Philadelphia woman pleads guilty to supporting ISIS, awaits sentencing

The public defender of Keonna Thomas is seeking more information from prosecutors on their case against the woman charged with providing support to ISIS. (Image via NBC10)

The public defender of Keonna Thomas is seeking more information from prosecutors on their case against the woman charged with providing support to ISIS. (Image via NBC10)

A North Philadelphia woman accused of assisting the Islamic State by communicating with extremists and planning to martyr herself for the terrorist organization pleaded guilty on Tuesday in federal court. 

Keonna Thomas, 32, walked into the courtroom in handcuffs and wearing a green jumpsuit and a black headscarf.

Once uncuffed and seated, she told Judge Michael Baylson that she understood the charge against her and that she decided to plead guilty on her own. 

“Why do you want to plead guilty?” Baylson said.

Then there was striking silence before Thomas answered, “I believe I am guilty of the charge.” 

Thomas, 32, the mother of two, chatted with ISIS fighters on Twitter in 2013 and 2014 and planned overseas travel for an eventual martyrdom operation, according to prosecutors. Thomas, known as “Young Lioness” on Twitter, was arrested in April.

In the government’s plea memorandum, federal prosecutors said Thomas, who told the judge she has a ninth-grade education, communicated directly with Sheikh Abdullah el-Faisal, a radical Islamist preacher known for his ties to violent extremists. 

After the short hearing, Thomas’ defense attorney Kathleen Gaughan said her client is looking forward to having the case behind her. 

“She’s accepted full responsibility for her behavior and conduct. She looks forward to putting this behind her, and being a mother to her two young children,” Gaughan said, without elaborating. 

Thomas will remain in federal custody until her Jan. 17 sentencing hearing, where she could receive up to 15 years in federal prison. 

Thomas had pleaded not guilty and fought the charge since last April, but her attorneys filed a change of plea motion on Monday, signaling that the case was going to conclude without a trial. 

The case’s change of course — it was scheduled for an October trial — follows motions by Thomas’ defense team arguing that federal investigators violated her Fourth Amendment rights by secretly spying on her without a warrant.

In response, federal prosecutors wrote that it has “myriad surveillance techniques at its disposal when conducting national security investigations,” and that the government “routinely relies upon foreign-intelligence tools to intercept and retain these kinds of communications.”

Thomas faced one charge of “providing material support” to terrorists, which comes from a broadly worded law enacted as part of the Patriot Act passed after the Sept. 11 attacks. 

Prosecutors depicted Thomas as someone who cheered for the terrorist organization on social media. She even told an overseas ISIS fighter that it “would be amazing” to die fighting for ISIS in a martyrdom operation, according to investigators.

Thomas, who had planned to travel to Spain, also had researched how to travel by bus from Barcelona to Istanbul, a common transit point for people trying to slip over the border to Syria.

“Thomas went to great pains to hide her travel plans in order to avoid detection by law enforcement,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Williams wrote in the sentencing memorandum. “Thomas did not inform her mother or children about her travel plans. She planned to leave the country without her children.” 

In filings, her defense team argued that Thomas should have the right to speak freely on any topic and “associate with others for the purpose exercising her religion freely.”

In December, Baylson refused to toss Thomas’ charges, rejecting her attorneys’ argument that Thomas’s online communication amounted to speech protected by the First Amendment.

Thomas’ attorneys have countered that the charge against her is unspecific, vague and rooted in fearmongering.

Thomas is one of more than 70 defendants who have faced charges of providing support to ISIS based on online activity.

Critics say federal prosecutors have invoked the “material support” law in an overly broad way that is tantamount to criminalizing unpopular speech.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal