ALEXANDRIA, Va. (AP) — An American woman who prosecutors say led an all-female battalion of Islamic State militants in Syria pleaded guilty on Tuesday in a case that a prosecutor called a first of its kind in the United States.
Allison Fluke-Ekren broke down sobbing after admitting in federal court in Alexandria, Virginia to conspiring to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization, a charge that carries a maximum 20-year prison sentence.
The guilty plea resolves a criminal case that came to light in January after Fluke-Ekren, 42, who once lived in Kansas, was brought to the U.S. to face accusations that she led an Islamic State unit of women and young girls in the Syrian city of Raqqa and trained them in the use of automatic rifles, grenades and suicide belts.
It is the first prosecution in the U.S. of a female Islamic State battalion leader, said First Assistant U.S. Attorney Raj Parekh, who told a judge that some of the more than 100 women and girls who received training may wish to speak at Fluke-Ekren’s sentencing hearing.
“Some of them may wish an opportunity to address the court because we would argue that there is lifelong trauma and pain that has been inflicted on them,” Parekh said.
Charging documents in the case trace Fluke-Ekren’s travels and activities in the Middle East over the last decade, though they don’t shed light on what inspired her alleged allegiance to foreign militant groups.
She had been in Syria since late 2012 or early 2013, where according to one witness cited in court documents, she spoke openly about her desire to conduct an attack in the U.S., including by parking car loaded with explosives in an underground garage of a shopping mall. Another witness said Fluke-Ekren spoke about a desire to bomb a college campus.
Prosecutors say that after Fluke-Ekren’s second husband, identified in court papers as a member of the militant group Ansar al-Sharia, was killed in an air strike in Syria in February 2016, she led a center that offered medical services and child care — but also advanced weapons training — to dozens of women and young girls.
Her all-female battalion, known as Khatiba Nusaybah, began operations in 2017, with a goal of teaching female Islamic State members how to defend themselves against the group’s enemies, prosecutors say.
According to court documents, she continued her affiliation with the Islamic State until the spring of 2019, when she was smuggled out of IS territory. Fluke-Ekren has said she tried to turn herself in at a local police station last summer because she wanted to leave Syria, and that about two weeks later, she was taken into custody at her home and later held in prison.
A criminal complaint against Fluke-Ekren was filed under seal in the U.S. in 2019 but not made public until she was brought to Virginia in January to face charges.
Fluke-Ekren, who said in court that she had a master’s degree in the U.S. in teaching, moved to Egypt with her second husband in 2008 and lived in Benghazi, Libya in the fall of 2012, when an attack on U.S. government facilities resulted in the deaths of four Americans. Fluke-Ekren is not alleged to have played any part in that attack, but prosecutors say she helped her second husband review and summarize documents that he said were stolen from the U.S. compound there.
Fluke-Ekren admitted to the gist of the government’s allegations against her, though at one point she suggested that one of the witnesses quoted in court documents was young at the time they were speaking and may have had a different understanding of their conversations. She also suggested that she had not intentionally trained young girls.