A 19-year-old Colorado woman became the latest American to admit to attempting to join a Middle East terrorist group, pleading guilty on Wednesday to conspiring to provide support to the Islamic State militants in Syria.
The FBI first noticed Shannon Conley when she showed up last fall at a church in Arvada, Colorado, wearing Muslim garb.
George Morrison, the church's pastor, told the Denver Post that while he believed Conley was a "terrorist wannabe," he "had to take her sketching of interior rooms of the church seriously." (Conley reportedly told investigators, “If they think I’m a terrorist, I’ll give them something to think I am.”)
Conley, a certified nurse's aide, received military training in a camp run by the U.S. Army Explorers, the paper reported.
In April, Conley was arrested at Denver International Airport with a one-way ticket to Turkey. According to prosecutors, she had previously told investigators she wanted to wage jihad in the Middle East, and ignored repeated face-to-face warnings by the FBI that her plans were illegal. Conley faces up to 5 years in federal prison.
She is one of what federal authorities say is an alarming number of Americans offering to join or support terrorist organizations.
On Tuesday, a Long Island man pleaded guilty to attempting to join al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, also known as AQAP or Ansar al-Sharia, after admitting he attempted to travel from New York to Yemen in 2012 to support the terrorist group.
According to prosecutors, Marcos Alonso Zea, a 26-year-old from Brentwood, New York, boarded a flight at John F. Kennedy International Airport on Jan. 4, 2012, and was en route to Yemen when he was stopped in London and returned to the United States. Upon returning, he "went to work recruiting others to go in his stead," FBI Assistant Director George Venizelos said on Tuesday. One of those recruits, 18-year-old Justin Kaliebe from Bay Shore, New York, was arrested by federal counterterrorism agents at JFK a year later on suspicion of attempting to wage violent jihad. Kaliebe was sentenced to 30 years in prison.
Zea faces up to 25 years in prison. He is scheduled to be sentenced in January.
Last month, a former North Carolina police officer who says he tried to join the Islamic State militant group in Syria was arrested upon his return to New York. Don Morgan, a 44-year-old Catholic-born North Carolina native, told NBC News he tried to enter Syria through Turkey but was turned away at the airport in Istanbul.
“My reason for the support of [IS] is because they’ve proven time and time again to put Islamic law as the priority and the establishment of an Islamic state as the goal,” Morgan said in an interview from Beirut, Lebanon, before returning to the United States on Aug. 2, when he was arrested on a weapons charge. At a court hearing in Brooklyn on Aug. 4, the FBI said it was aware of Morgan's support for IS, but the arrest was for his attempt as a convicted felon to sell a rifle online — and unrelated to terrorism. After being transferred back to Greensboro, North Carolina, Morgan pleaded not guilty on Thursday.
In June, Michael Todd Wolfe, a 23-year-old from Austin, Texas, pleaded guilty to attempting join IS in Syria. Wolfe was arrested at Houston's George Bush Intercontinental Airport, while awaiting a flight to Denmark. He faces up to 15 years in prison.
The same month, Rahatul Ashikim Khan, a 23-year-old from Round Rock, Texas, was arrested and charged with conspiring to provide material support to terrorists. According to authorities, in 2011 and 2012 Khan "conspired with others to recruit persons to travel overseas to support terrorist activities including committing violent jihad."
FBI Director James Comey has said the bureau doesn't know how many Americans have tried to join Islamist fighters in Syria. In August, Comey said he's aware of at least 100.
"When I give you the number of more than 100, I can't tell you with high confidence that's a hundred of 200, that's a hundred of 500, that's a hundred of a 1,000 or more, because it's so hard to track," Comey said.