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Colorado woman faces federal charges of trying to aid Syrian militants

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Colorado woman charged with trying to aid extremist group
Colorado woman arrested at airport as she tried to go to Syria to wed militant suitor

A Colorado woman faces federal charges of trying to provide support to the international terrorist organization Islamic State, according to court documents unsealed this week.

Shannon Maureen Conley of Arvada, Colo., openly told federal agents again and again that she believed in jihad, according to the court records, and she'd hoped to marry a Tunisian fighter she'd met over the Internet, who had joined the Islamic State, which has taken over part of Iraq.

Conley, 19, had converted to Islam and knew what she wanted to do with her life, officials said.

"Conley stated that she joined the U.S. Army Explorers [a military-oriented nonprofit youth group] to be trained in U.S. military tactics and in firearms," officials said in court documents, describing one of the several frank meetings she'd had with federal investigators in 2013 and 2014 after she'd drawn their attention for allegedly spooking local Christian church officials.

"She said she intended to use that training to go overseas to wage jihad," officials said in court documents. "She also intended to train Islamic jihadi fighters in U.S. military tactics."

And on April 8, authorities arrested Conley, a certified nurse, as she walked down the jetway at Denver International Airport.

There, officials said, she was about to board the first of a series of flights that would take her from Colorado to the Turkish border with Syria, where the jihadist cause has flourished and attracted idealistic young fighters from all over the world.

Conley's case came to light this week after a federal judge in Colorado unsealed the court documents detailing her arrest, as well as the apparently repeated efforts that federal officials and her parents had made trying to persuade her not to go. (A spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office told the Los Angeles Times that documents in the case had been under seal "to protect an ongoing investigation.")

The Islamic State recently climbed into American consciousness after taking over large swaths of Iraq in an effort to establish a Sunni Muslim caliphate. Recently, it shortened its name from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria to simply Islamic State after declaring a caliphate in both countries.

Conley isn't the only American who has been arrested on suspicion of trying to join the group. Last month, a 23-year-old Texas man pleaded guilty to charges of trying to join the organization after trying to board a flight in Houston.

Conley apparently grabbed federal investigators' attention in the fall of 2013 after attending a Baptist church for two months while wearing her hijab, then argued with a pastor after wandering around the grounds and taking notes of the physical location.

"I hate those people," Conley said of the churchgoers after she was first interviewed by an Arvada police detective and a FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force member, according to court records. 

When investigators asked about her beliefs, she spoke of the need for jihad to defend Muslim lands and referred to U.S. military bases as "targets," according to court documents. She said it would OK if innocent people like wives and children were killed in an attack on a military base, according to the documents.

That was the first of more than eight meetings Conley had with FBI agents over several months, in which she talked about how she had learned about Islam on the Internet and that humanitarian aid "was not an option" because it would not "solve the problem" of protecting Muslim lands, according to the documents. 

As opposed to domestic terrorism investigations in which FBI agents have gone undergover to identify would-be militants before they carry out an attack, the meetings with Conley, as described by court documents, appeared to be frank and open, with agents telling her that her plans to join the Islamic State might be illegal.

At one point, investigators met with Conley's parents -- whom she lived with -- to warn them and discovered that her parents apparently had not known how radical their daughter's views had become. (When the Los Angeles Times called a number listed for Conley's father, John, a man who answered said he had no comment.)

The agents asked the parents whether they could persuade Conley to meet with elders at a mosque to discuss more moderate views, according to court records.

"Conley explained to her father she felt conflict with what she thought Islam required of her," according to court records. "Conley believed she, as a Muslim, needed to marry young and be confrontational in her support of Islam."

And the promise of marriage came in the form of an unidentified 32-year-old Tunisian man that Conley had Skyped with, who had joined the Islamic State to fight in Syria; according to court records, John Conley denied their request to marry each other and for her to settle with him in Syria.

But Shannon Conley decided to fly to Turkey anyway to marry her suitor in Syria  and to become a housewife and a camp nurse, defying her parents' pleas not to go, according to court records.

In March, in one of Conley's last meetings with the FBI agents, one of them warned her twice that traveling to wage jihad could result in her arrest, according to court records; she responded that "she would rather be in prison than do nothing."

Three months after her arrest at Denver International Airport, she was being held without bond in Denver County Jail, facing one federal count of trying to provide support to an international terrorist organization.

The charge carries a sentence of up to 15 years in prison. Conley's public defender could not be reached for comment after business hours Wednesday.

Follow @MattDPearce for national news.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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