DENVER - A Colorado teenager arrested last year as she was heading to Syria to help Islamic militants was sentenced Friday to 4 years in prison after the judge called her "a bit of a mess."
Shannon Conley, 19, pled guilty in September to conspiracy to provide material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization.
An emotional Conley spoke in court on Friday, saying "Even though I supported a jihad, it was never to hurt anyone. It was always in the defense of Muslims."
She had to pause to compose herself, and then apologized to the judge, saying she was embarrassed by her arrogance.
"I do not believe I am a threat to society and would appreciate an opportunity to prove it," Conley said.
Conley's attorney, public defender Robert Pepin, said the Muslim convert was misled while exploring her faith. He argued that she should only spend 1 year in prison.
Prosecutors argued for 48 months in prison, saying that she continues to demonstrate her defiance in jail with the guards.
The judge agreed with the prosecution.
"That woman is in need of psychiatric help," Judge U.S. District Judge Raymond Moore said before sentencing Conley. "To me, it doesn't seem like she gets it."
Pepin, referring to Conley by her Muslim name, said she deeply regrets the decision to try to join ISIS.
"Halima is fully aware that the fact that she was arrested may very well have saved her," Pepin said. "Like all of us, Halima has been horrified to learn of the slaughter and oppression at the hands of those controlling (the Islamic State). It was never her vision to have any role in such horror."
"Is the solution to send her to prison? Absolutely not," Pepin said.
Conley will get credit for the time she has served so far -- about 9 1/2 months.
Conley was also sentenced to 3 years of supervised release, when she will have to perform 100 hours of community service. Conley had faced a maximum penalty of five years in federal prison and a fine up to $250,000.
Conley's family, who were present at her sentencing, did not speak to the media, but released the following statement:
An Open Letter to the President and the American People
Over the last several months my wife and I have received numerous requests for a statement about our daughter Shannon's situation. Now that she has been sentenced we would offer these thoughts.
We were told at the time of the investigation the Department of Justice (FBI and Federal Prosecutor's Office) was trying to formulate a better response to young people being radicalized by ISIS and other groups. In doing so the local personnel went to extraordinary lengths to navigate the turbulent waters caused by these events. In our dealings with them we have been treated with respect and compassion throughout this affair. It's unfortunate the local efforts apparently weren't viewed as more worthwhile by their superiors.
The strategy of the terrorist is to make the enemy change behavior through the use of fear and to subjugate the enemy by making them live in fear. A tactic of asymmetric warfare is to cause the enemy to expend large amounts of resources dealing with a situation that costs little to create.
We're told the average ISIS soldier makes roughly $150 per month. The ISIS soldier Shannon had contact with was called Yousr. His actual time on the internet with Shannon was certainly less than one month's work. The government has now spent tens of thousands of dollars putting Shannon in prison and intends to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars more keeping her there.
We're told the government is afraid that, even if Shannon is not a threat to the public, others may make similar choices. Those people need to be sent a message that if they do they should fear capture and prosecution. Shannon's continued punishment is to ensure that message is understood by the American people. Additionally the, perhaps unintended, message is the government is willing to sacrifice the future of a 19 year old American citizen to drive the point home.
If these things are true then we feel the terrorists have won this particular battle in the war on terrorism. Fear has increased, behavior changed and resources expended. We also feel this disproportional governmental response simply aids the terrorist in winning his war by doing for him what he can't do for himself: terrify the American people.
Everyone that has been directly involved with the case has told us they do NOT view Shannon as a threat to the public and that she isn't a 'terrorist'. They tell us that she was an incredibly naïve and idealistic young woman who trusted that others were telling her the truth about things happening in a distant land. This led her to make bad choices for which she continues to pay a very high price.
Almost all of ISIS' barbaric actions were reported after Shannon's arrest. She is appalled by them and realizes ISIS is trying to cover up their savagery with a religious veil which cannot be justified within the teachings of Islam. She acknowledges her poor judgment and is struggling to discover how she will be able to put her life back together as a 'felon'. Thus, she also is not a flight risk.
