A 27-year-old New York woman is facing decades in prison for allegedly converting money stolen from banks into bitcoin and using the funds to aid the Islamic State (Isis).
According to a five-count indictment, unsealed Thursday (14 December), prosecutors said the suspect, US citizen Zoobia Shahnaz, was caught attempting to leave the country.
It is claimed that Shahnaz, using loans and credit cards obtained with fake information, defrauded a number of financial institutions – including American Express Bank, Chase Bank, Discover Bank and TD Bank.
Roughly $85,000 (£63,000) was allegedly converted into bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies.
She then laundered and transferred the funds out of the country to support Isis, a designated terror group, the Department of Justice (DoJ) said Thursday.
Shahnaz, per the indictment, is accused of sending $150,000 to shell firms in Pakistan, China and Turkey.
These were specifically designed to "avoid transaction reporting requirements", conceal the money's destination and "ultimately benefit Isis", the DoJ said.
After conducting the transactions, the suspect sought to travel to Syria herself. The entire scheme is believed to have taken place between March 2017 and August 2017.
According to the BBC, she was caught at John F Kennedy airport with $9,500 in cash. Upon inspection her electronic devices were found to contain searches for Isis material.
Her lawyer, Steve Zissou, claimed that the money had been sent to aid refugees in Syria.
The suspect's initial flight out of the United States was to Islamabad, Pakistan. But her itinerary also included a multi-day layover in Istanbul, Turkey – which is a common point of entry for people travelling from Western countries to join ISIS in Syria, the DoJ said.
Shahnaz now stands accused of bank fraud, conspiracy to commit money laundering and three substantive counts of money laundering.
"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," said acting US attorney Bridget Rohde.
FBI assistant director William Sweeney added: "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."
If convicted, Shahnaz, who was not granted bail, faces a maximum of 30 years in US prison for the bank fraud charge and 20 years in prison on each money laundering count. It remains unclear at what point the defendant first became known to police.
After the news of the arrest emerged, top Europol director Rob Wainwright tweeted: "A potentially very significant case, but it's not surprising that terrorists, like criminals, would seek to exploit the unregulated and anonymised nature of cryptocurrencies."