A Brentwood woman has been indicted on charges that she laundered more than $150,000 in the online currency Bitcoin and other digital monies to support the Islamic State, which she planned to join after traveling to Syria, federal officials said Thursday.
Zoobia Shahnaz, 27, wired the funds between March and August 2017 to “various individuals and front companies” in countries such as Pakistan, China and Turkey, with the intention of financing the terror organization, prosecutors said in court papers.
Shahnaz, who until she quit her job in June was a $71,000-a-year lab assistant at a Manhattan hospital, faces charges of bank fraud, conspiracy to commit money laundering and three counts of money laundering, according to the indictment.
The U.S. citizen born in Pakistan with “no known criminal history,” pleaded not guilty during a court appearance Thursday evening. She was arrested Wednesday after a federal grand jury’s indictment,
Assistant U.S. Attorney Artie McConnell said Shahnaz purchased Bitcoin and other currencies used to avoid law enforcement detection to send the money overseas. At the same time, McConnell said, she “embraced an extremely violent ideology” by “almost constantly” accessing ISIS propaganda, including violent jihad-related websites and message boards of known ISIS recruiters, facilitators and financiers.
McConnell said she should be held in federal custody, calling her a danger to the community and an “extreme flight risk.”
Magistrate Judge A. Kathleen Tomlinson ordered Shahnaz remanded to federal custody.
Tomlinson, who said she would revisit Shahnaz’s detention status if the defense requested it, said one would be “hard-pressed” to find more serious allegations. She said Shahnaz had $9,500 in cash on her at John F. Kennedy International Airport when she was stopped by law enforcement and made “not truthful statements.”
“The evidence . . . is strong,” said Tomlinson.
Steve Zissou, a Queens attorney assigned by the judge to represent Shahnaz, said his client never tried to help terrorists. Instead, he said, she wanted to assist Syrian refugees she had met doing volunteer medical work in the war-torn Middle Eastern country.
“Whatever she did was for humanitarian purposes only,” said Zissou, who described his client as “a very caring, devoted person.”
Shahnaz’s father and another relative who attended the hearing declined to comment. Zissou said Shahnaz had been living with her parents and has eight siblings.
Around January 2016, Shahnaz went to Jordan as a volunteer with the Syrian American Medical Society, according to court papers. For two weeks she helped provide medical aid “to Syrian refugees in Amman and in the Zataari Refugee camp, where ISIS exercises significant influence,” the court papers said.
On July 31, 2017, the day she tried to leave on a flight to Pakistan, Shahnaz was questioned by law enforcement at Kennedy Airport. Her family thought she was headed to work that day, but weeks earlier she had quit her job, officials said.
Ten days earlier — on July 21 — she transferred $100,025 from her bank account to an unnamed person in Ankara, Turkey, which “depleted almost all” of the money in her account, according to court papers.
She had a multi-day layover in Istanbul, Turkey — a common point of entry for individuals traveling from Western countries to join ISIS in Syria, McConnell said.
She gave “evasive” and “nonsensical” answers about her travel when questioned at the airport, said McConnell. And court papers said she “took steps to delete stored communications and information” on several of her electronic devices prior to the trip.
If convicted, Shahnaz faces a maximum of 20 years on each money laundering count and a maximum of 30 years for the bank fraud charge. Shahnaz is due back in court on Jan. 5.