An Arvada teenage girl arrested in April on suspicion of attempting to support al-Qaeda and its affiliates — including the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant — was warned for months by federal agents investigating her that her support could lead to her incarceration.
One FBI agent met with her seven times, trying to dissuade her from supporting jihad and suggesting that she instead commit herself to humanitarian work, court papers say.
Shannon Maureen Conley, 19, was taken into custody at the Denver International Airport by the FBI as she attempted to board a plane on her way to Turkey, according to Dave Joly, an FBI spokesman. The case against Conley was not unsealed until Wednesday because of an “ongoing, active investigation,” when news of her arrest and alleged activities became public, according to the U.S. attorney’s office in Denver.
Investigators from the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force investigated Conley for roughly eight months before arresting her April 8, according to a federal criminal complaint filed in the Denver U.S. District Court.
During that time, she repeatedly told federal agents — who identified themselves and met with her on a near-weekly basis from November to April — that she was committed to waging jihad in the Middle East.
Conley went ahead with her plans, led by a man she met on the Internet who identified himself as a terrorist associated with ISIL and with whom she built a romantic relationship online as he encouraged her to travel to Syria to fight alongside him.
Even after federal agents met with her parents, warning them of their daughter’s radical beliefs, and even after her parents tried to dissuade her, Conley purchased a plane ticket to Turkey, where she planned to meet the man she met online, court filings say.
The U.S. attorney’s office in Denver declined to comment on the case, and attempts to reach Conley’s attorney, a federal public defender, were unsuccessful. If convicted, Conley could face up to 15 years in prison, a $250,000 fine or both.
In 2013, Conley encountered the man online and the two shared their views of Islam as “requiring participation in violent jihad against any non-believers,” according to court filings. The person, identified in documents as “Y.M.,” told Conley that he was fighting in Syria with ISIL, which is one of several rebel factions locked in a bitter civil war with the Syrian government.
The two planned for Conley to provide support for ISIL and “fight should it become necessary,” court documents say. In September, Conley joined the U.S. Army Explorers, a nonprofit youth exploration group, to be trained in military tactics and guns, court papers said.
Law enforcement began looking into Conley after a security guard and pastor at the Faith Bible Chapel in Arvada — the site of a 2007 active shooter attack — contacted police and the Colorado Bureau of Investigation to report that a woman had been wandering the campus taking notes, court records say.
The woman also became “confrontational” with church staffers when they asked to see her notes. The guard thought Conley was suspicious and that she seemed to be visiting the church in preparation for an attack.
An Arvada police detective and a special deputy U.S. marshall interviewed Conley in November about her time at the church, according to court documents. Conley told investigators that she hated “those people,” specifically their support of Israel, and “if they think I’m a terrorist, I’ll give them something to think I am.”
She also referred to U.S. military bases as “targets,” according to court papers.
A month later, Conley was interviewed by an FBI special agent, at which point Conley said she was training in military tactics and that she hoped to share what she learned with Islamic jihadi fighters, a federal agent said.
A few weeks later, the complaint said, Conley told the FBI agent she was “ready to wage jihad in a year.”
The agent interviewed Conley several more times over the next few weeks leading into 2014, during which time Conley repeatedly said that she wanted to travel to the Middle East and East Africa to wage jihad.
Federal agents warned Conley’s parents around February that their daughter’s beliefs were becoming alarmingly violent, according to the complaint. Her parents were “asked to attempt to engage Conley in candid conversation and to get her to expose her true views on Islam.”
“We’ve been advised not to comment,” Ana Maria Conley, the teen’s mother, told The Denver Post Wednesday evening. “We ask you to please respect our privacy.”
When Conley told her parents on April 1 that she was leaving for Syria to marry a “soldier,” her parents expressed their disapproval.
Seven days later, Conley headed to the airport and checked some bags. Inside them were CDs and DVDs labeled Anwar al-Awlaki, who was an American dissident-turned-Islamic militant who was killed by 2011 drone strike in Yemen.
As Conley walked down the jetway to board her flight, federal agents arrested her.
Jesse Paul: 303-954-1733, [email protected] or twitter.com/jesseapaul
Staff writer Kirk Mitchell contributed to this report.