Shannon Conley was ready to travel to Syria. She had a ticket on United Airlines Flight 8879 departing Denver for Frankfurt, Germany, and would then travel to Adana, Turkey, on the afternoon of April 10, 2014. Once there, she would attempt to cross the Syrian border to meet up with the suitor she had met online.
He was a fighter for the Islamic State group. She intended to fight alongside him.
The FBI was already investigating Conley, a 19-year-old convert to Islam born in Colorado. She had come to their attention in 2013 after wandering around the grounds of Faith Bible Chapel, a church near her home in Arvada. There, she took notes, drew layouts of the premises, and talked to the staff about Islamic extremism. For the next five months, the FBI met with Conley regularly to discuss her increasing radicalization and her desire to join the fight overseas.
So as she attempted to leave Denver, she was intercepted and arrested. She would later be sentenced to four years in prison, plus another three on supervised release, for conspiring to support a terrorist organization.
Conley’s is not an isolated case. Of the 250 Americans known to have attempted or managed to travel to Syria since the beginning of the civil war in 2011, more than one in seven are women, according to New America, a D.C.-based think tank. About 4,000 Westerners in total have traveled to ISIS territory since the beginning of the Syrian conflict — and more than 550 of them were women, according to the Institute for Strategic Dialogue.
A new report released Thursday by George Washington University’s Program on Extremism profiles 25 American women who have plotted, supported, or traveled for terrorist causes. They have various backgrounds and motivations, and they have ranged in age from 15 to 44; they are impossible to define with a singular narrative.
“Our Western evaluation of what it means to be a woman is completely at odds with what it means to be a female jihadist,” said Audrey Alexander, a research fellow at the Program on Extremism and the author of the new study. “From mothers to recruiters to facilitators and martyrs, we need to better understand these girls.”
According to court records, Conley had been open about her radicalization. She debated with her regular FBI intervenor, Special Agent Karim Khomssi. She discussed her ideals with her parents. The FBI said she spoke about how “jihad was the only answer to correct the wrongs against the Muslim world.” After Conley met online her Islamic State suitor, a 32-year-old Tunisian man, she asked her father for his blessing to marry the man and join him in Syria.
Not all the women profiled in Alexander’s report were so open. In October 2014, three teenage girls, also from Colorado, were detained at Frankfurt International Airport. They, too, had been attempting to travel to Syria via Turkey. Two sisters and a friend, ages 15, 16, and 17, had told their families that they were sick, and then skipped school and boarded a plane after exchanging more than 9,000 messages over many months with ISIS recruiters. The fathers of the girls alerted authorities, and the girls were detained in Germany, returned to the U.S., and released back to their families. Unlike Conley, the three teens were deemed victims of online predators. Due to their ages, no charges were filed.
Alexander’s research reveals the myriad roles women have played within these movements — from the plotters to the travelers to the supporters.
Two friends from Queens, New York, Asia Siddiqui and Noelle Velentzas, were arrested in 2015 for allegedly preparing explosive devices after scouring chemistry books and al-Qaeda’s online publications for ways to utilize the “multiple propane tanks” authorities say were found in their homes. According to the FBI, “[Velentzas] did not understand why people were traveling overseas to wage jihad when there were more opportunities of pleasing Allah within the U.S.” The women’s trials are ongoing.
Nicole Lynn Mansfield, 33, from Flint, Michigan, traveled in 2013 to Syria, where she was believed to have become a media coordinator for Islamist rebel groups. She was the first known American woman killed in the Syrian conflict; the circumstances of her death remain unclear, but she was reportedly killed by Syrian government forces after lobbing a grenade toward them.
Some of the jihadi women, however, preferred to work in the shadows, providing support — be it financial or logistical — to an extremist organization of their choosing. The penalties were often just as severe. Heather Elizabeth Coffman was sentenced to 54 months in prison in May 2015 for her role as a facilitator providing online travel information and support to Islamic State sympathizers.
“We know that men join radical fighting forces,” said Naureen Fink, a senior gender adviser to the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Executive Directorate and UN Women. “But we don’t know how many of those men were mobilized by women.”
Currently, no American counterterrorism programs exist that were designed specifically for women. Both Alexander and Fink, however, want a more gendered approach to counterterrorism policies.
“We have to take this diversity seriously,” Alexander said. “In Conley’s case, her interventions were handled by an adult Muslim man. How can this be our solution to deal with vulnerable teenage girls interested in jihadi ideology?”