Kansas mom who joined Islamic State pleads guilty to terrorism charge

Ruvic/Illustration/File Photo
An Islamic State flag is seen in this picture illustration taken February 18, 2016.

A Kansas-born woman who led an all-female Islamic State battalion and trained others to use assault rifles, grenades and suicide explosives pleaded guilty Tuesday to conspiring to provide material support for terrorism.

Allison Fluke-Ekren, 42, admitted in federal district court in Alexandria, Va., that she was the leader of the Khatiba Nusaybah, a female battalion that prepared to defend Islamic State-controlled Raqqa, Syria, in 2017. She faces up to 20 years in prison.

Researchers who study extremism say that hundreds of Western women have joined or given support to the Islamic State but that Fluke-Ekren is the first U.S. woman to be prosecuted for a leadership role in the Islamist militant group.

Some friends and family from Fluke-Ekren’s days in Kansas City and Topeka, where she grew up as Allison Elizabeth Brooks, have said they are shocked she turned to extremism. After studying biology at the University of Kansas and pursuing a master’s degree in teaching at an Indiana college, Fluke-Ekren moved with her children and second husband to Egypt in 2008 and aided terrorist groups for more than six years while in Iraq, Libya and Syria, according to documents filed with her plea.

“Over 100 women and young girls received military training from Fluke-Ekren in Syria on behalf of ISIS,” First Assistant U.S. Attorney Raj Parekh of the Eastern District of Virginia wrote in a court filing in January, describing Fluke-Ekren as “a fervent believer in the radical terrorist ideology of ISIS for many years.”

Federal prosecutors disclosed Tuesday that Fluke-Ekren assisted leaders of Ansar al-Sharia, the terrorist group behind the 2012 attack that killed four Americans in Libya, by providing summaries of documents she said her husband had stolen from a U.S. compound in Benghazi in the aftermath of the strike. Fluke-Ekren was not accused of involvement in the attack itself.

By 2016, Fluke-Ekren’s husband oversaw Islamic State snipers in Syria, and she was a rare female leader in Islamic State-controlled Raqqa, organizing child care, medical services and education, according to documents filed with her plea. She also trained women and young girls to use AK-47 rifles, grenades and explosive suicide belts to help men defend from enemy attacks, the documents say.

In 2017, the Islamic State mayor of Raqqa named Fluke-Ekren the leader of the Khatiba Nusaybah, an all-female brigade that gave medical training and religious classes, as well as martial arts instruction, courses on vehicle bombings and how to pack a “go bag” with rifles and military supplies, she admitted in the plea documents. Fluke-Ekren provided only some of this training herself, the documents say.

U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema scheduled Fluke-Ekren’s sentencing for Oct. 25 and said the government had gathered “more than enough evidence” to prove her guilt.

Fluke-Ekren initially said she didn’t purposefully train children, though when pressed by the judge, she agreed with prosecutors that she had given military training to over 100 women and young girls.

“We didn’t intentionally train any young girls,” Fluke-Ekren said at the hearing Tuesday. “They may have been in attendance.”

Fluke-Ekren was captured in Syria and transferred to U.S. custody in January. She appeared in court Tuesday wearing a black hijab and white face mask, and began to sob near the end of the hearing when Brinkema mentioned her children. Her attorney, Joseph King, said she was not charged with violent offenses. Fluke-Ekren admitted she had ideas for a mass-casualty strike in the United States that were never put in action.

Amy Amer, an American writer based in Turkey, said she was close friends with Fluke-Ekren after they met in Kansas City in the 2000s, and kept in touch with her until 2016.

“Was she religious? Yes. She was from Middle America. Before she was Muslim, she was like a Bible-beating Christian,” Amer said. “However, she was a teen mom, highly intelligent, highly intelligent. We used to talk about parenting, reading novels. She liked reading. She was normal.”

The U.S. government had lined up witnesses to testify in court who would describe how Fluke-Ekren’s involvement with the Islamic State continued after her second, third and fourth husbands were killed while working for the Islamic State, according to documents filed with the plea. A woman with Islamic State ties told investigators that Fluke-Ekren had the idea in 2014 to bomb a U.S. college in the Midwest. One witness who received military training as a girl in Syria said Fluke-Ekren later told her “it was important to kill the kuffar,” an Arabic word for disbelievers, according to a nine-page statement of facts signed by Fluke-Ekren and Parekh.

Some experts say that the Islamic State uses images of women in combat primarily as a propaganda tool and deploys female fighters only as a last resort. They said Fluke-Ekren stood out among other Western women who joined the Islamic State because she was not coerced into the group and eventually attained a leadership role overseeing other women in Raqqa.

“Ideologically, what the Islamic State believes is the idea of personal duty. When the motherland is under attack, it becomes a personal duty of men, women or children to take part in the defense,” said Devorah Margolin, who studies the role of women in violent Islamic movements at the Program on Extremism at George Washington University. “Women are never used in offensive positions, but what is ‘defense’ can, of course, be subjective by the group.”

Elena Pokalova, a professor who studies extremism at the Defense Department’s College of International Security Affairs in the National Defense University, noted that Islamic State leaders in the fall of 2017 called on women to support male fighters by preparing to fight and “readying to sacrifice themselves to defend the religion of Allah.” The call appeared in a former Islamic State publication, al-Naba, she said.

“Jihadist groups usually avoid using women (in combat) because that is perceived to be against the religion they use to pursue their ideology,” Pokalova said. “You can see how their roles were getting more and more active as the group itself started losing territory, the territory of the caliphate.”

Margolin called Fluke-Ekren’s turn to extremism the “worst-case scenario we’ve been talking about since 2011.”

“It is a woman from a Western country, the United States, becoming part of this. She wasn’t brainwashed, she wasn’t trafficked. . . . She is someone who absolutely decided to go, and once there, absolutely leaned in,” Margolin said.

While seeking to evade capture in 2018 by U.S. authorities, Fluke-Ekren said she wanted to die a martyr in Syria and claimed she was dead in a message she arranged to be sent to her family, the plea documents say.

Fluke-Ekren said in the plea that “after separating from her fifth husband, she went to the local police station near Qabasin, Syria in the summer of 2021 and attempted to turn herself in.” She said she was held for approximately seven months in a Syrian prison, according to the plea documents.

Relatives and friends from the United States watched Fluke-Ekren’s life in the Islamic State unfold with astonishment.

One family member who was with Fluke-Ekren in Iraq and Syria told U.S. investigators how the former Kansas mom “explained that she could go to a shopping mall in the United States, park a vehicle full of explosives in the basement or parking garage level of the structure, and detonate the explosives in the vehicle with a cell phone triggering device,” according to court documents.

Fluke-Ekren’s parents and adult children want no contact with her, Parekh said during a court hearing in January. One family member, Parekh said at the hearing Tuesday, “told me that the defendant has left a ‘trail of betrayal.'”

Amer, the former friend, said she and Fluke-Ekren moved together from the Midwest to Cairo and applied to become teachers. Years later, when Fluke-Ekren visited Amer in Turkey, something had changed.

“She started talking about the Islamic caliphate and how we should help them,” Amer said. “And I was like, what? I was confused.”