DENVER (TheBlaze/AP) — A 19-year-old pleaded guilty Wednesday to attempting to wage jihad for the Islamic State militant group in Syria.
Shannon Conley, who federal authorities say intended to wage jihad despite their repeated attempts to stop her, pleaded guilty under a plea deal that requires her to help authorities who are investigating others with the same intentions.
Conley, appearing in a striped jail jumpsuit and a brown and black headscarf, entered her plea to one count of conspiracy to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization.
She said nothing in federal court other than acknowledging that she understood the plea and its ramifications. She could face up to five years in federal prison and a $250,000 fine.
The agreement says she must cooperate with the FBI and other law enforcement agencies and provide information about people in Colorado and elsewhere looking to help terrorists abroad. If she cooperates, prosecutors promised to ask a judge to reduce her sentence.
After the hearing, Conley's public defender, Robert Pepin, that she has been horrified by the atrocities committed by the Islamic State group and offered her condolences to those who have been caught up in its "slaughter and oppression."
"The fact that she was arrested may very well have saved her life," he said of Conley, whom he referred to as Halima, the name she adopted after her conversion to Islam.
Conley was arrested in April while trying to board a flight at Denver International Airport on her way to Syria, authorities said.
The nurse's aide from Arvada previously told the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force that she hoped to use her nursing skills to help the extremists, if she couldn't fight with them, according to court documents. The Los Angeles Times reported around the same time, Conley began calling herself Halima on her Facebook page, an Arabic name meaning "gentle and mild-mannered," and described her work as a "slave to Allah."
In several meetings over eight months, FBI agents repeatedly tried to discourage Conley, suggesting she explore humanitarian work instead.
But Conley, whose traditional headscarf stood out in her neighborhood, told them she planned to marry a suitor she met online whom she believed was Tunisian and fought with the Islamic State group that controls parts of Syria and Iraq. According to the Los Angeles Times, Conley told the FBI she was determined to be "defending Muslims on the Muslim homeland against people who are trying to kill them." If that was illegal, she added, she "would rather be in prison than do nothing."
FBI agents encouraged Conley's parents to talk to her about finding more moderate beliefs. Her father refused to let her marry her suitor and then discovered a one-way airline ticket to Turkey with her name on it.
Authorities have said they are still investigating the suitor, identified in court documents only as Y.M.
During a visit to the Denver field office in August, FBI Director James Comey said stopping homegrown terrorists who radicalize through the Internet is a priority for the agency. He called Syria a safe haven and training ground for Westerners, who emerge with "the worst kind of relationships and the worst kind of training."
A Minnesota man recruited to fight for the Islamic State group was killed in Syria last month — five years after his high school friend died fighting for the terror group al-Shabab in Somalia.
It is unclear how Conley became interested in jihad, or holy war. After her arrest, authorities say they found CDs by U.S.-born radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki among her belongings.
FBI agents became aware of her growing interest in extremism in November after she alarmed employees of a suburban Denver church by wandering around and taking notes on the layout of the campus, court documents say.
The church, Faith Bible Chapel in Arvada, was the scene of a 2007 shooting in which a man killed two missionary workers.
Judge Raymond P. Moore ordered a full psychiatric evaluation of Conley that he said should include more details about what happened with her at the church last year as well as her character.
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