US woman pleads guilty to leading Islamic State battalion

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FILE - The U.S. Courthouse in Alexandria, Va., on Sept. 2, 2021. Court records show that Allison Fluke-Ekren is set to plead guilty to leading an all-female battalion of Islamic State militants in Syria. A plea hearing for Allison Fluke-Ekren is to take place June 7, 2022, in federal court in Alexandria. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

ALEXANDRIA, Va. (AP) — An American woman who prosecutors say led an all-female battalion of Islamic State militants in Syria pleaded guilty on Tuesday in a case that a prosecutor called a first of its kind in the United States.

Allison Fluke-Ekren broke down sobbing after admitting in federal court in Alexandria, Virginia to conspiring to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization, a charge that carries a maximum 20-year prison sentence.

The guilty plea resolves a criminal case that came to light in January after Fluke-Ekren, 42, who once lived in Kansas, was brought to the U.S. to face accusations that she led an Islamic State unit of women and young girls in the Syrian city of Raqqa and trained them in the use of automatic rifles, grenades and suicide belts.

It is the first prosecution in the U.S. of a female Islamic State battalion leader, said First Assistant U.S. Attorney Raj Parekh. More than 100 women and young girls received training. And some of the girls, who were as young as 10 or 11 years old, may wish to speak at Fluke-Ekren's sentencing hearing, Parekh said.

“Some of them may wish an opportunity to address the court because we would argue that there is lifelong trauma and pain that has been inflicted on them,” Parekh said.

Charging documents in the case trace Fluke-Ekren's travels and activities in the Middle East over the last decade, including a move with her second husband to Egypt in 2008, though they don't shed light on what inspired her alleged allegiance to foreign militant groups.

After moving back and forth throughout the region, including to Libya and Turkey, she settled in Syria in late 2012 or early 2013, where her husband ascended to a leadership position in the Islamic State with responsibility for training snipers.

In Syria, according to one witness cited in court documents, she spoke openly about her desire to conduct an attack in the U.S., including by parking a car loaded with explosives in a shopping mall garage. Another witness said Fluke-Ekren discussed ideas for a bomb attack on a college campus in the Midwest.

Prosecutors say that after Fluke-Ekren's second husband was killed in an air strike in Syria in February 2016 while conducting reconnaissance on a hill, she spearheaded the creation of a Women's Center that offered medical services and child care — but also advanced weapons training — to dozens of women and young girls.

Her all-female battalion, known as Khatiba Nusaybah, began operations in 2017, with a goal of teaching female Islamic State members how to defend themselves against the group's enemies and to defend the territory of Raqqa, prosecutors say.

In 2018, she told a witness that she had instructed someone in Syria to get a message to her family that she was dead so that the U.S. government would not try to find her.

The following year, though, she ended her affiliation with the Islamic State and was smuggled out of IS-controlled territory, according to court documents. Fluke-Ekren has said she tried to turn herself in at a local police station last summer because she wanted to leave Syria, and that about two weeks later, she was taken into custody at her home and later held for months in prison.

A criminal complaint against Fluke-Ekren was filed under seal in the U.S. in 2019 but not made public until she was brought to Virginia in January to face charges.

Fluke-Ekren, who said in court that she had a master's degree in the U.S. in teaching, moved to Egypt with her second husband in 2008 and lived in Benghazi, Libya in the fall of 2012, when a n attack on U.S. government facilities resulted in the deaths of four Americans.

Fluke-Ekren is not alleged to have played any part in that attack, but prosecutors say she helped her second husband review and summarize documents that he said were stolen from the U.S. compound there.

Fluke-Ekren admitted Tuesday to the gist of the government's allegations, though at one point she said one of the witnesses quoted in court documents was young at the time of their interactions and may have come away with a different understanding of their conversations. She also suggested that she had not intentionally trained young girls.

Sentencing was set for October 25. A lawyer for Fluke-Ekren declined to comment after the plea hearing.

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Follow Eric Tucker on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/etuckerAP

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