Shannon Conley, 19, pleads guilty to conspiracy to support foreign terrorist organization
Conley, arrested in April, revealed plan to join ISIS and serve as nurse at jihadist camp
She faces a maximum penalty of five years in federal prison and up to a $250,000 fine
Shannon Maureen Conley’s plan to join ISIS and serve as a nurse at a jihadist camp ended Wednesday with a guilty plea to a terror charge in a Colorado federal court.
Conley, 19, was arrested at Denver International Airport in April as she was about to embark on a journey to Germany and eventually to an ISIS camp near the Turkish border. She told investigators that she was going to Turkey to await word from her suitor, identified in court documents as Yousr Mouelhi, an ISIS member she met on the Internet, whom she planned to marry.
Conley, a convert to Islam who wore a blue and white striped jail uniform and a traditional Muslim headscarf, appeared before a federal judge Wednesday and pleaded guilty to charge of conspiracy to provide material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization.
A certified nurse aide, Conley faces a maximum penalty of five years in federal prison and up to a $250,000 fine.
U.S. District Judge Raymond Moore set sentencing for January 23 and ordered that she have a psychiatric evaluation.
As part of the plea agreement, Conley must provide law enforcement agencies with information about others looking to help terrorist organizations abroad.
In a statement after the plea, Conley’s federal defender Robert Pepin referred to his client as Halima Shannon Conley.
“She’s also a 19-year-old woman of faith who was pursuing her faith and, unfortunately, as she pursued it she was led terribly astray,” the statement said. “That, in turn, led her to make some poor choices and she is now paying the price of those choices.”
Since her arrest, Pepin said, “the news out of the part of the world to which she was headed has been just awful.”
“Like all of us, Halima has been horrified to learn of the slaughter and oppression at the hands of the people controlling ISIS,” Pepin said in the statement.
“It was never her vision to have any role in any of that. She would like everyone to know that her heart … and her prayers go out to … the families of those who have been killed, and to anyone who has been oppressed by those forces. Finally, Halima is fully aware that the fact that she was arrested may have very well saved her.”
Conley may not be the only American fighting alongside ISIS.
More than 100 Americans have tried to join various militant groups in Syria, U.S. officials say. While some are aligned with ISIS, the fighters shift allegiance and it’s difficult to pin down a specific number, officials say.
Douglas McAuthur McCain, a 33-year-old reared in Minnesota, died in a battle between rival extremist groups in the suburbs of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based group that monitors the conflict.
Attorney General Eric Holder estimated this summer that there are 7,000 foreign fighters in the war-ravaged Middle Eastern nation.
McCain was not the first of these American militants to die in Syria. Islamists touted the role of a 22-year-old man – identified by State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki as Moner Mohammad Abu-Salha, who grew up and went to school in Florida – in a northern Syria suicide bombing conducted in coordination with al-Nusra Front earlier this year.
In Colorado, Conley allegedly told FBI agents that she was going to be with a member of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, that she had met online.
She told federal agents she had read a book called “Al-Qaida’s Doctrine for Insurgency” and intended to wage jihad against the United States, according to the criminal complaint.
When she was arrested, Conley had in her possession certification papers for first aid and nursing, the U.S. Army Explorers and the National Rifle Association, according to court documents.
“It’s a difficult time for us,” her mother, Ana Conley, told CNN last month, when court documents in the case were unsealed.
According to court papers, Conley’s parents were aware she had converted to Islam, but did not know about her interest in violent jihad. Her father, John, reportedly caught Shannon talking to her suitor, described as a 32-year-old Tunisian man, on Skype.
The couple asked for the father’s blessing and he refused, the court papers said. On April 1, John called FBI to report he had found plane ticket for later that month to Turkey.
Her daughter was arrested on a jetway while trying to board a flight to Germany on April 8, according to a criminal complaint.
Conley first came to the attention of authorities after the pastor and the security director at a church in Arvada, Colorado, called police and said she was acting suspiciously. Authorities interviewed her seven times over the course of five months before arresting her at the airport.
“I think she realizes she made a terrible mistake,” her mother told CNN. “She was clueless. She’s just a teenager, young, with a big mouth.”