Trial likely in case of Philly woman suspected of links to Islamic State

 (Image via NBC10)

(Image via NBC10)

The case of Keonna Thomas, the Philadelphia woman who allegedly attempted to join the Islamic State group, is likely headed to trial.

On Thursday a federal judge ruled that government evidence showed there was probable cause that the 30-year-old attempted to provide material support to a known terrorist organization.

“Today’s hearing is just the first step in this process,” said Jim McHugh, her court-appointed attorney. “We believe when all the evidence is presented at the time of trial, that Keonna Thomas will be found not guilty.”

If Thomas is indicted, her lawyers said she would plead not guilty on all charges.

The judge also agreed with Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Williams that Thomas is a flight risk and a danger to society, ruling that she is to be held in jail while she awaits trial.

“Since the time of the search warrant and the arrest of Ms. Thomas, there have been comments by a close associate on Twitter threatening a martyrdom operation here in the U.S. and also threatening violence at the prison,” said Williams after court.

During the proceeding, a six-page affidavit outlining the evidence against Thomas was submitted to the court, and FBI Special Agent Martin McDonald, who prepared the statement, was questioned by the defense, offering an indication of how her lawyers might approach the case.

McDonald was asked how the FBI determined that Twitter messages posted or retweeted by the handle “YoungLioness” were linked back to Thomas — through an IP address unique to the computer confiscated from the woman’s bedroom — and pointed out that no message explicitly states Thomas wishes to join the organization also known as ISIL.

The criminal complaint also mentions three distinct online Twitter interactions between Thomas and alleged Islamic State militants discussing travel plans to Syria and rebel training.

When asked whether the FBI could verify with certainty these Twitter users were actually members of ISIL, McDonald responded, “I don’t recall that.”

“So it’s your opinion that if someone is traveling to Syria, they’re going to join ISIL?” said McHugh.

“Given the nature of the context of these exchanges, absolutely,” said McDonald.

In one exchange, Thomas was asked by an alleged jihadist via Twitter if she wished to become a martyr. “That would be amazing,” Thomas answered, then received a reply: “I can make that happen.”

According to the government, not long after that February exchange, Thomas began making travel arrangements, applying for a passport, researching ways to get from Barcelona, Spain, to Istanbul, a common transit point for individuals trying to get into Syria.

There is no indication how long it may take to bring a federal indictment.

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

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.