A Colorado teenager pleaded guilty in federal court Wednesday to conspiring to assist Islamic insurgents in Syria.
Shannon Conley of Arvada, Colo., is charged with one count of conspiracy to provide material support to the militant group known as the Islamic State or IS (also known as ISIS or ISIL). During a hearing at the US federal courthouse in Denver, she agreed to a plea deal that requires her to help law enforcement identify other individuals with similar intentions. She could serve up to five years in prison and owe a fine of $250,000.
The 19-year-old has been held in Denver County Jail since federal agents arrested her on a Denver International Airport jetway on April 8. She was preparing to board a flight to Germany, presumably the first leg of a trip to Syria.
Federal prosecutors charge that Ms. Conley, a converted Muslim, admitted to federal investigators that she planned to immigrate to Syria, where she wanted to offer her nursing skills to Islamic fighters.
Federal agents had been keeping tabs on Conley since November 2013, when the pastor and security director of the Faith Bible Chapel in Arvada alerted local police that she had been taking notes about the layout of the church campus. Church officials told the Federal Bureau of Investigation that she became confrontational and started talking about terrorism when staff approached her.
Federal investigators interviewed her several times between November and March. During those interviews, Conley told FBI agents that she was sympathetic to IS’s efforts “to correct the wrongs against the Muslim world,” according to court documents.
She told investigators that she had fallen in love with and intended to marry an IS fighter from Tunisia, according to the documents. Investigators reportedly made several attempts to dissuade her of her plans to join her suitor in Syria.
She reportedly told the agents that she wished to carry out jihad, but lacked the means to do so. When warned that she was expressing a desire to commit a crime to law enforcement officers, she replied she "would rather be in prison than do nothing,” the documents state.
In an April 4 interview, she reportedly told investigators that there was no way to stop her from pursuing her plans to joining her suitor in Syria. Four days later, agents apprehended her as she attempted to board an international flight at the Denver airport.
In recent months, it has become clear that potentially thousands of young people from Western nations have renounced their national loyalties and fled their homelands to join Islamic militants in Syria, as the Monitor's Sara Miller Llana wrote in July.
Many of the young defectors are driven by the reluctance of Western governments to intervene in the strife in Syria, Ms. Miller Llana reported. Some are Muslim by birth, while others – like Conley – only recently converted to Islam.
As many as 2,000 Europeans have defected to Syria, estimates the International Center for the Study of Radicalization at King's College London. An Islamic fighter shown beheading American journalist James Foley in a video posted online Aug. 19 spoke with a British accent, suggesting that the executioner may be a British citizen.
It is unclear how many US citizens may have joined Islamic forces. Rep. Mike Rogers (R) of Michigan, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, told Fox News on Aug. 31 that hundreds of Americans had traveled overseas to fight alongside Islamic militants.
“I’m very concerned, because we don’t know every single person that has an American passport that has gone and trained and learned how to fight,” Representative Rogers said.
US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel shares that concern but also suggests that Rogers's figure may be high.
'”We have acknowledged publicly we are aware of over 100 US citizens who have US passports who are fighting in the Middle East with ISIL forces,” Secretary Hagel said during a televised interview on Sept. 5, according to the Daily Mail. “There may be more, we don’t know.”
An American citizen has been linked to a suicide bombing in Syria in May, and another American was killed while fighting alongside IS forces in Syria last month.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas has proposed a bill that would allow the US government to revoke the citizenship of Americans who join Islamic militants in Iraq and Syria. The Expatriate Terrorist Act would designate fighting for a hostile foreign government or foreign terrorist organization as an act of renunciation of citizenship.
“By fighting for ISIS, US citizens have expressed their desire to become citizens of the Islamic State, and that cannot and will not peacefully coexist with remaining American citizens,” Senator Cruz wrote in a letter to the president announcing the bill. "We should not be facilitating their efforts by allowing fighters fighting alongside ISIS to come back to America with American passports and walk freely in our cities to carry out unspeakable acts of terror."