Shannon Maureen Conley, a young Colorado woman who tried to join the Islamic State terrorist group, was sentenced to 48 months in prison Friday by a federal judge determined to send a warning to anyone who was similarly inclined.
"This is not a serious offense but an extremely serious offense. I need to send a message," U.S. District Judge Raymond P. Moore said as he pronounced the sentence the prosecution had requested. The 48 months will be followed by three years of supervised release.
Conley, 19, pleaded guilty in September to one count of conspiracy to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization and, in exchange for a lighter sentence, had agreed to help authorities identify and prosecute those trying to recruit others into terrorist groups. The maximum sentence she faced was five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
"I never meant to hurt anyone," Conley told the judge before he pronounced sentence. Wearing baggy, striped prison garb and a traditional Muslim head scarf, she spoke quickly but her voice broke frequently and she seemed close to collapse.
Conley was arrested in April at Denver International Airport as she tried to board a plane with a one-way ticket to Turkey. She planned to cross into Syria and meet Yousr Mouelhi, a 32-year-old Tunisian Islamic State militant she met on the Internet who had encouraged her to come and had promised marriage.
She said Friday that as she made her plans she did not know of the slaughter and other atrocities that occurred at the hands of the Islamic State militants. She said she is now "horrified" and thanked the FBI for intervening because she believes it saved her life.
"I am glad that I learned the true identity of ISIS here and not on the front lines of Syria," she told the judge, using an acronym for Islamic State, in front of a packed federal courtroom in Denver.
Moore called her naive and scolded her for loving a "dangerous man" she did not really know. But he said it did not excuse her crime nor her earlier threats of waging violent jihad against the United States.
Conley has been described as a bright but lonely young woman living with her parents in the Denver suburb of Arvada. She converted to Islam about three years ago and became increasingly radicalized through social media and by contacts on the Internet, court documents said.
As she came to the attention of authorities, federal agents tried repeatedly to dissuade her from her plans but Conley was resolved to use the nurse's training she had received in Colorado to help in what she believed to be a holy war in Syria. She joined Young Explorers, an organization loosely affiliated with the U.S. Army and the Boys Scouts of America, to learn basic military tactics so she could help Islamic State combatants, court documents said.
Her parents became alarmed as they realized how extreme their daughter's beliefs were. When her father found the airline ticket, bought by her Internet suitor, he called authorities.
Assistant U.S. Atty. Gregory Holloway argued at the sentencing hearing that Conley had been defiant with agents despite their efforts -- as well as her parents' pleas -- to talk her out of her plan. "The defendant forced us to arrest her," he said.
While Holloway acknowledged Conley was cooperative and has disavowed violent jihad, he was concerned that a minimal sentence would not be enough of a deterrent. He added that she remained defiant toward authority. "I expected far more contrition," he told the court.
Federal public defender Robert Pepin, however, asked the judge to consider a sentence of one year and one day – which would mean she would be released in just over three months, because she has already been incarcerated for nine months.
He described Conley as easily influenced by others but not dangerous, and argued that a long sentence was unnecessary. "She has been punished in aces," he said.
After her guilty plea in September, Pepin called her a "woman of faith" who made bad choices and was led "terribly astray."
The judge called Conley "a bit of a mess" who needed mental health treatment. And while he said the case was "sad," he repeatedly wondered aloud: "Does she get it?"
The Conley case was one of the first to put a name and a face to the troubling trend of young Western Muslim girls and women being recruited into terrorist organizations with a promise of marriage.
About 150 Americans have traveled or attempted to travel to join forces with foreign terrorist groups, a U.S. intelligence official told The Times on Thursday. It was not disclosed how many were women or girls.
Five months after Conley's arrest, three other suburban Denver teenage girls -- a 16-year-old of Sudanese descent and two sisters, 15 and 17, of Somali descent -- were stopped in Germany as they attempted to travel to Syria, where it is believed they also intended to marry Islamic State militants.
The girls, who have not been named, were not charged and were returned to their parents, who reported them missing Oct. 17 along with their passports and about $2,000. Authorities said the girls, like Conley, had been lured over the Internet and had been planning their journey for months.
Authorities said they believe the recruiter who communicated with one of the girls was the same person who encouraged Douglas McAuthur McCain, 33, to leave Minnesota and go to Syria to take up arms with Islamic State. McCain, who was killed in battle in late August, is thought to be the first U.S. citizen to die while fighting for the terrorist organization. His high school classmate Troy Kastigar was killed in 2009 fighting for a militant Islamic group in Somalia.
Earlier this month, Hamzah Kahn, 19, of suburban Chicago, pleaded guilty to one count of providing material support to a terrorist organization. He was arrested at O'Hare International Airport as he and his 17-year-old sister and 15-year-old brother attempted to board a flight with the ultimate destination of Syria. The younger siblings have not been charged.