A 19-year-old suburban Denver woman who federal authorities say intended to wage jihad despite their repeated attempts to stop her pleaded guilty Wednesday to trying to help the Islamic State militant group in Syria under a plea deal that requires her to help authorities find others with the same intentions.
Shannon Conley, appearing in a striped jail jumpsuit and a brown and black headscarf, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization. She said nothing except noting that she understood the plea and its ramifications.
The agreement says she must cooperate with the FBI and other law enforcement agencies and provide information about other people in Colorado and elsewhere looking to help terrorists abroad. If she cooperates, prosecutors have promise to ask for a reduction in her sentence but the decision would ultimately would be up to a judge.
Conley was arrested in April while trying to board a flight at Denver International Airport that she hoped would ultimately get her to Syria, authorities said. She was charged with trying to help a terrorist organization and could face up to five years in federal prison and a $250,000 fine.
The trained nurse's aide from Arvada, Colorado, told agents from the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force that if she couldn't fight with the Islamic State group, she hoped to use her nursing skills to help the extremists, according to court documents.
In several meetings over eight months, FBI agents repeatedly tried to discourage Conley, suggesting she explore humanitarian work instead.
But Conley, a Muslim convert whose traditional headscarf stood out in her suburban neighborhood, told them she planned to marry a suitor she met online, a man she believed was Tunisian and fought with the Islamic State group, which controls parts of Syria and Iraq.
FBI agents encouraged Conley's parents to talk to her about finding more moderate beliefs. Her father refused to let her marry her suitor and then discovered a one-way airline ticket to Turkey with her name on it.
Authorities have said they are still investigating the suitor, identified in court documents only as Y.M.
During a visit to the Denver field office in August, FBI Director James Comey said stopping homegrown terrorists who radicalize through the Internet is a top priority for the agency. He called Syria a safe haven and training ground for Westerners, who emerge with "the worst kind of relationships and the worst kind of training."
A Minnesota man recruited to fight for the Islamic State group was killed in Syria last month, five years after his high school friend died fighting for the terror group al-Shabab in Somalia.
It is unclear how Conley became interested in jihad, or holy war. But FBI agents became aware of her growing interest in extremism in November after she alarmed employees of a suburban Denver church by wandering around and taking notes on the layout of the campus, court documents say. The church, Faith Bible Chapel in Arvada, was the scene of a 2007 shooting in which a man killed two missionary workers.
After her arrest, authorities say they found CDs by U.S.-born radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki among her belongings.