The Colorado woman charged with conspiring to assist the militant group Islamic State pleaded guilty Wednesday in federal court and agreed to cooperate and provide possible future testimony against other terrorism suspects.
Shannon Maureen Conley, dressed in baggy gray-and-white-striped prison pants and shirt with a brown scarf wrapped around her head and shoulders, spoke calmly and without hesitation as U.S. District Judge Raymond P. Moore asked her numerous times whether she fully understood the charge against her and what a guilty plea would mean.
“Are you in fact guilty?” the judge asked her a final time.
“Yes,” Conley, 19, replied in a clear, unemotional voice.
Moore set sentencing for Jan. 23, saying he wanted time for Conley to undergo more complete psychiatric testing. “I desire more information” on her mental state, he said, asking for both a psychological and personality evaluation.
Conley, who has been held without bond at an undisclosed Denver-area detention facility for five months, is charged with one count of conspiracy to provide and attempt to provide material support and resources to a designated foreign terrorist organization. She faces up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
But at Wednesday’s hearing, Assistant U.S. Atty. Greg Holloway confirmed to the judge that his office would recommend a reduced sentence because Conley had agreed to cooperate and provide information in identifying other suspects, including those who may have recruited her to fight alongside Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.
The young woman, who lived with her parents in the northwest Denver suburb of Arvada and was considered very bright by her former high school principal, was arrested by federal agents on April 8 as she tried to board a flight at Denver International Airport to join the militants in Syria, according to court documents. She had said she would use her nursing training received in Colorado to help Islamist militants on the battlefield, the documents said.
As part of the conspiracy to assist the militants, the documents said, Conley also joined the U.S. Army Explorers, a group loosely affiliated with the Boy Scouts of America and the Army that allows young men and women to wear Army uniforms and get a taste of military life. In February, Conley traveled to Texas for a weekend training session, the documents said. She later told authorities she had hoped to learn U.S. military tactics to share with the militant group.
An Army spokesman told The Times in July that the U.S. Army Explorers do not undergo any combat training.
Conley’s parents, John and Ana Marie Conley, tipped off authorities in March that their daughter, who had converted to Islam about two years earlier, was becoming increasingly radical. She had met a 32-year-old Tunisian man online and he had asked her to join him in Syria, offering marriage, they said. On April 1, John Conley called federal agents after finding a one-way plane ticket to a Turkish city near the Syrian border, believed to have been bought by her suitor.
Both parents were at the hearing Wednesday, seated in the front row and showing no emotion as the judge accepted their daughter’s guilty plea. As Ana Marie Conley entered the courtroom she blew a kiss to her youngest child. As the hearing ended and authorities snapped handcuffs onto Conley’s wrists, the young woman strained to peek around the crowd to catch her mother’s eye and offer a quick smile.
Her parents had no comment as they left the courthouse.
Though the Denver U.S. Attorney’s office would not speak Wednesday to the larger implications of this case, the recruitment of young Westerners into radicalized groups is a growing concern. Last week, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel estimated that more than 100 Americans had joined Islamic State in Syria. Previously, British media have reported that more than 500 British Muslims have joined the group.
Late last month, in a case with striking similarities to Conley’s, a 16-year-old girl was stopped at an airport in Nice, France, as she tried to board a plane bound for Turkey. That girl, too, had planned to meet an older man and go with him to Syria.
Nader Hashemi, the director of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Denver who specializes in radical Islamic groups, said the recruitment of young women, especially with a promise of marriage, was a new twist.
Conley first came to the attention of authorities last fall when she began showing up alone in full Muslim attire at a Christian church near her home known for its support of Israel. She would wander into classes held by the church and into worship services. When asked what she was doing she would say, “Research.” Eventually she was asked not to return.
The FBI interviewed her eight times between November and April, first to determine who she was and then to try to talk her out of plans she never tried to hide. Court documents show that in one of her last interviews with federal agents before her arrest she admitted, “I know things can go terribly wrong.”