Allison Fluke-Ekren seen in a recent photo provided by police (L) and in an undated photo (R) from when she was a teenage student. Photos courtesy Alexandria Sheriff's department and Larry Miller
A Kansas mom, once described as a “standout student” by a former teacher, appeared in a U.S. court Monday to face charges for allegedly leading an all-female ISIS brigade.Allison Fluke-Ekren, 42, a former school teacher and the mother of several children, was flown to Alexandria, Virginia, over the weekend after being arrested in Syria by the FBI, where she’s facing terrorism charges for her role as the leader of an all-female ISIS brigade. If convicted of providing and conspiring to provide material support or resources to ISIS, Fluke-Ekren could serve 20 years in federal prison.
In court, Fluke-Ekren sounded somber and said she understood the gravity of the charges against her as the judge read them aloud. After the court granted Fluke-Ekren access to a public defender, U.S. prosecutors asked the courts to bar the alleged ISIS operative from contacting her family living in the U.S. while she is in custody. “I know this is an atypical request,” said a U.S. prosecutor, “but they do not wish [her] to have contact with her family. That includes her father, her mother, stepmother... her adult children who are here in the United States.”The judge noted that would be difficult to enforce legally but said, in light of the request from the family, if Fluke-Ekren contacted them against their wishes, it could be negatively considered during her bond hearing, set for Thursday.Part of a federal complaint first filed in 2019 and unsealed Saturday alleges that Fluke-Ekren, who remarried several times to various ISIS operatives while in Syria, was the senior commander of “Khatiba Nusaybah,” an all-female unit of ISIS that trained women and children on how to use automatic assault rifles, grenades, and suicide belts. The complaint and associated memorandum also alleged Fluke-Ekren was intent on carrying out “violent jihad” in the U.S. and offered up plots to ISIS leadership targeting shopping malls and an unnamed U.S. campus. The circumstances of the FBI arrest of Fluke-Ekren remains murky. A spokesperson for the bureau referred all questions on the case to the Department of Justice, noting, “We have no additional comment.”
In its media release on the case, the DOJ said Fluke-Ekren was “previously apprehended in Syria and transferred into the custody of the FBI.”
There’s still plenty we don’t know about Fluke-Ekren, including where and when she became radicalized. VICE News spoke with her now-retired high school biology teacher, Larry Miller, who offered some insight into the Fluke-Ekren he knew. Miller taught her in seventh and eighth grade at Topeka Collegiate, a private school in Kansas, in the ’90s. Back then, she went by her maiden name of Allison Brooks. Through his long career as a high school science teacher in both public and private schools, Miller thinks he’s probably taught thousands of kids over the years, but Fluke-Ekren, he said, “does stand out,” and they kept in touch years later. “She was special,” he said. “We knew her parents. Her parents came to our place; I went to theirs.” What’s more, she shared some of his passions. “She loved photography, environmental science, and herpetology, which is the study of turtles and amphibians,” he said. “She helped me set up field trips when she got a bit older… My wife was a librarian and also in educational programs. We got to know her real well. We thought she was a wonderful person.”
She was a ‘standout’ American student
A 1994 newsletter from the Kansas Herpetological Society detailed some of the research projects led by Miller and his students, including Fluke-Ekren’s (then Brooks). Miller remembered her as being popular, getting along well with everyone, and never having expressed any radical political or religious views. Sometime in the late 1990s, just a couple years after graduating, Fluke-Ekren got married at a Methodist Church, and she hired Miller as the wedding photographer.
It’s not clear why or when her relationship with her first husband, with whom she had two children, fell apart. Based on a news article published in a local Kansas paper, by 2004 she was married to Volkan Ekren (it’s unclear whether this was the same husband she ultimately went to Syria with). She and her kids were the subject of a story about the uptick in popularity of homeschooling. Miller said that he and Fluke-Ekren got back in touch around 2008, when she emailed him from her work address, which was at a college in Indiana. She talked about how she had a wonderful family life, what she remembered from his science classes, and that she’d ended up pursuing a career in biology. She later graduated from Kansas University, taught science at a private school for a while, then got her master’s to teach in Indiana. “So many things I was so proud to read,” Miller said. She ended the email, “My biggest hope is that I can pass on to my students the torch of curiosity and excitement that you gave to me.”
