An American woman accused of leading an “all-female military battalion” of ISIL (ISIS) in the Syrian city of Raqqa made a brief appearance in US court on Monday to face “terrorism” charges.
The United States Department of Justice said Allison Fluke-Ekren, a 42-year-old former resident of Kansas who worked as a teacher in the US, was previously captured in Syria and transferred to FBI custody late last week.
She was charged with providing and conspiring to provide material support or resources to a designated “foreign terrorist organisation” and faces up to 20 years in jail if convicted, the Department of Justice said.
Fluke-Ekren made an initial appearance on Monday afternoon in US District Court in Alexandria, Virginia. In a hearing that lasted only minutes, she was ordered to remain in jail pending a detention hearing set for Thursday afternoon, and an attorney was appointed to represent her.
A criminal complaint dated 2019, which was unsealed at the weekend, cited the testimonies of several witnesses who told US officials that Fluke-Ekren discussed waging attacks in the US and had translated ISIL material into English.
“According to a witness, in or about late 2016, the ‘Wali’ (or ISIS-appointed mayor) of Raqqa, Syria, allegedly permitted the opening of the ‘Khatiba Nusaybah,’ which was a military battalion comprised solely of female ISIS members who were married to male ISIS fighters,” the Department of Justice said in a statement on January 29.
“Shortly thereafter, Fluke-Ekren allegedly became the leader and organizer of the battalion.”
The Department of Justice said the all-women brigade was active during the 2017 siege of Raqqa, ISIL’s de-facto capital and one of its last territorial strongholds until the Syrian city was seized by the US-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
US authorities said the unit offered medical and physical training as well as weapon preparation courses, some of which were taught by Fluke-Ekren herself.
Fluke-Ekren, whose family is from the US Midwest, worked as a teacher in the US before joining ISIL in Syria, the Department of Justice said.
“One witness in particular allegedly observed that the leaders of ISIS and the other members of the military battalion were proud to have an American instructor,” it said. “Fluke-Ekren also allegedly trained children on the use of automatic firing AK-47 assault rifles, grenades and suicide belts.”
ISIL controlled large swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq between 2014 and 2017, recruiting thousands of fighters from around the world, including Europe and the US. The group also conducted and inspired attacks against civilians internationally.
The Department of Justice also has accused Fluke-Ekren of floating the idea of an ISIL assault on US soil, including a “potential future attack on a college campus inside the United States”.
“Fluke-Ekren would hear about external attacks taking place in countries outside the United States and would comment that she wished the attack occurred on United States soil instead,” it said, citing a witness.
The charges against Fluke-Ekren were made public as ISIL fighters mounted a deadly attack on an SDF-controlled prison in northeast Syria.
US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan on Sunday lauded the SDF for regaining control of the facility, saying that ISIL “failed in its efforts to conduct a large-scale prison break to reconstitute its ranks”.
“The barbarity of ISIS’s actions during this attack reaffirms why this group must be denied the ability to regenerate and why nations must work together to address the thousands of ISIS detainees in inadequate detention facilities,” Sullivan said in a statement.
“ISIS remains a global threat that requires a global solution.”