Speaking publicly for the first time since her arrest, a North Philadelphia mother who planned to abandon her children to join an Islamic State fighter she had married over Skype apologized in court Wednesday as she was sentenced to eight years in federal prison.
“I am not an evil or malicious person,” said Keonna Thomas, 33, moments before her sentence was imposed. “I was, I guess at one point, impressionable.”
But in handing down punishment for a woman whose quiet demeanor in real life hid the fundamentalist firebrand she had become on social media, U.S. District Judge Michael Baylson said he could not ignore the terrorist acts Thomas advocated online.
“What I cannot avoid is that Ms. Thomas took concrete steps to go to Syria and become a martyr,” the judge said. “Her becoming a martyr means that somebody else is going to die.”
Federal authorities have held out Thomas’ case since her 2015 arrest as an example of the “more decentralized, more diffuse, more complicated” threat they face from U.S. citizens self-radicalized over the internet.
More than 17 Americans have landed in U.S. prisons over the last three years after either traveling to Syria and Iraq to support the Islamic State or attempting to do so. At least four have been women convicted in cases involving their seduction by Islamic State fighters online.
Like many of them, Thomas came from a troubled background. But what exactly drove her into the arms of a terrorist organization remains uncertain.
“I don’t know that even Ms. Thomas realizes how she got to this point,” her lawyer Kathleen Gaughan said. “She was searching for peace within herself and got severely lost.”
In court Wednesday, Gaughan painted her client as a woman still scarred by childhood abuse and neglect that had left her so anxiety-ridden as a teenager that she was forced to withdraw from the 10th grade.
Lonely and desperate for social interaction, Thomas began spending 13 hours or more a day in online religious forums after receiving her first computer in 2010, the lawyer said.
She quickly became an outspoken advocate for Islamic fundamentalism. Tweeting under the screen names Fatayat Al Khilafah and Young Lioness, she began spreading terrorist propaganda as early as August 2013.
One of her first 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 April 2014 tweet 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, however, Thomas’ plans moved beyond simply voicing online support. She struck up a relationship with Abu Khalid al-Amriki, an Islamic State recruit newly arrived in the organization’s Syrian headquarters, married him in an online ceremony, and planned to travel to the Middle East to join him.
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.”
Communications like that, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Arbittier Williams, show that Thomas was more dangerous than just a lonely heart willing to devote herself to the first man that gave her attention.
Having never traveled inside or outside the country before, Thomas had obtained a passport and a plane ticket to Barcelona, Spain, with plans to travel from there to Syria in the weeks before her arrest.
“She made it very clear in her communications that she intended to travel to ISIS-controlled territories whether she found a husband or not,” Arbittier Williams said. “All of the evidence suggests that Ms. Thomas would have left her children behind without warning to her family had the government not intervened.”
The punishment Thomas received Wednesday was similar to those handed down to the two other women sentenced for terrorism-related crimes in the Philadelphia region. Both Colleen LaRose and Jamie Paulin Ramirez, who are serving prison terms of 10 and eight years respectively, admitted they joined a nascent al-Qaeda terror cell in Ireland after falling for cell leader Ali Charaf Damache, a man they had met over the internet.
But as lawyers on both sides of the case compared her to those women, Thomas sat quietly at her attorneys’ side, occasionally adjusting her head scarf or wiping a tear from her face.
“I know that I put this country in danger,” she said. “I really am sorry and remorseful.”