Kansas woman who led ISIS battalion gets 20 years in prison

Photo from Alexandria Sheriff’s Office
Allison Fluke-Ekren, 42, is accused of training women and children in Syria to fight for ISIS.

A former schoolteacher from Kansas who became a rare female leader in the Islamic State and commanded her own battalion in Syria was sentenced Tuesday to 20 years in prison.

Allison Fluke-Ekren admitted she trained more than 100 women – including girls as young as 10 years old – to use assault rifles, grenades and suicide explosives as the Islamic State battled U.S.-backed forces for control of Syria in 2017. Fluke-Ekren’s contributions to the Islamic State continued after her second, third and fourth husbands were killed while working for the terrorist group and a 5-year-old son died in a tank strike, according to court records.

Researchers of extremist movements say Fluke-Ekren, 42, is the first and so far only U.S. woman to be prosecuted for an Islamic State leadership role. Two of Fluke-Ekren’s children described her as an abuser who fantasized about carrying out terrorist strikes and who sought to indoctrinate those around her to kill “disbelievers.” Federal prosecutor Raj Parekh described Fluke-Ekren as the “empress of ISIS.”

“Let there be no doubt about what the purpose of this battalion was,” said Parekh, the first assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia. He said that “it wasn’t for self-defense” and that a document from the Islamic State showed that a member of Fluke-Ekren’s brigade “wanted to be the first to carry out a suicide operation.”

Defense attorneys disputed the child-abuse allegations and characterized Fluke-Ekren as the leader of a battalion that never actually engaged in fighting.

“We didn’t even shoot a gun,” Fluke-Ekren said. “I’ve never seen a suicide bomb explode, or exploded one.”

Former friends have said Fluke-Ekren was a studious young mother who earned a biology degree at the University of Kansas, went to graduate school in Indiana and worked as a teacher in Kansas City, Kan., before moving with her children and second husband to Egypt in 2008. She then took a sharp turn toward extremism, estranged family members told U.S. investigators.

Fluke-Ekren grew up as Allison Elizabeth Brooks on an 81-acre farm in Overbrook, Kan., the daughter of a teacher and an Army veteran who served in Vietnam, prosecutors said.

“There is nothing in Fluke-Ekren’s background that can explain her conduct,” Parekh said at the sentencing. Fluke-Ekren’s father told U.S. authorities that she was “predisposed to zealotry” and “often looking for people to give her a difficult time for being Muslim.”

“Was she religious? Yes. She was from Middle America. Before she was Muslim, she was like a Bible-beating Christian,” Amy Amer, a former friend of Fluke-Ekren, told The Washington Post in June. Amer said she was taken aback when Fluke-Ekren started espousing extremist ideas.

Fluke-Ekren pleaded guilty this year to a conspiracy charge of providing material support to a terrorist organization, admitting that she aided terrorist groups while in Iraq, Libya and Syria from 2011 to 2019. Fluent in both English and Arabic, Fluke-Ekren’s assistance included analyzing documents for Ansar al-Sharia, the group behind the attack on the U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans in 2012, according to her guilty plea. She also gave assistance to the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, prosecutors said.

But it was in the Islamic State that Fluke-Ekren would attain prominent roles.

In 2016, Fluke-Ekren’s second husband oversaw Islamic State snipers in Syria, and she organized child care, medical services and education in the city of Raqqa, according to court documents. Fluke-Ekren trained women and young girls to use AK-47 rifles, grenades and explosive suicide belts in case male fighters needed help defending against enemy attacks, her plea documents say. One witness who received military training as a girl said Fluke-Ekren later told her that “it was important to kill the kuffar,” an Arabic word for disbelievers, the documents say.

As male fighters were losing ground in 2017 to the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, the Islamic State mayor of Raqqa in 2017 named Fluke-Ekren the leader of the Khatiba Nusaybah, an all-female battalion. Fluke-Ekren’s group gave medical training and religious classes, as well as martial arts instruction. It also provided courses on vehicle bombings and how to pack a “go bag” with rifles and military supplies, according to court documents filed in June.

