The FBI says a 19-year-old Colorado woman has been arrested while trying to board a flight at Denver International Airport with the goal of meeting with a terrorist group called the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, also known as ISIS.
A federal criminal complaint states that between Sept. 7, 2013 and April 8, 2014, Shannon Maureen Conley, together with others, tried to provide material support and resources, including personnel and expert advice, to a foreign terrorist organization.
Conley, a Muslim convert, was arrested April 8 at DIA after telling FBI agents she was traveling to Syria to use her American military training from the U.S. Army Explorers to aid Islamic militants waging jihad -- or holy war -- even though she knew that it was illegal, according to federal court records released Wednesday.
She said "legitimate targets of attack" included U.S. military bases, government employees and public officials, the documents say.
Against her parents wishes, Conley planned to marry a Tunisian man, who was fighting in Syria for ISIS, an al-Qaida splinter group. She'd met the man online and communicated with him on Skype.
Conley has been charged with conspiring to help a foreign terrorist organization. She's being held in Denver County Jail without bond.
ISIS insurgents have been fighting to topple the governments of Iraq and Syria.
Conley raised suspicions at church
Authorities began investigating Conley on Nov. 5, 2013, when the pastor at Faith Bible Chapel in Arvada called local police and the Colorado Bureau of Investigation to report a teen had been spotted suspiciously taking notes at the church's main campus at 6120 Ward Road on several Sundays at October, according to a federal affidavit supporting the criminal complaint.
Church officials have a heightened awareness about security because Faith Bible Chapel was the scene of a shooting in December 2007 when a man named Matthew Murray opened fire at the church's Youth with a Mission Training Center, killing two missionaries. A few hours later, Murray went on a shooting spree at the New Life Church in Colorado Springs, killing two more people. He was shot by a church security guard and eventually took his own life.
So Faith Bible Chapel staff reacted quickly when they believed Conley was taking notes on various locations and the layout of the campus, the affidavit said.
Church staff approached Conley and asked to see her notes, but she refused.
Conley then became confrontational with FBC staff, citing her own Islamic religious views, church officials told federal investigators.
"Conley made spontaneous statements to church staff to the effect of: 'Why is the church worried about a terrorist attack?' and, that terrorists are: '... not allowed to kill aging adults and little children,'" the complaint said.
Church officials told Conley not to return to the church campus.
FBI interviews Conley in November
On Nov. 7, 2013, an Arvada police detective and an FBI agent interviewed Conley, asking her why she has been visiting Faith Bible Chapel.
Conley said, "I hate those people." She added that she initially started attending Sunday services and taking classes at FBC because she wanted to meet people of other faiths and learn about them.
But Conley said she did not share her Islamic religious views or wear her hijab, a head covering worn in public by Muslim women.
Conley told the investigators she does not like Israel or FBC’s active and vocal support for Israel.
Conley said she noticed she was being followed by church staff on the campus and felt they treated her like a terrorist. Conley told the investigators that she reasoned that, "If they think I’m a terrorist, I’ll give them something to think I am," according to the affidavit.
She started keeping a notebook and acted like she was diagramming the church to alarm them. Conley soon got into an argument with the pastor and was asked to leave.
Conley tells FBI she supports Jihad
Conley said that Jihad to her is war against "kafir" (which the affidavit describes as a derogatory Arabic term for non-Muslims) to protect Muslim lands.
The investigators asked her opinion about harming innocent people while waging Jihad and Conley stated that it depended on the circumstances.
"To Conley, it is okay to harm innocents if they are part of a target. She felt that if wives, children, and chaplains visiting a military base are killed during an attack, it is acceptable because they should not have been at a legitimate target. She repeatedly referred to US military bases as 'targets,'" an FBI agent wrote in the affidavit.
On Dec. 6, 2013, Conley was again interviewed by FBI Special Agent Karim Khomssi and another agent.
Conley joined U.S. Army Explorers
Conley told the FBI she joined the U.S. Army Explorers to be trained in U.S. military tactics and in firearms. She said she intended to use that training to go overseas to wage Jihad, according to the affidavit.
Conley said she previously wanted to serve in the U.S. military, but no longer wanted to because she felt the military would not accept her because of her religious beliefs and her wearing of a hijab and niqab.
"Conley stated she wanted to wage Jihad and would like to go overseas to fight," the affidavit said. She added that if she's not allowed to fight because she's a woman, she would use her medical training, as a licensed nurse's aide, to help Jihadi fighters.
"According to Conley, it is acceptable to attack westerners when engaged in 'defensive Jihad.' Conley stated that legitimate targets of attack include military facilities and personnel, government facilities and personnel, and public officials," the affidavit stated.
