Broken Heart

07.04.14

It’s Time to Blow Up The Myth of Female Terrorists as Love-Struck Victims

Shannon Maureen Conley may have been trying to join her online boyfriend in the fight for ISIS. But that doesn’t mean she was duped into jihad.

The FBI says it nabbed a would-be jihadist teenage girl trying to join her ISIS boyfriend in Syria. Another case of the crazy things we do for love? Maybe not. Women in terror groups aren’t the helpless, hopeless romantics the media makes them out to be. Often, jihad-watchers tell The Daily Beast, it’s the radical women dragging their reluctant male partners into the fight.

The FBI arrested a 19 year-old woman back in April for attempting to attempting to join the notorious group Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham. According to a criminal complaint (PDF), the FBI arrested Shannon Maureen Conley at Denver International Airport as she was allegedly en route to meet a 32 year-old Tunisian man fighting for ISIS. The two had met online.

Conley allegedly planned to fly to Turkey, where an associate of the Tunisian man would meet her and escort her to Syria. Once in Syria, she allegedly intended to marry her online paramour and begin working as a nurse in an ISIS camp.

Conley’s path to jihad in Iraq was an indiscreet one. She came to the attention of authorities in the November 2013 after falling out with officials at the Faith Bible Chapel (FBC) in Arvada, Colorado. Conley, a recent convert to Islam, had attended services purportedly to learn about other faiths. But she soon began arguing with chapel officials and took issue with the organization’s pro-Israel views. When FBC security personnel noticed her taking notes and casing chapel ground, the scene of a 2007 mass shooting incident, they reported her to the police.

From that point onward, Conley was very open about her jihadist views and intentions in a series of interviews with local police and the FBI. She professed her belief in the legitimacy of violent jihad and declared her hopes to someday join the battlefield on behalf of a jihadist group. Conley claimed to have joined the U.S. Army Explorers, a program designed to expose young people to military careers, initially out of an interest in a life in the American armed forces. But she later came to see it as useful training for a jihadist.

By March, Conley was telling investigators that she had developed contacts involved with ISIS. Her father supported the claim, telling FBI agents he had seen her Skype with a Tunisian man who described himself as a soldier fighting in Syria. Conley’s father rebuffed the man’s requests for his daughter’s hand in marriage and tried to dissuade her from leaving the country to join him. When he found a one-way ticket for her to Turkey, Conley’s father called the FBI. She was arrested at the airport while trying to catch her flight.

Women’s agency, initiative and radicalism that exists before these relationships is often overlooked. Instead, the media often sensationalize the romances—portraying the women as naive and helpless clay in the hands of cunning recruiters. It completely depoliticizes the women.

Conley allegedly joins a number of women—often white, western female converts to Islam—who have gained fame by marrying (or attempting to marry) their way onto the battlefield.

What makes any given individual want to engage in terrorism is a complex and still-developing field of study, said Dr. John Horgan director of the Center for Terrorism & Security Studies at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell. But strong social relationships with those already engaged in radical behavior can often be a very powerful influence. “I’ve always been of the view that social connection and social influence will trump ideological influence every time,” he said.

For women involved in jihadist terrorism, the relationships that offer pathways to the battlefield can often be romantic. Mia Bloom, a professor at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, has studied women in terrorism. She noted that “It’s very difficult for the woman to just go on the jihad by herself because she doesn’t have that male chaperone” required under certain interpretations of Islamic law.

But Bloom added women’s agency, initiative and radicalism that exists before these relationships is often overlooked. Instead, the media often sensationalize the romances—portraying the women as naive and helpless clay in the hands of cunning recruiters. “It completely depoliticizes the women,” Bloom said.

Far from being passive victims, Bloom continued, many female terrorists are often instigators of violent action. In 2005, Muriel Degauque, a 38 year-old Belgian woman, traveled to Iraq with her husband to conduct suicide attacks against U.S. forces. Degauque had converted to Islam after the death of her brother, marrying a radical Islamist, Issam Goris.

Bloom, who wrote a case study on Degauque, described her as the “engine” of the plot: “He was the radical that ensured that her husband followed suit.” Degauque succeeded in detonating herself but her husband was killed by U.S. forces before he could launch an attack.

Bloom believes that jihadi organizations are aware of women’s radical potential—and exploit it. “Now what we’re seeing with many of these groups is that they marry the men off to jihadi women who make sure that these guys stay radical, they stay in the movement, they don’t just start thinking about marriage, kids and mortgage. They make sure jihad is the focus of that relationship,” she said.

The criminal complaint is unclear on when exactly Conley met her ISIS suitor but her interest in waging jihad appears to predate her online relationship. Months before she told investigators about her ISIS paramour, Conley told investigators that, while she had the intent to wage jihad, she lacked the means and opportunity. The idea of acting alone, she said, held great appeal.

The FBI has come under criticism for its use of undercover agents and confidential informants in counterterrorism cases. The men often pose as Islamist militants, offering to support terrorist plots or provide connection to a jihadist battlefield. Critics argue that their use amounts to entrapment, leading some to act on views where they otherwise wouldn’t have.

In this case, the FBI agents appear to have taken a different path. Agents met with Conley, openly identified themselves as law enforcement officials, and attempted to change her mind before arresting her. They asked Conley, a Certified Nursing Assistant, if she had any interest in working for humanitarian organization such as the Red Crescent instead of engaging in jihad. Shortly after she admitted to having contacts involved with ISIS in Syria, agents met with her again in what they described as an “overt attempt to dissuade Conley from violent criminal activity and give her the opportunity to turn away from her intention to participate in supporting terrorist activities.”

If the allegations against her are true, Conley’s choice was a conscious one—and her own.