Romance, jihad led American woman to jail and terrorism charge

Shannon Conley of Arvada, Colo., 19, is charged with conspiring to help ISIS, the militant group wreaking havoc in Syria and now Iraq. Newly public court documents describe the backstory leading to her April arrest.

By , Staff writer

DENVER - The FBI says a 19-year-old Colorado woman has been arrested while trying to board a flight at Denver International Airport with the goal of meeting with a terrorist group called the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, also known as ISIS.

Federal agents appear to have gone out of their way to persuade Shannon Conley of Arvada, Colo., to abandon plans join jihadists in Syria, but ultimately arrested her in April at Denver International Airport as she allegedly pursued her intent, according to court documents released Wednesday.

Ms. Conley, a 19-year-old nurse's aide and a Muslim convert, planned to travel to Syria to join an online suitor, who told her he was affiliated with the militant group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), the militant group that has recently overtaken parts of northern Iraq, the FBI affidavits allege. She has been held in Denver County Jail since her arrest and faces a federal charge of conspiring to help a foreign terrorist organization, which carries a penalty of 15 years in prison, according to The Associated Press and the Los Angles Times.

FBI agents arrested Conley on April 8 at the airport as she was boarding a plane to leave the US. Details of the investigation leading up to her arrest came to light with Wednesday's release of previously sealed court documents. 

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During a series of interviews with Conley between November and March, FBI agents encouraged her to join humanitarian efforts to aid Muslim lands rather than supporting violence, but she reportedly insisted that such aid could not solve the problems she wanted to address. She maintained that she wished to carry out jihad, but lacked the means and opportunity to do so, the documents state. When cautioned that she was discussing illegal activity with overt law enforcement officers, she replied “she would rather be in prison than do nothing.”

The agents reached out to Conley’s parents to help dissuade their daughter from her plan. Her father told an agent that Conley had asked for his blessing to marry, which he refused, the documents state.

In an FBI interview on April 4, four days before her arrest, Conley told agents there was no way to stop her from traveling to Syria to meet her suitor, where she planned to be a housewife and serve as a nurse at his camp. Agents apprehended her on April 8, while she was walking down the jetway toward a plane bound for Germany – what would have been the first leg of a trip to Syria.

Conley first came under FBI scrutiny in November, when the pastor and security director of the Faith Bible Chapel in Arvada alerted local police that she had been wandering around and apparently taking notes about the layout of the FBC campus, court documents show. She reportedly became confrontational when church staff approached her and started talking about terrorism.

During a November interview, Conley told officers that she had started attending FBC services to meet people of other faiths, but was put off by the church’s support for Israel. In multiple subsequent interviews during the next several months, the 19-year-old told the FBI about her desire to wage jihad abroad. 

More than 100 American-born Muslims have left US soil to train with Al Queda-inspired groups such as ISIS, New York Police Department terrorism chief John Miller told the New York Daily News. The majority of these fighters have been men, but Conley is not the first American woman to be apprehended for plans to carry out jihad. Michigan-born Coleen LaRose, known as “Jihad Jane,” is currently serving a five-year sentence for plotting to kill a Swedish cartoonist whose illustration of the head of the prophet Mohammed on the body of a dog sparked outrage among the international Muslim community.

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