American woman accused of prominent role in Islamic State group
By Adam Goldman
The FBI has arrested an American woman who federal prosecutors said had risen through the ranks of the Islamic State group in Syria to become a battalion commander, training women and children to use assault rifles and suicide belts, the Justice Department disclosed Saturday.
The woman, Allison Fluke-Ekren, 42, a former teacher from Kansas, was charged with providing material support to a terrorist organization. The circumstances of her capture in Syria were not immediately known, but the FBI flew her to Virginia on Friday to face prosecution.
Prosecutors described Fluke-Ekren as playing an unusually outsized role in the Islamic State as a woman and an American. Charges against American women involved with the militant group have been rare.
Fluke-Ekren was smuggled into Syria in 2012 from Libya, court documents said. She traveled to the country, according to one witness, because she wanted to wage “violent jihad,” Raj Parekh, a federal prosecutor, wrote in a detention memo that was made public Saturday.
According to a criminal complaint that was filed in 2019, a witness told the FBI that Fluke-Ekren and her husband brought $15,000 to Syria and used the money to buy weapons. Her husband, the witness said, was the commander of snipers for the Islamic State group; he later was killed by an airstrike while trying to conduct a terrorist attack, investigators said. Fluke-Ekren had met him in the United States, according to court documents.
The same witness also told the FBI that Fluke-Ekren had a plan in 2014 to attack a college in the United States using a backpack filled with explosives. Prosecutors did not reveal which college she had wanted to target. The criminal complaint said her plan was presented to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State at the time, who approved funding for it, but that the attack was put on hold after Fluke-Ekren learned she was pregnant. Fluke-Ekren had multiple children, but it is not clear how many.
Prosecutors said Fluke-Ekren moved to Egypt in 2008, lived there for about three years and then traveled to Libya, where she stayed for about a year before sneaking into Syria. According to one witness, Fluke-Ekren departed Libya because another terrorist organization, Ansar al-Sharia, was no longer conducting attacks in that country and she wanted to wage violent jihad.
In his memo arguing to keep Fluke-Ekren behind bars while she awaits trial, Parekh said she had been a “fervent believer in the radical terrorist ideology of ISIS for many years.” The prosecutor said the government had numerous witnesses who were prepared to testify against her.
According to the detention memo, the mayor of the Syrian city of Raqqa, the Islamic State group’s self-proclaimed capital, approved the opening of an all-female military battalion. Fluke-Ekren, investigators said, soon became the leader and organizer of it.
Witnesses said Fluke-Ekren taught classes for members of the battalion, and on one occasion, a young child of hers was seen holding a machine gun. More than 100 women and girls received training from her, one witness said.
Fluke-Ekren had hoped to create a cadre of suicide bombers that could infiltrate enemies’ positions, but the effort never materialized, according to the complaint. She also told a witness about her desire to attack a shopping mall in the United States using a remote-detonated vehicle full of explosives.
Court documents said that after the death of her husband, Fluke-Ekren married another Islamic State terrorist, a Bangladeshi man who specialized in drones and worked on a plan to drop chemical bombs using them. He also died. She then married an Islamic State military leader who was responsible for the defense of Raqqa, a witness said.
Fluke-Ekren told a witness that she had tried to send a message to her family with the goal of tricking them into believing she was dead so the U.S. government would not try to find her. Fluke-Ekren also said that she never wanted to go back to the United States and wanted to die a martyr in Syria, according the witness.
Federal prosecutors in Virginia have mounted an aggressive effort to prosecute terrorists captured overseas. The cases can be extremely difficult because witnesses and other evidence can often only be found in war zones, as well as because of geopolitical considerations.
Last year, Mohammed Khalifa, a Saudi-born Canadian who traveled to Syria in 2013 and later joined the Islamic State, was brought to the United States and charged with providing material support to a terrorist organization that resulted in death. Khalifa provided the narration and translation for approximately 15 videos created and distributed by the militant group. He later pleaded guilty and faces life in prison.
Two British men, El Shafee Elsheikh and Alexanda Kotey, who were part of an Islamic State cell of four Britons called “the Beatles,” were brought to the United States in 2020 to face charges. The group, which was given that nickname by its victims because of the accents of its members, kidnapped and abused more than two dozen hostages, including American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, both of whom were beheaded in propaganda videos.
Kotey pleaded guilty to his role in the deaths of four Americans in Syria. He faces life in prison. Elsheikh has pleaded not guilty and awaits trial.