint Terrorism Task Force kept this woman from her dangerous and potentially deadly goal. We will do all we can to stop the next person hoping to do the same.
Bitcoin.com says the headlines are making too much of Shahnaz’s use of cryptocurrency to juggle her money and not enough of the “good old-fashioned credit card fraud” she employed to procure the funds.
“The case, if proven, demonstrates the difficulty of sending funds overseas by any means for illicit purposes,” Bitcoin.com argues. “While there are ways of buying cryptocurrency anonymously without leaving a paper trail, it is very difficult to do so in large amounts. The bulk of the crimes Shahnaz stands accused of were conducted using fiat currency, before the 27-year-old switched to cryptocurrency for the final leg of the journey. Despite this, expect to see the mainstream media zeroing in on bitcoin as a conduit for terrorism. Shahnaz has been held without bail and the case will call again on January 5th.”