We have been saddened not only by how the media has tried to sensationalize this situation but how quickly many have been willing to condemn our daughter without even reading the public legal record, much less having direct knowledge of the facts in her case or the law surrounding it. We know a very different person from the one that's been portrayed in the 'news' reports and have had our view of her confirmed over and over by others who have met her for the first time during the course of this ordeal.
The conditions that led to Shannon's (and others') choices to try to go to the Middle East are complex and we have no easy answers to address them. We certainly have no 'sound bites' to offer on how to win the War on Terrorism. We do feel that a step in the right direction is to not give into fear. This choice bears a risk but taking that risk is a behavior America was built upon and, in our view, is worth taking.
John and Maria Conley
According to the stipulated facts in her plea agreement, between Feb 20014 and April 8, 2014, Conley and a co-conspirator worked with others to provide material support and resources, including personnel and expert advice, to a foreign terrorist organizations -- Al-Qaeda and its affiliates, including al-Qaeda in Iraq, aka the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), aka the Islamic State of Iraq and Al Sham (ISIS), aka the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
Conley was arrested April 8 at Denver International Airport after telling FBI agents she was traveling to Syria to use her American military training to aid Islamic militants waging jihad or holy war, according to federal court records. She said "legitimate targets of attack" included U.S. military bases, government employees and public officials, the documents say.
Against her parent's wishes, Conley planned to marry a Tunisian man, who was fighting in Syria for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). She had met the man online and communicated with him on Skype. They agreed that Conley would travel to Syria to join her new fiancé but before traveling to Syria, she would refine and obtain additional training and skills in order to provide support and assistance to any AQ and/or ISIS fighter. Conley also intended to fight if it became necessary to do so, according to court documents.
As part of the conspiracy, Conley joined the U.S. Army Explorers (USAE) to be trained in U.S. military tactics and in firearms. She traveled to Texas and attended the USAE training. She also obtained first aid/nursing certification and National Rifle Association certification.
Conley knew that ISIS was a designated foreign terrorist organization and what she was doing was illegal. In fact, on numerous occasions, Special Agents with the FBI met with her in attempts to persuade her not to carry out her plans to travel overseas to provide support to a foreign terrorist organization and to engage in violent jihad.
On March 29, 2014, Conley's fiance, together with others, arranged for an airline ticket to be purchased for Conley to travel to Turkey, departing from Denver on April 8, 2014. On April 8, 2014, Conley traveled to Denver International Airport and attempted to board the flight to Turkey. She was then arrested by FBI agents.
During a subsequent search of her home, federal agents found DVDs of lectures by Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born Islamic terrorist, and videos by other jihadists, according to a press release by Jeffrey Dorschner, spokesman for U.S. Attorney John Walsh.
Agents also found shooting targets labeled with the number of rounds fired and the distance they were fired on.
Authorities began investigating Conley on Nov. 5, 2013, after they received a call from the pastor at Faith Bible Chapel in Arvada who saw Conley taking notes and drawing a sketch at the church.
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.
"Conspiring to providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization is a serious federal crime," said U.S. Attorney John Walsh. "The defendant in this case got lucky. The FBI arrested her after determining that she had been radicalized and planned to travel to Syria to support the brutal foreign terrorist organizations operating there. Had she succeeded in her plan to get to Syria, she would likely have been brutalized, killed or sent back to the United States to commit other crimes. Today's sentence underscores the seriousness of defendant's conduct, but pales in comparison to the penalty she would have paid had she not been stopped."
"This sentencing highlights the rapidly changing, shrinking nature of the world and the implications for law enforcement and public safety," said Special Agent in Charge Thomas Ravenelle. "Terrorist groups now have the ability to directly attract and even recruit U.S. residents to commit violence or provide other support on their behalf. Anyone in our community who takes deliberate steps to commit federal crimes in support of a declared terrorist organization will have those steps disrupted and will be arrested and prosecuted whenever appropriate and necessary in order to preserve the safety of our community."
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