U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema imposed the maximum sentence allowed under Fluke-Ekren’s plea agreement. The judge said she did not find Fluke-Ekren’s statements during Tuesday’s hearing “wholly credible.” Fluke-Ekren said she had provided only “unwitting” support to Ansar al-Sharia in the aftermath of the Benghazi attacks and told the judge she was training women to handle weapons in Syria not for terrorist purposes, but to help prevent fatal accidents inside Syrian homes and to teach women self-defense in case enemy combatants attempted to sexually abuse them.

“The vast majority of my time was spent cooking, cleaning, taking children to doctors, putting antiseptic on scraped knees and mediating sibling disputes,” Fluke-Ekren said, often breaking into tears during her remarks to the judge.

Brinkema said that teaching women and girls to use “suicide vests cannot possibly be considered self-defense” and that she disagreed with Fluke-Ekren characterizing herself as a “passive dupe” who was led into terrorist activities by her second husband.

Witnesses said Fluke-Ekren planned different mass-casualty strikes, though she never carried out the attacks. 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 of Fluke-Ekren’s daughters 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 cellphone triggering device.” The daughter said Fluke-Ekren deemed any attack that did not kill a large number of people a “waste of resources,” according to court documents.

“In reality, the Khatiba Nussayeb had barely one hundred women, including members designated as babysitters, nurses, and cooks,” defense attorneys Joseph King and Sean Sherlock wrote in a sentencing brief. “The loosely organized group had no formal ranks, were not issued uniforms or weapons, never engaged in fighting, nor fired a shot against an enemy.”

In a court filing in August, Fluke-Ekren’s attorneys said her statements about carrying out terrorist attacks in the United States were responses to “the shock and horrors of war” she experienced after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, or “U.S. or U.S.-led coalition forces,” killed Syrian civilians in bombings and airstrikes.

“In 2015 one of her children was killed, and another severely injured, from such an attack on a residential neighborhood,” King and Sherlock wrote. “She saw numerous friends, neighbors, and children killed in similar incidents during the war.”

The attorneys denied the abuse allegations from Fluke-Ekren’s children, calling them “inaccurate, exaggerated, hyperbolic, and in many cases completely false.” They said the allegations were disclosed to Fluke-Ekren for the first time in September.

Parekh said Fluke-Ekren unsuccessfully tried to form a female battalion for years, before Islamic State leaders authorized her plans in Raqqa. Fluke-Ekren was not charged with violent conduct, but the prosecutor argued in a sentencing brief that she encouraged another woman to carry out her own suicide attack and arranged to adopt her child.

Fluke-Ekren chose not to cooperate with U.S. investigators after her arrest, Parekh added.

“This defendant is probably a gold mine of intelligence,” Parekh said. “All the people that she’s met, all the co-conspirators that she’s trained – but she didn’t cooperate.”

After her second husband was killed in an airstrike, Fluke-Ekren married a specialist in unmanned aerial vehicles for the Islamic State who was working on “attaching chemical weapons onto drones to drop chemical bombs from the air,” according to court records. He was also killed in an airstrike. Fluke-Ekren’s fourth husband was the Islamic State official in charge of Raqqa’s defense during a siege by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces at the time he was killed.

Fluke-Ekren said she abandoned the Islamic State in 2019 and surrendered to Syrian authorities in the summer of 2021 “to protect her children from the difficulties of living in war-torn Syria,” her attorneys wrote in a filing. She was turned over to U.S. custody in January, after 11 years outside the United States.

One daughter who spoke at Tuesday’s hearing claimed that Fluke-Ekren forced her to marry an Islamic State fighter when she was 13 years old and he was 17 years old. The daughter claimed that the Islamic State fighter raped her. Fluke-Ekren claimed that it was her daughter’s choice to marry the man.

In a recorded call with the daughter in January 2021 that Parekh played in court, Fluke-Ekren said, “You can’t give up, because that’s the only time that you lose.”

Referring to the deaths of her second husband and 5-year-old son, Fluke-Ekren said on the call: “You don’t feel regret. You feel sad but you don’t – regret is like, you hate what you did or decisions that you made, but when you have your goal and you know what you’re doing, and you keep moving towards that, you don’t have regret.”