An American woman who prosecutors say led an all-female battalion of ISIS militants in Syria pleaded guilty on Tuesday, in a case that a prosecutor called a first of its kind in the US.
Allison Fluke-Ekren broke down after admitting in federal court in Alexandria, Virginia, to conspiring to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organisation, a charge that carries a maximum 20-year prison sentence.
The guilty plea resolves a case that came to light in January after Fluke-Ekren, who once lived in Kansas, was returned to the US to face accusations that she led an ISIS unit of women and young girls in the Syrian city of Raqqa.
She was accused of training them in the use of automatic rifles, grenades and suicide belts.
It is the first prosecution in the US of a female ISIS battalion leader, said first assistant US attorney Raj Parekh.
More than 100 women and young girls received training and some of the girls, who were as young as 10 or 11, may wish to speak at Fluke-Ekren’s sentencing hearing, Mr Parekh said.
“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,” he said.
Charging documents trace Fluke-Ekren’s travels and activity in the Middle East over the past decade, including a move with her second husband to Egypt in 2008.
But they do not shed light on what inspired her allegiance to foreign militant groups.
After moving back and forth throughout the region, including to Libya and Turkey, she settled in Syria in late 2012 or early 2013, where her husband won a leadership position in ISIS with responsibility for training snipers.
A witness quoted in the court documents said that in Syria, Fluke-Ekren spoke openly about her desire to conduct an attack in the US, including by parking a car loaded with explosives in a shopping mall garage.
Another witness said she discussed ideas for a bomb attack on a college campus in the Midwest.
Prosecutors say that after Fluke-Ekren’s second husband was killed in an air strike in Syria in February 2016, she led the formation of a Women’s Centre 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, teaching female ISIS members how to defend themselves against the group’s enemies and to defend the territory of Raqqa, prosecutors say.
In 2018, Fluke-Ekren told a witness that she had instructed someone in Syria to get a message to her family that she was dead, so the US government would not try to find her.
The following year, though, she ended her affiliation with ISIS and was smuggled out of territory it controlled, according to court documents.
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 held for months in prison.
A criminal complaint against her was filed under seal in the US in 2019 but not made public until she was taken to Virginia in January to face charges.
Fluke-Ekren, who said in court that she had a master’s degree in the US in teaching, moved to Egypt with her second husband in 2008 and lived in Benghazi, Libya, in the autumn of 2012, when an attack on US government base killed four Americans.
She is not accused of playing any part in that attack, but prosecutors say she helped her second husband to review and summarise documents that he said were stolen from the US compound there.
Fluke-Ekren admitted on Tuesday to the gist of the government’s allegations, although at one point she said one of the witnesses quoted in court documents was young at the time of their interactions and may have come away with a different understanding of their conversations.
She also suggested that she had not intentionally trained young girls.
Sentencing was set for October 25. A lawyer for Fluke-Ekren declined to comment after the plea hearing.