DENVER (AP) — A 19-year-old Colorado woman pleaded guilty Wednesday to trying to help the militant Islamic State group under a plea deal in the terrorism case that requires her to give authorities information about other Americans with the same intentions.
Shannon Conley, wearing a black and brown headscarf over her striped jail jumpsuit, entered the plea in federal court to one count of conspiracy to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization. She could face up to five years in federal prison and a $250,000 fine when she is sentenced in January.
Conley, a nurse's aide from Arvada, said nothing in court, aside from acknowledging that she understood the terms of the plea that says she must divulge information about possible co-conspirators.
Prosecutors said they will seek a lighter sentence if she cooperates.
After the hearing, Conley's public defender, Robert Pepin, said she has been horrified by the atrocities committed by the Islamic State group since her arrest 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," Pepin said of his client, whom he referred to as Halima, the name she adopted after her conversion to Islam.
The FBI first became aware of her growing interest in extremism last November after Conley alarmed employees of an Arvada church by wandering around and taking notes on the layout of the campus, court documents say.
The church, Faith Bible Chapel, was the scene of a 2007 shooting in which a man killed two missionary workers.
Agents with the Joint Terrorism Task Force then met several times with Conley over eight months to discourage her and suggest she explore humanitarian work instead.
Agents also encouraged her parents to talk to her about finding more moderate beliefs.
But Conley said she wanted to use her American military training with the U.S. Army Explorers in a holy war overseas, even though she knew it was illegal, authorities said. She added that she would use her medical training to aid the group if she could not fight with them.
Agents said they arrested Conley at Denver International Airport in April as she boarded a flight on her way to Syria, where authorities said she planned to marry a Tunisian suitor she met online and who was fighting with Islamic State, which controls parts of Syria and Iraq.
A search of her home uncovered a list of contacts and shooting targets that noted distances and the number of rounds fired, authorities said.
Authorities have said they were still investigating the suitor.
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.
Her parents, Ana and John Conley, declined to speak to reporters after the hearing.
U.S. District Judge Raymond P. Moore ordered a mental evaluation of Conley before her sentencing and said it should include assessments of her personality and character traits.
The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., has said there are hundreds of Islamic State-trained Americans who can pose a threat because they can return to the U.S. with their American passports.
He said the U.S. is drafting a United Nations resolution that would strengthen the ability of governments to curb the flow of their citizens to war zones, he said.