Shannon Maureen Conley and Basit Javed Sheikh planned trips to Syria to join up with jihadists.
One is a 19-year-old citizen from Arvada, Colorado, named Shannon Maureen Conley. The other is a 29-year-old, Pakistani-born permanent US resident who lived in North Carolina named Basit Javed Sheikh. Both—entirely separately—planned to travel to Syria for love and jihad, according to public records, and both came under close scrutiny of the FBI and were eventually arrested.
But in Conley's case, the FBI gave the would-be jihadist every available out. Overt agents who identified themselves as being from the FBI repeatedly cautioned her against going through with her plans to travel to Syria and join the Islamic State in Iraq and al Sham (ISIS). According to a sworn affidavit, they warned her she would be arrested if she tried to board a plane to the region, but to no avail. Few, if any, targets in federal terrorism investigations have been given such apparently blunt warnings from openly identified agents. “That's a first as far as I know,” says Trevor Aaronson, author of The Terror Factory: Inside The FBI's Manufactured War on Terrorism.
Sheikh, however, wasn't so lucky. The FBI didn't openly try to talk him out of boarding a plane allegedly to join Jabat al Nusra, the al Qaeda–linked militant group fighting Bashar al Assad's regime in Syria. Sheikh has even gone so far as to claim that an FBI informant, posing as a nurse in Syria, engaged in a romantic relationship with him, and he was traveling to marry her. An undercover agent—as opposed to an openly identified one, like in Conley's case—told Sheikh he didn't have to go through with his plan, something investigators often do to prevent an entrapment defense. Both cases are currently in the pre-trial motions phase.
Though the FBI is often criticized for foiling terrorist plots of its own making, the cases of Conley and Sheikh are examples of what US officials repeatedly say is a growing problem: Americans traveling to Syria, training with militant groups, and returning as battle-hardened terrorists. Attorney General Eric Holder reiterated that threat last week before European officials in Oslo, and claimed there are “dozens of Americans” fighting in Syria and Iraq. The former head of the UK intelligence agency MI6, by contrast, said recently the threat of Islamist-based terrorism in the West has been dramatically overblown.
An FBI spokesperson told VICE in an email that in the last year FBI-led task forces have “arrested at least six US persons for attempting to travel to Syria to join extremist groups.”
Conley first attracted attention from law enforcement after roaming the grounds of a Faith Bible Chapel while taking notes. Church staff confronted her, at which point she allegedly became antagonistic. She told law enforcement that after the altercation, she thought: “If they think I'm a terrorist, I'll give them something to think I am.”
FBI agents met with Conley on a nearly weekly basis for a period of months. Conley never had a lawyer present, though she was advised of that right, according to the affidavit, and repeatedly made incriminating statements to the agents. “Conley was reminded, and acknowledged, that she had made statements to overt law enforcement about waging Jihad against the US,” according to the affidavit. “Conley was further advised, and acknowledged, that what she wanted to do is illegal.”
In another meeting, an “overt attempt to dissuade Conley from violent criminal activity,” an FBI agent “admonished Conley twice in the conversation that travel with intent to wage Jihad may be illegal and result in her arrest.” Conley was arrested roughly two weeks later, attempting to board a Turkey-bound flight to connect with a Tunisian ISIS fighter with whom she had begun an online romance. Conley was charged with material support of a terrorist organization, and faces up to 15 years in prison. In the affidavit, Conley comes across less as a sophisticated threat and more as a hapless teenager.
The FBI became aware of Basit Javed Sheikh, the North Carolina man, after he made repeated statements on Facebook praising Jabat al Nusra. In August 2013, according to court documents, Sheikh contacted someone through Facebook who claimed to be a nurse affiliated with al Nusra, but was in fact an FBI informant, also known as a confidential human source (CHS). Sheikh was arrested three months later.
The exact nature of their relationship isn't yet clear, but according to court transcripts reviewed by VICE, Sheikh may have thought he was traveling to Syria, at least in part, to marry the “nurse”—that is, the FBI informant. “Did the defendant ever show interest in marrying this confidential source, CHS?” Sheikh, representing himself, asked Special Agent Jason Maslow at a pre-trial hearing last November.
Maslow, the FBI agent who swore the affidavit against Sheikh, didn't offer a clear answer. “I'm not aware of any,” Maslow responded initially, then added, “There may have been” a romantic interest from Sheikh “towards the end,” as well as “towards the beginning on some of the initial contacts.”
Apparently not satisfied, Sheikh pushed the issue. “There may have been?” he repeated.
“Yes,” Special Agent Maslow said.
Moments later, Sheikh—not aware of criminal trial procedure—demanded that “that the full nature of the relationship between the CHS and the defendant be known so that the defendant's true motive of [sic] traveling overseas can be determined.” The judge stopped him and said that's called discovery, and happens later in the case. Like Conley, in court documents Sheikh came off as bumbling and perhaps depressed, obsessed with a fantasy of jihad as much as or more than the real thing.
Regardless of the veracity of Sheikh's marriage claims, there were never any attempts by overt agents to dissuade Sheikh from traveling to Lebanon, then to Syria. Rather, a clandestine, undercover agent at one point told him, “You don't have to do this,” and “If you are scared and don't want to [travel to Syria] then make jihad in other ways.” Sheikh responded that he wasn't scared, said “I'm ready,” and shortly afterward bought his ticket to Lebanon, according to the affidavit. (The undercover agent had previously suggested Sheikh ask his sister for money for the plane ticket, which Sheikh couldn't afford on his own at the time.)
The FBI did not offer comment on the seeming discrepancies between the two investigations despite multiple requests from VICE. Lawyers for Conley and Sheikh have previously declined to talk to the media.
For some observers there is a larger problem of how the FBI investigates terrorism cases, including the signs that make a person a threat. “The FBI has a problematic theory of radicalization, where someone goes from speaking out about an issue to becoming violent,” says the ACLU's Mike German, a former FBI agent, who was speaking about the FBI generally and not about the Sheikh or Conley case specifically. “They describe it as a funnel, and once you're in the funnel, there's no coming out of that.” He says the strategy is built on a fallacy that “if we just leave them alone,” they'll wind up radicalized and violent anyway. The result, in many cases, is a plot that almost certainly couldn't have happened without FBI involvement.