A North Philadelphia mother who planned to abandon her children and travel to Syria for an Islamic State fighter she married over Skype was driven by loneliness and a desperate search for religious structure, her lawyers wrote in court filings last week.
But as Keonna Thomas faces a sentencing in federal court Wednesday, her case shines a spotlight on an unsettling phenomenon in the United States’ continued fight against religious extremism.
Over the last six years, at least five other women – including another from the Philadelphia region – have been convicted in cases involving their seduction by IS fighters who approached them, often online, with romantic promises coupled with religious fundamentalist beliefs.
As troubling as their cases are individually, together they show that Thomas was far from an aberration.
“Ms. Thomas was a lonely, depressed, anxiety-ridden mother who spent too much time on the internet,” her lawyers Elizabeth Toplin and Kathleen Gaughan wrote in a sentencing memo to U.S. District Judge Michael Baylson. “By attempting to relocate to [IS]-held territory and marry an [IS] fighter, she never gave [IS] anything of value – except her love.”
The lawyers have urged Baylson to sentence Thomas to 4½ years in prison or less for her guilty plea last year. They maintain that despite her online bravado, the reticient mother of two didn’t have it in her to pose a serious terrorism threat.
Prosecutors, however, are pushing the judge to send a strong message to other would-be terrorist sympathizers.
“Others who might find themselves dissatisfied with life and excited by online extremists promising acceptance, a meaningful life, and piety must be shown that providing material support to terrorists translates to a very lengthy prison sentence regardless of the circumstances,” wrote Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Arbittier Williams in her own sentencing recommendation Friday.
From its start, the Islamic State has aggressively targeted women as mouthpieces to disseminate online propaganda, as wives for its soldiers and as mothers to raise future fighters.
“Western women, particularly American women, [are] of extra value to [IS],” Williams wrote. “Their participation is perceived to send a strong message to the United States about [IS’s] strength, validity and global reach.”
Many – from Daniela Greene, a former FBI translator who fell in love with and eventually married the suspected IS sympathizer whom she was assigned to investigate, to Shannon Maureen Conley, a lonely 19-year-old from Colorado who tried to travel to Turkey in 2015 to connect with her IS suitor – fit a similar profile.
In many ways, Colleen “Jihad Jane” LaRose of Pennsburg, Montgomery County, cast the mold. With her 2011 guilty plea, she became one of the first American women convicted of supporting terrorist operations.
The victim of a troubled upbringing that included sexual abuse and prostitution, LaRose converted to Islam in 2007 after a one-night stand with a Muslim man she met in a hotel bar in the Netherlands.
She quickly became an ardent supporter of jihadists and eventually traveled to Ireland to join a nascent terror cell.
LaRose explained her actions in a 2015 letter penned from her prison cell in Tallahassee, Fla., to a Virginia-based criminologist.
“There’s many reasons but the simplest reason is I did it for love,” LaRose wrote. “Love for my Prophet, love for my Ummah [community] and love for the brother that gave me the assignment.”
Like them, Thomas was so desperate for acceptance, she allowed herself to be seduced, her lawyers said. They described her childhood as one marked by abuse and neglect, although the specifics remain under court seal.
“After countless hours absorbing [IS] propaganda, Ms. Thomas convinced herself that [IS’] so-called ‘caliphate’ represented quintessential Islamic living and she wanted in,” Toplin and Gaughan wrote in their recent court filing.
Thomas, born in Pittsburgh, came to Philadelphia when she was an infant.
She dropped out of high school because she felt she didn’t fit in with the other students and had spent much of the last decade living with her mother and her 7- and 9-year-old daughters in the same three-story brick-and-stucco rowhouse in North Philadelphia’s Richard Allen Homes public housing project.
As FBI agents arrived at the house to arrest her in April 2015, they found her cooking breakfast for her children.
Thomas’ lawyers describe her as reticent and reserved in her personal life, but prosecutors paint her as an outspoken advocate online, spreading terrorist propaganda under the online monikers Fatayat Al Khilafah and YoungLionness as early as August 2013.
One of her early postings pictured a young boy holding weapons. The caption read: “Ask yourselves, while this young man is holding magazines for the Islamic state, what are you doing for it? #ISIS.”
Another posted in April 2014 contained images of a skull, flames, and a gun. Thomas wrote: “I need a permanent vacation that can only mean one thing.” Another Twitter user responded with a word that means “martyrdom.”
At some point, Thomas’ plans moved beyond simply voicing support online. She communicated directly with a radical Jamaican cleric, Sheikh Abdullah el-Faisal, and sought his assistance in finding a jihadist to marry.
She later struck up a relationship with Abu Khalid al-Amriki, an ISIS recruit newly arrived in the organization’s Syrian headquarters, and married him in a ceremony conducted over the internet.
She planned to travel to Syria to be with him, and when Amriki contacted her in February 2015 to ask whether she was willing to take part in a suicide attack, Thomas responded: “That would be amazing … A girl can only wish.”
Thomas has remained in custody since her arrest in 2015, five days after she missed a flight she had booked to Barcelona, Spain, with plans to travel from there to Syria.
But since then, her lawyers said, Thomas has grappled with the enormity of her crimes.
“She carries significant guilt, finding it difficult to fathom how she could have ever considered abandoning her children,” Toplin and Gaughan wrote. “She looks forward to rebuilding her life with her children and family when she is released from custody.”