When agents asked if her notion of legitimate targets includes law enforcement, Conley replied that it does, the affidavit said. Conley said, "Law enforcement is included because police enforce man-made laws that are not grounded in God's law. Conley stated targets to be avoided include women, children, and the elderly," the affidavit said.
Conley cannot be dissuaded by FBI
Over the next five months, the FBI repeatedly interviewed Conley as she underwent U.S. Army Explorers training in Texas in early February.
During a March 27 interview, two FBI agents made an "overt attempt to dissuade Conley from violent criminal activity and give her the opportunity to turn away from her intention to participate in supporting terrorist activities."
Special Agent Khomssi "admonished Conley twice in the conversation that travel with intent to wage Jihad may be illegal and result in her arrest. Conley told SA Khomssi said she would rather be in prison than do nothing" to help the Jihadi cause, the affidavit said.
Conley earlier showed the agents a book called "Al-Qaida’s Doctrine for Insurgency: Abd Al-Aziz Al-Muqrin's A Practical Course for Guerilla War."
"The book had several passages underlined by Conley, including motorcade attacks and waging guerilla warfare. Conley stated that attacking a motorcade in the US was not viable because security in the US is too good. Conley thought she could plan such an attack, but not carry it out," the affidavit said. "Conley liked the idea of guerilla warfare because she could do it alone."
"When asked if she still wanted to carry out the plans, knowing they are illegal, Conley said that she does," the affidavit said.
The agents repeatedly asked Conley if she'd consider helping Muslims by doing humanitarian work, like using her nursing skills with the Red Crescent Society.
"Conley stated she has no interest in doing humanitarian work. Conley felt that Jihad is the only answer to correct the wrongs against the Muslim world. Conley said she preferred to wage Jihad overseas so she could be with Jihadist fighters," the affidavit said.
Plans to meet ISIS fighter in Middle East
Conley and her parents told FBI agents that she planned to travel to the Middle East to meet her "suitor," a 32-year-old Tunisian man who is an ISIS fighter in Syria. The teen said a one-way airline ticket had already been purchased for her.
In February, the FBI agents met with the teen's parents, John and Ana Conley, with whom she lives in Arvada.
John Conley told the agents his daughter had "described Jihad to her father as struggles to help the oppressed or the poor."
But the teen also expressed some doubts.
"Conley explained to her father she felt conflicted with what she thought Islam required of her. Conley believed she, as a Muslim, needed to marry young and be confrontational in her support of Islam. She conceded her knowledge of Islam was based solely on her own research that she conducted on the Internet," the affidavit said.
The parents said that they owned guns and that Shannon and a girlfriend had recently taken one of their rifles to practice marksmanship at a local shooting range.
The agents warned the parents that "their daughter has expressed, to overt FBI agents, her intention to travel overseas and commit violent Jihad." By "overt," the agents meant they weren't operating undercover and she clearly knew to whom she was talking.
The agents asked the parents to engage their daughter in "candid conversation" to learn "her true views on Islam." The agents also asked the parents to encourage Shannon to speak with "elders at her mosque to discuss more moderate views," the affidavit stated.
Conley's family refuses to bless marriage
After talking with his daughter, John Conley told an FBI agent her views on Islam "were far more extreme than he had previously thought."
The father said he found Shannon talking with her Tunisian suitor on Skype. At the time, Shannon and the man asked John Conley for his "blessing" for them to marry and for her to travel to Syria to marry the man as soon as possible.
The father told the FBI he denied both requests and Shannon and the man appeared surprised.
In April, John Conley called an FBI agent and reported that he'd found Shannon had a one-way ticket to fly from Denver International Airport to Turkey on April 8.
He and his wife confronted Shannon, telling her that they didn’t provide their blessing, nor did they support her travel to Syria and marriage.
"[Shannon] Conley was aware that Islam required the blessing of her family for her marriage, but told John she had thought about it and disagreed with Islam on the issue and was going to travel and marry anyway without their blessing," the affidavit said.
The FBI learned that she was scheduled to fly from Denver to Frankfurt, Germany and then on to Istanbul, Turkey, and then to Adnan, Turkey, where it is only a three-hour drive to the Syrian border.
On April 8, the FBI followed Shannon Conley as she traveled to DIA, checked in her bags and walked to the gate for her United Flight to Frankfurt. Agents arrested her as she was walking down the jetway to board the plane.
In her luggage, agents found several CDs and DVDs labeled "Anwar al-Awlaki," a senior Al Qaeda leader and recruiter who was killed by a CIA-led U.S. drone strike in Yemen in 2011. Agents also found a folder with materials about providing first aid in the field. The teen was also carrying a list of contacts, including phone numbers for a person whose name was blacked out in the affidavit.
The FBI also searched Conley's Arvada home.