The following year, she reached out to Miller again—she was interested in moving back to Kansas and wanted to know if he knew of any teaching opportunities. He connected her with the principal of a nearby school district who was looking for a science teacher. Miller wasn’t sure what happened next, just that she was offered the job but ultimately she decided to move overseas to Egypt. As far as Miller knew, Fluke-Ekren loved her life in Egypt. She’d gotten a job as a teacher, and told Miller the students were enthusiastic and really interested in nature. Around that time, a mutual friend introduced her to Marwa Faisal, a biology teacher in Cairo (they connected online and met in person once). Faisal, who didn’t know that Fluke-Ekren had been arrested until VICE News contacted her, said she only knew her to be a “lovely mother and teacher.” Between 2008 and 2010, Fluke-Ekren ran a blog “4 Kansas Kids” that chronicled her family’s life in Kansas, a brief stint in Egypt, and eventual relocation to Turkey. She worked as a teacher in both countries. The final blog post was made in June 2010. At some point, Miller fell out of touch with Fluke-Ekren. He’d written “Happy Birthday” on her Facebook wall a few years in a row but hadn’t heard anything back. “No one had heard from her,” Miller said.
The indictment alleges Fluke-Ekren remarried several times after her husband was killed while trying to conduct a terror attack for ISIS. One of her husbands—it’s not clear which one—was allegedly a prominent ISIS military leader. It is also unclear exactly when Fluke-Ekren moved to Syria. But according to one of the sources who gave evidence to the FBI, Fluke-Ekren and her family crossed the border from Turkey into Syria in 2014 with the intent of “living in the land of Sharia.” In 2014, ISIS came to global prominence when the group captured Mosul from the Iraqi army.
From America to Egypt to Syria
Fluke-Ekren told one witness cited in the indictment that she attempted to send a message to her family to trick them into believing she was dead, so that the U.S. government would not try to find her. She also claimed to the witness that she never wanted to go back to the United States and wanted to die a martyr in Syria.According to the indictment, one source told the FBI they lived with Fluke-Ekren for a number of weeks in the Syrian city of Al-Bab, then an ISIS stronghold, in 2014, and alleged Fluke-Ekren and her husband had brought $15,000 with them and used it to purchase AK-47s, grenades, and other weapons. The source said Fluke-Ekren’s husband was a sniper trainer for ISIS at the time. The indictment doesn’t contain any information about the nationality or name of Fluke-Ekren’s husband at this time.The source goes on to allege that Fluke-Ekren outlined a plan to attack a U.S. college by “dressing like infidels” and dropping off a backpack filled with explosives, adding that she was planning to enter the U.S. via Mexico.The plan, according to Fluke-Ekren, had been approved by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, then-leader of ISIS, who was later killed by a U.S. operation in 2019.But her plans were put on hold because she discovered she was pregnant in late 2014. This did not stop her from helping the ISIS cause, however, as the source who had lived with Fluke-Ekren told the FBI that Fluke-Ekren worked on translating speeches from the group’s leaders so they could be more widely shared online. Fluke-Ekren was fluent in English, Turkish, Arabic, and Spanish, according to another FBI source, who was a member of Fluke-Ekren’s family.
She was also allegedly responsible for teaching extremist doctrine, and training women and children in the use of weapons as well as suicide vests, the first witness said. In 2016, speaking to a member of her own family who was with her in Syria, Fluke-Ekren suggested parking a vehicle packed with explosives in the basement or the parking garage of a shopping mall and triggering the explosion with a cell phone, the indictment says. The witness added that Fluke-Ekren didn’t continue with such a plan because her then-husband had objected.Fluke-Ekren however continued to fantasize about attacking locations with large crowds of people, according to the witness’s statement, believing that any attack that didn’t kill a large number of people to be “a waste of resources.” Several sources told the FBI that Fluke-Ekren’s house was filled with weapons and that she was rarely seen without a gun. One witness, who met Fluke-Ekren in the Syrian city of Tabqah, claims to have seen one of the Fluke-Ekren’s sons, who was five or six at the time, holding a machine gun.In 2016, Fluke-Ekren appears to have moved to Raqqa, ISIS’ self-proclaimed capital, where she took on a new leadership role within the group.