A Pakistani-born American citizen pled guilty on Monday to charges of defrauding numerous financial institutions in a bitcoin scheme designed to fund the Islamic State (ISIS).
Zoobia Shahnaz, a naturalized U.S. citizen living on Long Island, appeared at a federal court in Central Islip on Monday and was charged with providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization. This support involved wiring over $150,000 to ISIS affiliates in Pakistan, China, and Turkey throughout 2017.
According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York, Shahnaz had previously worked as a lab technician in Manhattan for around $71,000 per year. In January 2016, she traveled to Jordan to volunteer with the Syrian American Medical Society, where her radicalization is believed to have taken place.
“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.
Shahnaz is also understood to have expressed interest in the group months before that, having conducted “extensive internet research” on joining the caliphate.
From March 2017, Shahnaz began a scheme to defraud companies including Chase Bank, TD Bank, American Express, and Discover by obtaining various credit cards. She then used these cards to buy $62,703 in bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies from internet-based exchanges as the overall cryptocurrency market saw a dramatic rise in value.
After eventually converting the currencies back to U.S. dollars, she allegedly made a series of wire transfers to supposed shell entities servings as front for the group. As she committed these crimes, prosecutors say she was also regularly viewing ISIS propaganda online, including violent jihad-related websites and message forums, as well as social media pages of known ISIS recruiters, facilitators, and financiers, including “those who have encouraged lone-wolf attacks against American targets.”
Keeping her intentions from her family, she planned to travel to Syria via Turkey to join the caliphate. As she tried to board a flight for Pakistan, authorities apprehended her at JFK airport last December. She later told authorities that she planned to visit mosques and other tourist sites in Istanbul while providing “false and conflicting explanations” about her previous activity.
Shahnaz was later detained without bail and has remained in custody since her arrest. Because of her guilty plea, she will face a maximum of 20 years in jail.