In October 2014 three Colorado girls skipped school and made their way to the airport. With passports and $2,000 between them, they boarded a flight bound for Frankfurt. After a layover in Germany, they would land in Istanbul before crossing Turkey’s border with Syria and entering the Islamic State.
The girls never got that far after their parents alerted authorities, who apprehended them in Frankfurt. The girls, ages 15, 16, and 17, were returned home to their families in Colorado and faced no criminal charges for their alleged attempt to join the Islamic State.
They are among dozens of Americans with alleged links to ISIS who are known to federal authorities but have not been arrested, according to a new report released by George Washington University’s Program on Extremism. The report says 900 investigations remain open, about 250 people believed to have traveled or attempted to travel to Syria, and less than 80 have been charged.
“You arrest those believed to pose an imminent threat to themselves and others, build legal cases against those you can, and the ones you can’t yet because of variety of reasons, you monitor as best as possible with admittedly stretched law enforcement resources,” Seamus Hughes, deputy director of the project, told The Daily Beast.
“As we’ve seen from the wide range of legal charges, prosecutors have had to get creative,” Hughes added. “It’s hard to truly know without the complete picture, but from conversations with law enforcement around the country, those not charged tend to be younger. There’s a number of legal and policy reasons for that.”
Like the Aurora, Colorado, girls, like two teenage siblings from Minneapolis who allegedly tried to go to Syria with their 19-year-old brother have not been charged. Their brother, Mohammed Hamzah Khan, pleaded guilty to attempting to provide material support to a terrorist organization.
Three minors, however—all male—have been arrested for alleged ISIS sympathies. One was sentenced to 11 years in the federal system, and another was put in juvenile detention through family court.
While women are prohibited from fighting for ISIS (though many express a desire to do so), their roles are vital to the survival of the Islamic State. They often act as propagandists on social media, recruiting other women from the West and arranging passage to Syria for them. Those actions might be harder to quantify for legal proceedings, however, and appear to pose less of a direct threat than men who want to go to Syria and fight.
“We’re not equipped to prosecute and incarcerate minors,” a law enforcement official told The Daily Beast. “That’s just not something the federal system does, it’s not something we have the capacity to do.”
The official added that the Aurora girls told authorities that they weren’t heading off to fight, after they were apprehended—instead they were “interested in looking around and seeing what that’s all about.”
“So you don’t have intent to take up arms against the government, you don’t have adults, so you’re kind of, from a law enforcement standpoint, you’re kind of in a corner,” he said. The parents “were pretty direct in saying that their kids were rescued.”
Instead of arresting and charging every alleged ISIS recruit, sometimes law enforcement tries to dissuade these young people—particularly women—from their beliefs.
Shannon Maureen Conley of Colorado was arrested and sentenced to four years in prison for planning to meet her jihadi groom in the ISIS caliphate—but not before the FBI counseled her not to go to Syria. Law enforcement officials even brought in her parents to help, but apparently to no avail.
While Conley acknowledged that her primary role in ISIS was going to be as a nurse, she said she wouldn’t hesitate to take up arms if asked.
Families of some of the youngest offenders brought into the criminal justice system have argued for counseling and “rehab” in lieu of punishment in their cases. Ali Shukri Amin’s family proposed treatment in a Virginia facility, which was rejected by the judge. A Minneapolis judge allowed a teen to get counseling from a halfway home while awaiting trial. As The Daily Beast reported, what the program consisted of has not been fully disclosed—and it did not include a religious component.
“The government has substantial discretion. Each U.S. attorney has substantial discretion,” the law enforcement official said in explaining disparities. “I think the guidance from Washington is clear: If there’s someone who plans on doing harm, there needs to be some kind of enforcement action.”
Publicly available information does not indicate that the Aurora women were required to participate in any sort of counseling after being returned to their parents.